Looks aren’t everything. It’s something I tell myself regularly, as each year my face becomes a little more craggy, my eyes a little more haunted. But while the idiom is certainly true, it’s rarely more applicable than when discussing video games. Over the decades there have been as many ugly masterpieces as beautiful disasters, and it’s almost impossible to tell one from the other without playing them. But just as a fresh coat of paint can revive an old wall, or a little make-up around the eyes can make almost anyone look just that little bit less dead inside, so too can a touch of artistic flair hide a lack of genuine freshness in a video game. Which laboured point now brings us to Need for Speed Unbound, a serviceable racer that attempts – and almost manages – to hide its shortcomings behind some flashy anime razzle-dazzle.
I should preface the rest of this review by saying that Need for Speed Unbound isn’t a bad game. Nothing about it is particularly offensive or badly designed, but neither does anything feel unique or stand-out besides the arguably misguided art style.
What’s perhaps most egregious about Unbound is that it’s from Criterion, once regarded as the kings and queens of the arcade action racer, who once gave us Burnout, and who swooped in to save the Need for Speed franchise with 2010’s Hot Pursuit, one of the best of the series to date. But in Unbound there’s little of Criterion’s trademark aggression, replaced with a different kind of swagger that tries far too hard from time to time. 2019’s Need for Speed Heat felt like a step in the right direction, but after the dissolution of Ghost Games, Criterion have returned once more, and the result isn’t what many hoped it would be.
Similarly to Heat, Need for Speed Unbound splits its driving events into daytime and night-time races. In the day, you’ll accumulate heat from the local cops while competing in what are mostly legal competitions. This heat will then carry over into the night, with cops crashing the races, barging you and other racers off the track, and continuing the pursuit after the race ends, Fast and Furious-style.
It’s weirdly easy to lose the police though. Multiple times I stayed just ahead of them long to reduce my wanted level, then turned one corner and they simply gave up and drove right by. Either way, the name of the game is making bank, and you do this by entering the more dangerous contests. Races with higher buy-ins usually require high heat levels going in, which means more police and higher risk of losing because of circumstances not entirely in your control.
But here I ran into my first issue: I wanted this to feel like a combination of Burnout and Most Wanted, narrowly missing oncoming traffic as I fired my Nos with the police hounding me right on my rear bumper the whole way through. Unfortunately it rarely feels like that. The default camera feels too low, so you can’t even see the road clearly in front of your own car. Added to this, the handling feels much too heavy, and even slamming into sudden drifts to navigate tight corners or incoming cops doesn’t feel as exhilarating as it should.
You can tweak grip and drift at any time without altering your car. Finding the right balance between the two is essential, but I found it incredibly elusive. For the first few races I struggled to place above 4th, and I don’t think that was all down to me. You can of course go for a drive around Lakeshore at any time, which helps you get a feel for your ride, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a pretty generic world, with very little of note to sight-see, and a really annoying, stop-start radio station that prattles on about in-world politics that I couldn’t have cared less about if I’d tried my best.
The story is woefully dull. Your too-cool-for-school racer and their side-saddle sidekick are trying to make it big in the world of not-so-legal street racing, and the road to success is paved with burnt rubber and gritty determination. There’s far too much talking during events, both between these two and the other racers, and it can be distractingly irritating.
What could also be considered irritating is the aforementioned art style. It’s striking, for sure, but it’s also kind of, well, weird. While the cars and the world have a beautiful new-gen sheen to them – with some genuinely gorgeous lighting during night races – the characters are colourful and cartoony. Flashes of graffiti explode on the screen, and your car’s exhaust kicks out swirls of bright vapour as you pull off, spits rainbow sparks as you drift around corners. It’s certainly different, but it took me out of the moment on many occasions.
You can always hop online if you get tired of listening to a bunch of whiny 20-somethings bang on about how fresh they are, but be warned: Need for Speed Unbound’s online mode is surprisingly sparse. Yes, you can get involved in races without the constant prattle of your passenger, but you can’t carry progress over from the the campaign. So you can’t drive any of the cars you’ve spent thousands of dollars on in multiplayer, which just feels needlessly restrictive.
Ultimately, anyone clamouring for a fresh Need for Speed experience is unlikely to find it here. It’s as fun as Heat, because it’s basically the same game, but besides the love it or hate it art style there’s nothing fresh or new to wow you, and certainly nothing to win over those who have already turned their back on the franchise. It’s not an awful game by any stretch and in fact offers some genuinely cathartic, high-speed thrills, especially at night when the cops come out. But it also does little to turn heads besides wearing its flashiest colours.
Great sense of speed
Cars and world are stunning
Flashy art style feels intrusive
Story campaign is dull
No synergy between campaign and multiplayer