Need For Speed Unbound
UPDATE: After letting it cook for a bit, I'll bump it up to 4 stars. It was in-between 3 and 4 anyway but the pros outweighed the cons. Expect a follow-up soon...ish?
Owners of the Palace Edition for Need For Speed Unbound will begin to take a look at the latest entry for one of the longest-running video game franchises as a part of the three-day early access beta. Having played a little bit myself, I wanted to discuss my first impressions of a game that I have been honestly skeptical of. Need For Speed Heat was released three years ago as the final game developed by Ghost Games. Ghost Games were known for helping bring the floundering franchise back to relevancy with the release of Need For Speed 2015, a love letter to the successful Underground series.
It also meant the return of narrative-based racing games, with 2015 using live actors similar to Most Wanted, Carbon, and Undercover. Subsequent games that follow would use in-game rendered models, which in the vein of Heat, used character designs striking similar to their voice actors like Jonny Cruz who is best known for Lucio from Overwatch. With the changing of the guard back to Criterion, who had worked on the reboot to Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit, the gameplay was bound to be different. I guess you can say it was unbound from the formula Ghost Games provided. (sorry)
Then came the trailers for the game, featuring a very artistic style different from other Need For Speed titles. Character models were CGI designed, similar to Into The Spiderverse, and showed more personality and animation than Heat. Criterion used Need For Speed Heat as a template and built around it in several ways that I'll discuss here, but the character designs were an interesting step. The cars also had their own sense of personality, with animated smoke coming from the tires during a drift, lines passing through cars to emulate slipstreaming, and cars growing wings as they take flight over jumps.
The blend of "realism" and "cartoonish" aesthetics seemed jarring at first as the world around Need For Speed Unbound and the cars themselves are some of the highest quality ever produced. Running on an upgraded version of the Frostbite engine, the attention to detail is amazing. Minor things like the weather affecting the roads in real-time as rain droplets glisten on the cars are things one wouldn't see going 130+ MPH. They are there to look at and admire, as well as the crashes feel like something out of Burnout. Granted, cars aren't a mangled heap as I'm sure Nissan and Ford don't want their cars to turn into scrap heap, but the camera pans made me feel nostalgic.
Gameplay-wise is where things get interesting and there's a lot to cover so I'll separate it into specific categories. The first is the early game. After the prologue, you're given enough cash to choose a starting car. The issue here is that the cars are a vast pool of different eras. Vintage muscle, modern sports cars, and everything in between exists, including the Ford Crown Victoria, my first choice. Now, I admit my decision was swayed by the inclusion of the car as it is the first time a stock version of the Vic was featured in Need For Speed.
Historically, the Crown Vic was synonymous with law enforcement and patrol cruisers. As time usually goes on, newer cars are preferred to keep everything current. Lots that are filled with older cars are auctioned off by collectors and/or tuners who wish to tweak these cars for their enjoyment. It's almost symbolic as cars once used to chase street racers are now used by street racers themselves. Unfortunately, stock, the car is terrible. If you were expecting something similar to the package law enforcement uses, you'll regret it as you can see from the photo above.
The car redlines just under 5K meaning that I had to push everything out of the car to even get the bare minimum. It was also then that I realized that certain cars are amazing for getting through to the early game while other cars are novelty, useful for tuning when you've made enough money. The Vic fell under the latter, I was down 30k on a boat with wheels, and the performance was never enough to win races. At one point I even got busted, making my total earnings during that session null and void. This is dangerous as Need For Speed Unbound actually requires money for progression.
The premise of Need For Speed Unbound revolves around "The Grand," a multi-tiered tournament where players must reach the qualifiers in order to make it to the next round and eventually the big race itself. For the first week, you begin on Monday and you have until Saturday to get a $20k entry fee and a Class A car. There's work to do as you're pennyless and your car is B-tier, so naturally, you'd want to upgrade your car to A-tier, make enough bank to cover the costs, and coast to victory, right? It's not as easy as that, as one would expect. What's different from Need For Speed Heat is that police activity is just as intense during the day as it is during the night.
Gone are the sanctioned races meant to earn you money and gone is the respect meter that was tied much to the game's progression. Your Heat level carries over from day into night, yet it resets after every calendar date. This means that day races are not as intense, but as you slowly build notoriety, you'll find yourself starting the night with heat level 2 for example. Things get really insane when Heat Level 4 onwards is a thing, increasing the risk of that sweet cash you need by the end of the week. I didn't find the cops as ludicrous as Heat, but the increased risk captured the same stressful element.
Races are held at "meet-up" spots that host several races and event types separated by cash and buy-in. The races with no buy-ins offer the least rewards but without the risk of losing money. Buy-in races will show you the placement you need to be in, in order to break even or make a profit. This is a game that often doesn't get talked about, but Street Racing Syndicate, an early street racer meant to capitalize on Need For Speed Underground would take the "race meetup" approach first, making this interesting to see this mechanic almost twenty years later.
Another mechanic, borrowed from games like the Juiced series is side-betting. The player can bet any driver a fixed amount proportional to the car's power. While this is a way to make extra cash and should most definitely be used, once again it's not as easy as beating the opponent. Need For Speed Unbound's AI is tough, really tough. Playing it on default difficulty will net you a challenge as the other drivers will use the same tactics as the player.
Beginning each race at the back of the grid means the player will always engage in pack racing as those in front extend their lead further. This meant torture for the Crown Vic as the acceleration wasn't the best, so I oftentimes found myself struggling to make it out of the lower half of the grid. This, plus the next thing I'll cover, was what compelled me to start over and choose a different starting car, hence the pictures of the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX.
The biggest equalizer to racing in Unbound is the overhaul of how restarts work. In literally every single racing game in history, if you had a bad run or you feel you made a mistake that would cost you the race, you could restart the race from the beginning. Some recent games, notoriously the Grid series, gives you a chance to revert back time a few seconds and fix your mistake in real-time. What does Unbound do? Give you a handful of restarts that the player needs to stretch throughout the entire day. By default, it's four restarts, with harder and easier difficulties giving you 2 and 10 respectively.
I understand the intent behind limiting the number of times you can restart an event, as they wanted to give the player agency that they don't have to win every race. It's all about placing high enough and being smart with your bets to make enough profit to fill that threshold. It's also bound (not intentionally this time) to realism as you're not expected to win everything, just enough to make it. Players who are prone to restarting every single negative moment hamper the flow of the game, but four restarts are way too few. Even on the Relaxed difficulty, I found myself burning through restarts as the races get intense. Sure, winning isn't everything but I want to also break even and not lose money.
Now it's time to talk about how the cars feel as this is the most unique Need For Speed game from the modern era. There's still "brake to drift" and "release the gas to drift," but nitrous had a complete change from before. There are two types of nitrous, burst nitrous and stream nitrous. Stream nitrous is the conventional NFS-style nitrous that increases as you drive against oncoming traffic. You also begin each race with a full tank and you can instantly refill it by going through gas stations.
The three yellow blocks underneath the blue stream bar are the burst nitrous. This is gained by driving aggressively. Slipstreaming, near-missing traffic, launching off ramps, and of course, drifting is all but many ways to fill a block. Once a block is filled, a sound and visual cue will play, but you can keep going until you reach the maximum level to attain the largest boost possible. The meter decays at a fast rate if you stop doing techniques that will increase the burst gauge, offering a bit of a cheeky risk/reward.
Do you use your level 1 boost in order to catch up with the drive that is trailing you? With the boost you have, do you drift through corners to reach level 3? This becomes important at the beginning of each race as you'd want to use your boost immediately, but if you pace yourself and tag along each car's slipstream, you can gain a significant boost and fire ahead of the pack.
This new system would be perfect if the player had free reign to get into deep tuning should they wish. Unfortunately, no such options exist. After playing Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3 for the greater portion of the week, I got spoiled by its in-depth car tuning settings. I learned things about my car through its niche yet helpful community that I'd wish to transfer to other racing titles.
I'd even be so bold as to say that I'd probably make the Vic a little bit viable had I access to gear ratio editing. Alas, the last time Need For Speed implemented this in depth was the 2015 reboot. Underground 2 had this back in the day and it didn't alter its standing as an important open-world street racer game. Why couldn't this be added in Unbound? It would have given the creative an edge yet the number of ways a driver can stage a comeback would balance it out.
Another technique that I wish I had known when I first started playing is that if you rev your car to the green bar at the beginning of each race, you get a rocket start which helps a lot in breaking ground. Nevertheless, the boost mechanic reminded me of Midnight Club and how attaining slipstream would net you the same benefits. Would love a new Midnight Club, Rockstar, instead of GTA 5 for the twentieth time...
I didn't mention the music, but even that has seen an upgrade, following up on Heat's more international soundtrack. As expected from a songlist partially curated by A$AP Rocky, many of his labelmates and friends make an appearance including Ferg (Sha-Shabba Ranks!) and Tyler the Creator. Other artists like Playboi Carti make their appearance but it's also a healthy mix of world music. Japanese, Russian, I believe French as well? There's music here from all over the world and it's more refreshing than just hearing "hip hop and rock" exclusively.
While I have my doubts about how long the fun times will last, as Need For Speed titles are notoriously short, I have my hopes that they will keep me entertained to the end. What I'm also hoping for is that the plot, which I intentionally didn't mention as most people are starting today, doesn't let up steam. There are many ways that Unbound can continue the momentum it has and just as many ways it can crash and burn. Right now, consider this long-time fan satisfied.
Need For Speed Unbound is available via Early Acces to Palace Edition holders and EA Play+ subscribers on the PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. The game will release on December 2nd, 2022.