It has been over three years since Need for Speed Heat came out and received some positive and not-so-positive reception. That would be the last NFS title from developer Ghost Games, marking the end of their six-year run with the series. Now, NFS Unbound marks Criterion Games’ return to the franchise since collaborating with Ghost Games on Rivals in 2013.
It’s no secret that the once-dominant arcade racing franchise is struggling to remain relevant in recent years. The Forza Horizon series continues to overshadow most other arcade racers, and as much as I enjoy those games, that’s a shame. I would love for the Need for Speed franchise to make a bold return. However, I am sad to say that the franchise’s latest entry doesn’t give me much confidence.
NFS Unbound Doesn’t Leave the Best First Impression
The first time I would boot up the game, I was somewhat unimpressed. I could tell that something was immediately off about the game’s handling. My vehicle would understeer more than expected and steering in general just did not feel very responsive. In a short amount of time, the game would tell me to execute a drift, and this is where I found myself already frustrated with the game, questionable dialogue aside (which I will get to later). The transition between my car gripping the road and slipping its rear end out did not feel natural in the slightest.
Entering a drift, the car seemed to have little inertia as it felt that little of my forward momentum carried into the corner. I’m ok with unrealistic drifting in an arcade racer, but this implementation was not any fun. I felt as if my car was a kart in a kart racer instead of a game with heavy, real-world vehicles. However, I don’t mean to insult kart racers, as I think their handling is still better than the default of Unbound.
So, if the handling left a bad initial impression, what is there to like about NFS Unbound? Fortunately, there are numerous things this game does that I enjoy quite a bit. The painful part is that the game is riddled with problems that make the overall experience a lot less enjoyable than it could be. This might be the most conflicted I have ever felt about a racing game.
Welcome to Lakeshore
Players are quickly greeted to the city of Lakeshore, a beautifully rendered setting that is sure to tax some GPUs and CPUs. While the game perhaps isn’t as gorgeous as Forza Horizon 5, the lighting in NFS Unbound can genuinely look stunning at points. Pedestrian NPCs now walk about the streets, making the game’s world feel more lively. Of course, you can’t run any of them over, as this is a “T” rated game, making for some immersion-breaking moments where they can dodge your car faster than you can drive. However, it is a welcome addition.
The fictional city clearly takes some heavy inspiration from Chicago, with several landmarks that will surely feel familiar. While Lakeshore might not come off as stylistic as some other cities in the franchise, it features a satisfying amount of variety. From grid-like city streets to winding roads reminiscent of the mountain passes you see in Initial D, the world is dense with interesting places to drive. Lakeshore lays a great foundation for an open-world racing game, but unfortunately, the game hurts this foundation for reasons I will get to soon.
A CaRPG Campaign
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece about how I believe that the 2000s was the best decade for racing games. One of the reasons for that was the strong presence of “CaRPG” progression systems in games from that era. While more casual single-player content in racing games can be great, I love the feeling of upgrading a vehicle and tuning it to my needs. The great thing about NFS Unbound is that it largely gives me the type of campaign I have been craving. Unfortunately, it stumbles in some key areas that can often make the game frustrating to play.
However, I’ll start with the positives first. One thing I love about the game is its focus on risk and reward. Early on, the game makes it pretty clear that you are not going to win every race. Unless your vehicle is near the top of its class, it will likely not be competing for first place, and that’s ok. This is something I find refreshing, as I often feel as if many racing games incentivize a first-or-nothing mindset. Instead, the game incentivizes the player to strategically pick races and side bets that will generate the most income.
Some races will almost guarantee you a cash prize, but you will likely not gain much. On the other hand, some races require a large buy-in and can lose you a lot of money if you aren’t prepared. The game is split up into weeks in which the player is required to prepare a car for a qualifying race. Eventually, the player will participate in a big, final event known as “The Grand” with four vehicles of differing classes. I really appreciate the idea behind this, but the game is full of things holding this campaign structure back.
The Physics and Handling of NFS Unbound
As you upgrade your cars, you will likely want to optimize them for certain builds. The two primary builds you can choose from are “grip” and “drift”. Of course, builds can get a bit more complicated than just simply falling into one of those two categories. For example, you could choose to tune a car for offroad driving, but few events actually make proper use of the map’s offroad sections. It’s also worth noting that some cars will be better picks for certain builds than others.
Obviously, FWD and AWD cars are going to be preferable for grip builds. You can still attempt to tune RWD vehicles for grip racing, but they will still be far more susceptible to losing traction. If you can tolerate the drifting physics in NFS Unbound, this may not be an issue, but this narrows the game’s car list for me. I found myself avoiding cars I would usually love to drive in other games. Despite this, I am more comfortable with the game’s drifting mechanics now, but I just don’t find them to be very enjoyable.
NFS Unbound’s handling can feel good when you have the right car and have tuned it correctly. However, the game’s physics are underwhelming and can present the player with frustrating situations. You can be driving at somewhat slow speeds only to hit traffic and trigger an over-the-top crash animation that doesn’t feel consistent with the actual collision. While I’m glad that the game gets better handling as you progress, there is no excuse as to why it can’t feel “right” from the beginning. Classic games such as Underground never had this issue and it’s disappointing to see a game from nearly 20 years ago contain a more engaging physics model.
Escaping the Heat
One of the most iconic aspects of the Need for Speed franchise is police chases. As you may expect, it’s very much present in NFS Unbound, but does the game execute it well? Unfortunately, the police presence in NFS Unbound is extremely questionable. At lower heat levels and in races, the police are a joke. They may as well not be there. At higher heat levels, the police are not too much of a challenge, but they can bring the game’s pace to a halt.
NFS Unbound presents a more dense open world than previous games, so it may make sense to remove fast travel options. However, as your heat level rises, you may find that a fast travel option becomes more desirable. Police will constantly spawn in, which turns NFS Unbound into something of a rudimentary stealth game. There are methods to avoid chases, such as ramming police vehicles with enough speed to disable them. However, you may not always be driving fast enough and will find yourself in an inconvenient situation.
Considering how quickly you can gain heat levels, this soon became one of the worst aspects of the game. I did not enjoy having to constantly look at my minimap so I could monitor cones of vision. When attempting to reach an event, it wouldn’t be rare to get in a police chase that would take me far away from my goal. There are also a bunch of side activities throughout the world I had no interest in completing because of how irritating it is to deal with the police.
An Ambitious Story With Questionable Writing
Unlike several other modern racing games, NFS Unbound‘s campaign comes with a story. Of course, you shouldn’t expect anything complex, but the general structure of the story works well for a game of this nature. A close friend betrays the player character and their employer, which leads to a campaign that somewhat resembles the original Most Wanted. The player’s motivation for racing and collecting vehicles is made clear, and that is greatly appreciated. However, the dialogue is something of an elephant in the room.
If you have seen any clips of the game’s cutscenes or general dialogue, you probably know what I’m talking about. Characters often speak in a manner that feels like a corporate interpretation of how 20-30 year-olds talk. The player character can talk excessively at points, to the point where it gets genuinely annoying. Despite this, there are a couple of characters that I like, such as Rydell and the real-world rapper A$AP Rocky.
Something I found unintentionally humorous about the story was its tendency to portray street racers as morally upstanding citizens. Several characters just don’t seem to understand why law enforcement might take issue with their actions. Lakeshore’s current mayor is seen as bad because she is spending too many resources to end a street racing problem that the city clearly has. Look, there are plenty of valid reasons to critique law enforcement in real life, but I’m pretty sure this is not one of them. It’s ok to let me play as a morally grey or even bad character sometimes, EA.
NFS Unbound’s Weird Multiplayer
While I have spent the majority of my playtime with the single-player campaign, I did manage to check out NFS Unbound’s online PvP mode. Player progression is separate from the main campaign, and while some may be upset by this, I was mostly ok with this. In fact, I even prefer the online mode in a few ways compared to the main campaign. However, that’s not to say it’s better.
An issue some have with the multiplayer is the absence of cops. I did not mind this, at least in free roam, as I find them incredibly irritating in single-player. Multiplayer allows me to focus on what I like about the game the most, which is the racing itself. Unfortunately, that only applies when I’m playing with people who want to race or can race in the same vehicle class as me. You will rarely see an 8-player race because of the server limitations that have been set.
Every server is limited to 16 players, making it more difficult than it should be to find races. Moreover, players must compete through playlists instead of individual races. I don’t mind this, but it can be irritating if players just wish to have a quick race. Another issue is that the rewards you get from winning and losing aren’t far enough away from each other. This incentivizes some players to remain idle during races, as this is an easy way to earn in-game money.
Some Other Gripes
NFS Unbound is packed with minor issues that stack up and make the game less enjoyable than it could be. One of the more notable ones is the lack of control options. The game gives me no way to remap my controller inputs. However, if I’m playing on a keyboard, I can rebind my keys to my liking. Why is that? If I play the game through Steam, I can brute force a controller mapping that I like, but I shouldn’t have to do this.
Another gripe I have with the game is the soundtrack. Of course, this is extremely subjective and some of the music here just simply isn’t my cup of tea. However, there are multiple songs in the game that I dislike to the point of irritation and distraction. Songs such as Money, Mmaso, Ice Cream, and some others may be the most annoying licensed tracks I’ve ever heard in any game. I apologize to anyone who likes these, but I genuinely felt as if they were going to give me a headache at points.
However, I do believe it is unfair to completely dismiss the soundtrack. There are a few songs that I don’t mind, such as Check the Lock and Strangers. I just think it’s a shame that most of the soundtrack ranges from forgettable to downright terrible for me. The Need for Speed series used to deliver some of the most memorable licensed soundtracks in video games, and it’s disappointing to see that this isn’t one of them.
NFS Unbound Could Be So Much More
In conclusion, it pains me to give NFS Unbound the score it has here. There are several elements of the game that I really enjoy, such as customization, the campaign structure, the unique visuals, and the racing itself. Unfortunately, the game holds itself back with lackluster physics, questionable design choices, and several minor annoyances that add up. EA didn’t make great efforts to market this game, only announcing the game a couple of months away from its release.
Sadly, I can see why that is the case. I wish I could say that this franchise has more gas left in the tank, but NFS Unbound makes me uncertain. There are hints of an outstanding arcade racer here, but I believe this game will ultimately live in the shadows of the best the series has to offer. Despite that, I think some people will enjoy this game despite its numerous flaws. Even the best NFS games have flaws, it’s just that the flaws in Unbound have a bigger impact.
If you still have some interest in the game, I recommend picking it up on sale. You probably won’t have to wait long, as the game has already seen a discount before, and may have one now as of writing. If you own a current-gen console or a capable PC (this game seems to be very CPU dependent, which is probably why you don’t see it on last-gen consoles), you may be able to see past the game’s faults and enjoy yourself. Even though I may come off as harsh in this review, I am still playing the game and finding ways to enjoy it. I don’t think it’s a bad game by any means, but this series could be doing a lot better.