Need for Speed Unbound review: Blazing back to its best

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When Need for Speed Unbound was officially revealed, the portents weren't great. The series has been fun but frivolous in recent years and announcing the game just a couple of months before release didn't fill us with confidence that it'd prove anything different. How wrong we were.

Developed by Criterion Games - which returns to Need for Speed after a nine year absence - it bears all the hallmarks of what made the franchise so popular in the first place. It takes elements of the studio's superb Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted (2012) and even Burnout Paradise, and throws in a unique art style to make for a surprisingly moreish arcade racer.

There's some cheesiness in its single-player campaign, and an initially steep learning curve to navigate, but we can honestly say that Need for Speed is back on the radar.

Back behind the wheel

Need for Speed Unbound has a simple premise and structure. It offers just two game modes, with a large single-player campaign being the foremost option, and an online PVP mode tacked on for good measure. Both are set in Lakeshore City - an open-world playground featuring on- and off-road street-racing opportunities, plus some drift events. It's all pretty standard fare for an arcade racer these days, so don't expect anything particularly new in the gameplay mechanics.

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The campaign plot is also a little hackneyed - you are double-crossed by a fellow racer and must win major racing event The Grand in order to get your revenge, some major cash and your supercar back. You'll have to earn enough to buy new rides and upgrade them along the way, in order to be able to compete and, well, that's about it.

The police are heavily involved too - this is a Need for Speed game, after all - so they are out to stop you both during races and in the city as you travel between race meets and safehouses. And, a la Heat and many similar games, they will take whatever cash you earned in that particular session if you're busted.

There's a return for the day and night cycle we've seen in the last few NFS titles, too. However, this time it's segmented, switching to the next whenever you return to your garage or a safehouse to bank your winnings. Different events are available, depending on the time, and these are further split into car categories - from B-class to S+.

So far, so ordinary. Thankfully though, the style of the game is far from customary.

Adding some swagger

Criterion has really gone to town on the graphical style and design language of Need for Speed Unbound. The city and its streets are largely photo-realistic (or close-to), as are the cars. However, there's also a nod to urban graffiti with layered cartoon graphics providing effects, such as smoke coming from the tires when drifting around a corner, or dollar symbols appearing above the car after a cool move.

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In addition, all characters in the game - playable or not - are cartoonified. They appear cell-shaded and therefore at odds with the background.

This is jarring at first, but it doesn't take long before you actually start to appreciate the dichotomy - it's certainly different and gives the game a stylistic tone of its own.

It's further accentuated through the inclusion of several on-trend clothing brands, such as Vans, Fila, Puma and Champion, which provide gear to kit out your avatar. Indeed, customisation is a big sell for Unbound, with cars able to be pimped both aesthetically and in performance, too, so you have quite a sandbox to create the look and experience for yourself - both in campaign and online multiplayer.

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The music soundtrack is also important for the overall vibe, including tracks from the likes of A$AP Rocky (who also appears in the game), Charli XCX, Diplo and, we'll admit, a flurry of US rappers and dance acts we're not familiar with but provide great ambience for high-speed races or cop chases. The street dialogue - mostly delivered as narration (like a phone call) - can feel a touch forced, but overall the game feels confident in its setting and theme.

Track meet

Where this Need for Speed really excels though is on the track itself. Criterion has always been a master at car handling and its undoubted experience pays off in spades here.

There are a fair few cars available to race with, each with different drive trains and styles, and they are all a joy to get behind the wheel of. Even the slowest vehicles have their appeal, while the first time you get to take a Bugatti for a spin, you realise just how fast the game engine can move.

Races are great fun, no matter whether you are playing single- or multiplayer. They are mostly checkpoint based - sometimes with laps, sometimes from point A to B. The drift events are similar, although the aim is to score points to beat opponent totals, and there are numerous other side quests that follow the pattern, such as collecting and delivering a car or passenger.

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Perhaps the most fun is reserved for the cop car chases. After each illegal event you complete, you will accrue heat. This adds up through the day and then transfers into the night. The higher the heat, the greater the police threat until you essentially can't drive around Lakeshore without attracting attention and triggering a chase.

Much like in Grand Theft Auto, chases when you have near to maximum heat are bonkers. The cops will throw everything at you - sometimes literally. Undercover cars, their own supercars that are hard to outrun, road spikes, helicopters, the lot. They will pursue and bash you until you either outrun them and stay hidden (until you get into a safehouse) or you have sustained so much damage you can no longer drive away and are busted. Luckily, that will just result in you losing all the cash you've earned in that session.

It can often lead to some crazy action and you are helped by add-ons you can purchase, like extra damage protection, or by driving through a gas station, which repairs your car.

We'll admit, getting busted with tens of thousands of dollars at stake can be frustrating, but the exhilaration is often worth it.

Framed

That's helped by a pretty solid 60 frames-per-second (on PS5, at least). The gameplay is super smooth as a result.

Resolution is dynamic on PlayStation 5 (and Xbox Series X/S, we understand) so there will be drops from 4K during the most chaotic scenes, but you won't really notice. Indeed, if you're looking out for pixel count during racing, you're definitely not going to place very highly on the leaderboard.

There are a few anomalies, to be honest. In one race, in particular, we noticed a Tube train travelling alongside our car that juddered as if it was running at a different frame rate entirely. It stood out like a sore thumb, mainly because such instances are rare.

Mostly, the game looks stunning and runs at a fair lick. The sense of speed is maintained throughout and track design is clever enough to give you a decent amount of variety in scenery.

Original Article

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