Need for Speed Unbound starts with choosing between a Nissan, a Lamborghini, and a ‘69 Dodge Charger. I chose the Charger because it’s an American car, and there are few things more American than car culture. Interesting, then, that British developer Criterion is back in the driver’s seat for Unbound. From its characters to the ideas it deals with, to the city of Lakeshore and even how it plays, Unbound is a remarkably American game.
And like the Charger I picked at the start, it’s a good but not quite great foray into car racing. When it works, Unbound is like a well-maintained car: absolutely joyous, fun to drive around in, and a great way to explore a wide world. But like a classic car, it’s got tons of little issues that crop up from time to time, and how well you deal with those issues will determine how well you and Unbound get along.
What makes Unbound great doesn’t start with a car. It starts with the character you create. Once you’ve chosen from one of the available presets, you can wade into a relatively deep customization suite, choosing from a wide variety of clothing options, including several prominent brands like Vans, and having the ability to tweak hair and facial features, among other things.
Once you’ve made your driver and you’ve got your car, Unbound throws you into Lakeshore, a fictional U.S. city built on the foundation of Chicago, Illinois. The story finds your character working at Rydell’s Rydes, a garage with a connection to the local racing scene, with your friend Yaz. The two of you, both the products of foster homes, are looking into the local racing scene, and have fixed up the car of your choice to do so under the mentorship of Rydell.
The characters are well-written and acted. Yours is low-key and just wants to race. Yaz is a gearhead and the more ambitious (and ruthless) of the two. Rydell is a former racer, now-garage owner, mentoring you to win “the right way.” Naturally, these personalities conflict and cause problems, and Unbound’s storyline is surprisingly compelling.
Unbound’s punk rock, cel-shaded graffiti-style doesn’t hurt, either. Street racing is inherently rebellious, and Unbound leans into that energy with every part of its art design, from the way characters look to the graffiti-styled visual effects that appear around cars when you boost, drift, or hit jumps. The game’s background storytelling emphasizes this style, too, openly mocking the tough-on-crime stance of Lakeshore’s mayor, her challenger’s incompetence, the town’s cops, and everything else that doesn’t square with the game’s anti-establishment vibe.
Some people may be thrown off by the characters, who are almost all Zoomers and act appropriately, but I thought the kids were alright and enjoyed spending time with them and the world Criterion has built.
That’s good, because you’ll be spending a lot of time in Lakeshore. Unbound is a combination of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Burnout Paradise, and Need for Speed Underground. Lakeshore is an open-world. You can engage with plenty of challenges scattered throughout the world — like hitting big jumps, running through speed traps, achieving top speeds, and breaking collectibles — but the real draw is the meetups, which lead to Unbound‘s races.
Unbound has a variety of meetups: street races, off road races, drift challenges, and takeover events, so there’s plenty to do. The trick is that, in true street racing fashion, most of it requires a buy-in. You’ll earn money (and sometimes cars) based on how well you place, so each race is a risk. You can restart if you lose, but Unbound limits you to a certain number of restarts each day, so you’ll want to use them wisely.
Racing also builds Heat, which attracts cops, who want nothing more than to put degenerates like you in jail and take your hard-earned cash. Cops will chase you during races and often after them as well, so being able to get away is important. You can knock them out by damaging them, but running away works, too. As you attract more Heat, the police presence escalates appropriately, seeing the 5-0 sending better cars and helicopters to bust you. If you do get busted, you’ll lose any money you haven’t banked.
Money can buy new clothes and style upgrades for your ride, including new body styles, paint jobs, and designs, but you’ll probably want to spend it on what’s under the hood first. Car are ranked by class from B to S+, and upgrading parts boosts that level appropriately. Events only allow cars of specific ratings, so you’ll want to choose the right car for the job before heading out, as you can’t change your choice until you head back to a safehouse, which advances time from day to night, and then to the next day. Heat you gain is carried over at night, as well, but the rewards are generally better, too.
Choosing the right events, managing how much heat you want to accrue, and being smart with how much money you put up is all part of Unbound’s risk reward. It gives every race stakes; it feels terrible to lose some of the cash you worked so hard to get, but pulling off big wins feels fantastic, especially if you don’t have any restarts left. And as long as you’re making cash, it doesn’t matter if you place first.
The driving in Unbound feels fantastic, and you’re allowed an enormous amount of freedom to customize your car. In addition to the parts you can buy, you can customize your tuning, emphasizing things like upforce and downforce, or drift and grip. Each has its own pros and cons, and each car has its own natural strengths and weaknesses.
Better still, cars feel noticeably different when you install new parts and play with the tuning, so you can get an enormously different experience just playing with a few cars. How you build your cars, and the level of risk you want to take matters a lot, and it’s good that Unbound offers this level of freedom. When you build your car right, and race it properly — hitting your drifts, outmaneuvering cop cars, timing your boosts well — it feels amazing.
Unfortunately, that road excellence and Unbound’s strong structure also highlights its problems. It can be hard to win money if you don’t have a good car because you’re limited to certain races, and you won’t be carried by upgrades alone. Similarly, it can be hard to earn money if you don’t already have any money because you’re limited to races with low or no-cost buy-ins, and losing costs you what little you might have. That’s particularly annoying if you get to qualifier day and don’t have enough money to enter.
Unbound gets around this problem by allowing you to replay the previous day as much as you’d like to earn the money you need, but the issue is sitting through every bit of dialogue you’ve already heard. Sitting through the same day multiple times gets old quickly.
But the real issue is Unbound’s rubberbanding. You can get good distance on the competition, but if the AI is supposed to be doing well, it doesn’t matter if it’s crashed into a dozen things and you’re on a straight-away at max speed. if an opponent is “supposed” to be ahead of you, they’ll find a way to get unrealistically close or even surpass you.
Rubberbanding is bad enough when you’re racing well, but it’s nearly impossible to deal with if you make a mistake. This problem is magnified during qualifier races, where you only have so many restarts and you simply lose because the game has decided that’s how it’s going to be. Turning down the difficulty doesn’t help either. It’s a shame, because Unbound’s racing feels fantastic when the AI doesn’t get in the way.
There is an online component to Unbound, and it’s a pretty enjoyable mix of the stuff you’ll see in the single-player. Unfortunately, what you you unlock in single-player doesn’t transfer over to the multiplayer component, so you’re essentially starting from scratch once you get online.
Need for Speed Unbound — The Bottom Line
- A compelling story with interesting characters.
- Stylish visual design emphasizes the game’s punk rock vibe.
- Driving feels fantastic, and there are tons of ways to tune your car.
- Rubberband AI can makes races feel unfair.
- Can be harder to get much-needed cash when you don’t have any.
- Limited restarts are a source of frustration, especially during qualifier events.
When Unbound works, it’s like driving a gorgeous, humming sports car. When it doesn’t, it’s like driving a rental with a rough-running engine. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the ride, but it does mean a few spots could use a tune up to make this road trip smoother.
[Note: Electronic Arts provided the copy of Need for Speed: Unbound used for this review. Featured image via Electronic Arts.]