Need for Speed Unbound’s bright art style is the first thing that players see when they start the game. While the majority of other racing games aim for photorealism, EA’s most recent stands out from the pack by fusing reality and comic books in a stylised way. Its open environment is midway between the two aesthetics, while its characters are cel-shaded and its vehicles err on the side of realism. When you use nitrous or take off, vibrant flourishes in the form of graffiti also appear, and drifting causes multicolored tire smoke that appears hand-drawn. All of these elements give the action a distinctive aesthetic.
The rest of Unbound feels like a continuation of 2019’s Need for Speed Heat, even though there aren’t any other contemporary racing games that look nearly like it. From the difference between day and night races to the cat-and-mouse pursuit you experience when attempting to elude the police and reach a safe house in time to deposit your winnings. Even though there are a few detours along the way, Unbound doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel; rather, it keeps the recent excellence of the series.
Unbound includes a lackluster plot about getting even with a former friend who stole your ride, as is now standard in Need for Speed games. In the end, it is irrelevant, thus there is little purpose in going into detail. There are a few occasional cutscenes, but for the most part, the action takes place in the background while you drive through the city. At least it’s inconspicuous. There is occasionally amusing incidental speech, such as during one mission where you are riding with a “weeb racer” who spends the entire trip lecturing you on the origins of anime and why it is unquestionably not a cartoon. Artist A$AP Rocky makes a cameo as well (because, well, why not? ), and it seems as though he was given a microphone and told to say whatever came to mind. In a game that is chock-full of supporting dialogue, this one particular scene jumps out. The story is largely ignorable outside from this, but it does succeed in influencing the game’s structure.
There are four in-game weeks in Unbound. There are qualifying races at the end of each week that culminate in a grand finale where your goal is to win it all in retaliation. Each qualifier has a buy-in, so you’ll spend the days leading up to each one competing in different races and events to earn money to participate and make upgrades to your car along the way. Each of these occasions attracts the attention of the neighborhood police department in addition to generating large sums of money. Each run-in with the law becomes more stressful if you are caught by the police before returning to a safe house since you lose all of your gains and must continue the next day.
Game of Speed Heat utilized a similar format, but whereas that game alternated between legal and criminal street racing during the day, Unbound always favors the latter. This implies that there will never be a break from the police’s scrutiny and that any money you make during the day must be deposited at a safe house before you can move on to the evening’s races. You may decide how much police presence you want to build up throughout the day before the sun sets over the horizon because your heat level also carries over and doesn’t reset until you’re done for the night. Even though night events can have far bigger rewards, they frequently have specific heat requirements or a significant buy-in. Smaller events still offer opportunities to make money, but larger events offer bigger cash payouts in exchange for their higher risk. When choosing what to accomplish on a daily basis, you are compelled to weigh your options.
These choices have a bigger effect in the beginning of the game when your vehicles aren’t nearly up to par. Unbound’s early hours are unexpectedly difficult, and I like how you have to push yourself to succeed. You’re racing against competitors who are simply faster than you, and your original junker can’t keep up with their boosted vehicles. You start off battling it out with the rear of the pack, but at the beginning of each race, you have the option of betting that you’ll finish ahead of a particular driver, giving you the chance to make some additional money while providing yourself a goal to beat even if you’re not vying for first place. The distance will eventually decrease as you start earning higher finishes and winning more races as the money begins coming in and you can purchase additional vehicle improvements. You are forced to climb the ladder, and the ultimate result is a tangible and fulfilling sense of advancement.
The driving mechanism in Unbound is also adaptable enough to support a few different racing philosophies. There are three types of handling for each car: drift, grip, and neutral (which sits in the middle of the other two.) A automobile that promotes drifting will simplify your life if you enjoy careening through turns sideways. On the other hand, a grippy automobile is helpful if you prefer to slow down and hit the apex of each bend. Both are viable because whichever way you choose, using these cornering techniques effectively rewards you with a burst of nitrous. However, regardless of the vehicle you select, they are all severely understeered. This gives you the impression that you’re trying to maneuver a bus around the city, but I discovered that you can somewhat solve the problem by going into each vehicle’s handling options and increasing the steering sensitivity slider to “high.” Although it’s not the best option, the handling does feel more accurate and responsive.
Unbound is based, like other arcade races of a similar nature, on gathering NOS by various maneuvers like following other racers, veering into oncoming traffic, and flying. You already have a standardized nitrous meter that can be used all at once to give you a sustained speed boost, but Unbound also introduces Burst Nitrous as a new variety. As the name suggests, you can use this to activate a quick burst that runs on its own charging system. For example, drifting will fill up this distinct meter, allowing you to accelerate quickly out of a corner. It’s a cool new feature that increases your ability to use nitrous while encouraging reckless driving.
The AI occasionally doesn’t play fairly, which is the one drawback. When you activate NOS, other drivers frequently match your speed, whether or not they are also boosting. This lessens the joy that NOS activation should produce. Sometimes, the AI car in front would accelerate even more and win the race by more than 30 seconds. This seems to happen at random and seems like rubber banding in reverse, leaving you with little chance to catch up.
The cops are a source of additional annoyance, especially in the beginning. When your automobile isn’t the fastest, you don’t have many options for retaliation, therefore police pursuits can carry on for quite a while. This increases the suspense even more and gives you a constant sense of being vastly outmatched, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s demoralizing when you manage to escape capture only to get into another drawn-out pursuit when a police car appears in front of you. Since they don’t show up on your radar, undercover police feel especially cheap. Even later, when fleeing becomes much simpler, Unbound oversaturates the streets with extra police, which makes moving from race to race a tiresome endeavor.
Some of these problems were repeated in Need for Speed Heat, supporting the idea that Unbound is a sideways step rather than one that advances the series. It’s neither worse nor better than its predecessor, making it a thrilling arcade racer that is still hindered by a few irritations. Although it’s a victory after Need for Speed Payback’s low point, Unbound is unlikely to compete with the most well-known titles in the genre.