For Need for Speed Unbound EA Games and UK studio Criterion have mixed cel-shaded animation and a photoreal environment to give the latest instalment of the franchise a unique look.
Back in the day, Criterion single-handedly revitalised arcade console racing with their Burnout games. Dramatic takedowns and bone-crushing slow-motion crashes made playing the games exhilarating.
Now a studio incorporated into EA Games, Criterion has been charged with bringing us the next chapter in the Need for Speed franchise, Need for Speed Unbound. Whilst it most definitely shares some DNA with the Burnout games, it’s still very much Need for Speed.
Players choose a customisable character to play the, all too familiar, role of a rookie newcomer to the underground racing community of Lakeshore City- a very thinly veiled Chicago. It’s perhaps not as inspired a scenario as previous games, the environment being a little sedate and the plot lacking any of the meat.
The problem is that whilst Criterion was the leader that everyone followed, which can also be said for Need for Speed, the likes of Forza Horizon have blown the both of them out of the water when it comes to open-world racing.
Need for Speed Unbound allows racers to leave the road just like in the latest Forza Horizon games. This is great for losing cops. Whilst the game world isn’t as big as that of Forza Horizon, lacking any real offroad opportunities, it’s still fun to veer off the road and disappear into the fields.
The game is based around your garage as you build up your fleet of vehicles to compete in street racing events and beat your rivals. These races are dotted around the map at meetup locations. There are usually a few races on offer, some with free entry and some with an entry fee. To race, your car must also meet the event spec. There’s an option for a side wager to beat your estimated finishing position that can be quite lucrative.
The races are a lot of fun, and a lot more challenging than the usual fayre. Competitors are skilled and will take any opportunity to pass. Vehicle handling is tight but I found drifting to be a bit hit-and-miss. The nitro boost does come in handy, though, for powering out of tight turns.
Progress is a bit of a grind, the game slowly revealing itself without making the players some sort of demon driver. You will lose races and you just won’t have the funds immediately available to you to even enter many of the races. Then there are car upgrades and buying new cars which all need cash that’s kept in limited supply.
There’s the old side mission which involves picking up and dropping off cars for extra cash or ferrying a racer to safety whilst avoiding the cops. There are also collectibles, speed runs/cameras, and billboards that need smashing dotted about the map.
Frequent returns to a base are advised to bank the cash raised during races, in case you get caught by the cops. The day/night cycle is forced by a return to a home base. As well as dropping off your cash up you can also buy parts, cosmetic and performance, as well as apparel for your racer. The sun rises or sets as you disembark for the next session.
Both during the day and at night the game looks stunning. The city is rendered with a fidelity that is nigh on photoreal. It’s a brave choice to pair this with cartoonish cel-shaded motion graphics for both the driver and car effects, such as tyre smoke and speed lines. It’s an interesting mash-up that I really liked but may not appeal to all.
Need for Speed Unbound is a game for the fans. Just ignore the story in favour of making your way to the highlighted event and you’ll be golden. It’s a very competent racer, but also a hard taskmaster. For most the challenge will be an appreciated change for the better. More casual racers and those looking for instant gratification may find races a bit too hard-won. All in all, it’s a solid racer.