Has Criterion done enough to save the long-running racing series or is this one past its prime?
I remember the first time I played Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, in the fall of 1997. I was almost floored by how amazingly cool it was. Gorgeous, lightning fast, challenging, expansive and atmospheric with fantastically nice cars and a really smooth driving experience. For me, it was the gateway to the game series and the start of a long-lasting love. I really enjoyed High Stakes (1999), loved Porsche Unleashed (2000) and adored Hot Pursuit 2, which was released in 2002. The following year EA knocked out Need for Speed Underground and it still stands as one of the best racing titles of all-time according to yours truly. Absolutely brilliant.
I played the sequel quite a bit and enjoyed 2005's Most Wanted, too. 2009's Shift was also a favourite as was the remake of Hot Pursuit that was released in the fall of 2010 but after Shift 2: Unleashed, my feelings really started to take a turn. The Run, Rivals, No Limits, Payback and Heat were all mediocre. Tired games that lived on old merits and that contained annoying car physics, lifeless monotonous game worlds and very little of that exciting spirit and enthusiasm that the early games boasted. The Swedish developer Ghost Games had high ambitions for the game series, but all of their attempts ended in me feeling really bored, and by 2015 I had lost my desire for everything Need for Speed.
A new foundation, a new studio, and an all-new car physics engine, according to Criterion. When Unbound was first shown, I was one of the people who really got fired up. It looked a bit like Need for Speed Underground 3, and given that the team behind it is also behind Burnout 3: Takedown and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) I felt pretty confident that this would be the start of something good, something new, for a game series that has stood by the side of the road with a flat tire while genre giants such as Forza Horizon zoomed past at supersonic speeds in recent years.
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After three days with Unbound, however, I can sadly do nothing but state that this is not at all the game that Need for Speed, as a game series, was in such desperate need of. Not even close. Unbound takes place in a fictional version of Chicago (where they borrowed a couple of famous places and then used their imagination to a large extent to create a game world with both urban environments and surrounding country roads) called Lakeshore. At the start of the game you play as a mechanic and racing driver in a street racing world, and right off the bat during the intro you and your boss are betrayed by your colleague Jaz, who with his new "crew" steals all five of your racing cars including the one you built in the opening 30 minutes. It's now a matter of scraping together a few scraps, buying an old car and starting from scratch, again. The races in Unbound are located on the city map and during the first ten hours pay abysmally small amounts, which means that you will struggle, like a fool, to scrape together enough money to be able to upgrade the turbo, or the brakes.
Jaz's betrayal, the car thefts and your future as a street racer are themes that are focussed on in "story mode" and the final trophy revolves around a race against Asap Rocky himself who in his tuned 1988 Mercedes-Benz 190E (which he owns in real life) offers a challenge to say the least. Unbound tries in the same way that Underground once did to frame today's street racing and car culture with graffiti, music, car styling, youth lingo and "colourful characters", but fails to do so like Underground, and more closely resembles the hopelessly bad Need for Speed (2015).
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The script is decent to begin with. The story has evidently been written by one or more people who do not understand street racing at all and have basically zero knowledge of car culture itself. The way the dialogue is structured, things that are said, and things that happen bring to mind Gossip Girl more than anything else and I can imagine that Criterion's script team looked a couple of times at 2 Fast 2 Furious as well as a season of Teen Wolf and then decided to mix the elements from there into a cocktail of pure nonsense. It doesn't get better either as all the voice actors do a consistently bad job. No one feels convincing, no one feels natural or believable, but instead everything that is said is just as fake and contrived as it was in Need for Speed (2015) or Need for Speed: The Run. For long stretches, the only thing the main characters spew out are pure Fast & Furious clichés that Criterion didn't even bother to rewrite, such as; "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya" or "Family is everything" and it has during my hours with Unbound on several occasions felt like a downright parody.
Of course, this could have been overlooked, largely ignored, if the driving itself had been really good. As good as it once was when it comes to this storied game series. There was talk in advance about doing double the amount of calculations of what happens in the car compared to previous games in the series and that everything would be rebuilt from scratch, but of course, and I have to be honest here too, and state that it more or less feels as accurate as Need for Speed: Heat with a bit of Crazy Taxi thrown in when it comes to how weight and speed are presented. There is certainly plenty of torque in the cars which, especially when it comes to the primordial muscle cars, is fun but otherwise the driving is unsatisfying in a way that is hard to describe. The focus is very much on drifting and it is only then that the cartoon graffiti effects appear under the car, but just like in Dirt 5, for example, you slow down so much every time you drift that for the sake of money it is always better to drive like a maniac, smashing park benches on the inside corner rather than whipping out the rear end and trying to skid around the apex like a professional.
Sure, you get "Nitro" if you skid, which of course you can use "mid-drift" to counteract the car being slowed down by friction, but it still becomes counterproductive and strange in a game that has so obviously departed from "realism". Instead, Criterion should have invested in a drifting mechanic that rewards the player more, where the challenge comes in the form of positioning before the initiated drift and then the exit from it, pairing this with the steering and the right gear in the exit. More like Ridge Racer, less like Dirt 5.
Match this up with a conflicting design style that doesn't know what it wants to be. When you jump over a parking garage in downtown Lakeshore, the car gets hand-drawn bright yellow giant wings during the air time (emblazoned with the text "BIG AIR!"). It becomes obvious that there is an imbalance and a lack of consistency in how to mix Crazy Taxi-esque arcade fun with a desire to simulate proper racing, and this ruins much of the charm.
The police chases are also taken straight out of Need for Speed: Heat including the Heat system in its entirety, and they are just as boring as they were in the 2019 game. This could just as well have been a game from 2005 and when Forza Horizon 5 in particular redefined the open world racing subgenre, this feels a bit like a trivial free title rather than the hotly anticipated big game that would put Need for Speed on the map, again. The fact is that Unbound has no chance compared to, for example, the LS Tuners DLC for GTA Online, which both offers fun game worlds, better driving feel and fun police chases. And that really says it all. Fortunately, at least the graphics are really nice. And by that I mean super pretty. The Frostbite engine is as capable as ever and that grey-blue, cool Battlefield lighting makes Lakeshore an incredibly beautiful game world. The car models are also super well done, the damage modelling is well handled, and it plays smoothly on the PlayStation 5.
The sound is good, too. The cars sound great and although the soundtrack with music from Palace, Shaba, Booty, Kolo Kolo, Apricots, Babushka Boi, Split, Trophy, Militant, Wicked, Curse 4 U, Racked and Asap Rocky is really not for me (haven't heard of any of the artists except Asap Rocky) the sound quality is good and the variety broad. I also like the presentation and how they mixed the Frostbite-Battlefield city and the photorealistic cars with the hand drawn graffiti effects like cel-shading tire smoke and stuff. That contrast works, I think, but it doesn't feel like it's anchored by much else, which makes me a bit torn. The super simple, non-shaded characters with cel-shaded faces also don't really fit in with everything else, which, along with the strange mix between friction emulation and Crazy Taxi racing, makes Unbound feel a bit like a hodgepodge mismatch. And not a very tasty concoction. I had really hoped that Need for Speed Unbound would be really good. I really wanted it to be as good as Hot Pursuit once was, or Underground. After three days with EA's latest, however, I can't help but state that I think this game series is well past its prime, and of course that's just sad.
5 / 10
Great looking graphics. Beautiful car models. Runs really smooth. Good sound.
Horrid story. Lazy writing. Bad voice acting. Weird Crazy Taxi-like physics. Loads of grinding. Sub-par online MP.