Saturday, February 4, 2023

Need for Speed Unbound review: One of the best racing games this year

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Available on: PlayStation 5, PC, Xbox Series X|S

Developed by: Criterion Games | Publisher by: Electronic Arts

In every video game, there is a choice made between style and substance — how much of each a developer should include, and how to balance them toward an audience’s expectations while keeping the experience fun. In recent years, racing games like “Forza Horizon 5” and the F1 series have fallen on different sides of that line. However, since its gameplay reveal, “Need for Speed Unbound” has shown off its cell-shaded comic book art style for its characters while keeping the cars and environment realistic. Now, having played the game extensively, I can confidently say that “Need for Speed Unbound” handily straddles the line between realism and fun, while also giving players the experience of grinding their way to becoming a top-tier street racer.

From the start, the game lets you know it’s a rags-to-riches story filled with style and adrenaline. Set in the fictional, Chicago-inspired Lakeshore City, you play as a part-time garage worker, part-time street racer. After losing your dream car, you have to start from the bottom and race your way to the top. The races vary from point A to point B sprints to multi-lap races. One of the unique events is dubbed the Takeover, where popular rapper A$AP Rocky leads a destruction- and drift-focused race, adding to the underground feel of the game. He features heavily in the game’s soundtrack — a playlist of nonstop bangers. It primarily stays in the hip-hop genre, adding to the underground street racer aesthetic, but also adds a lot of foreign music (hearing Polish rap as a Polish-Canadian was awesome).

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The game is structured around two things: money and heat. To restore your garage to its heyday state, you need to win street races of all kinds. However, doing those races also increases your heat, or how much the cops want to take you down (in the same vein as Grand Theft Auto’s wanted-level stars). Each race shows how much heat you will get after completing it, and the heat levels range from one to five — from passive hatred to full-blown citywide chases with helicopters and souped-up cop cars. While you can spend money on cars, upgrades and new clothes, none of it is safe until you rest up for the day. If the cops bust you while you have a solid $12,500 on you (which happened to me), it’s gone. You need the money to keep your car competitive, as well as to get ready for the weekly qualifiers that the story revolves around.

Speaking of the story, it can feel a bit cringey at times, but that may be intentional. The story’s vibe reminds me of the early movies from the Fast and Furious franchise, with the wide cast of interesting characters all looking to make their mark in Lakeshore City. In the end, the cringe moments are minimal, especially since they’re contained to outside of the races, like during banter in the garage or cutscenes you can skip while getting a short recap before the next race starts. The core motivations of betrayal, anger and hype all come across well, and sometimes that’s all you need.

From the cutscenes to driving around the open streets of Lakeshore City, the visuals are one of the biggest standouts of “Unbound.” As is expected for a modern racing game, the cars look stunning — both while parked and at their max speeds. The weather effects show off the graphical capability more, especially at the highest graphics settings. The way the comic-book style overlaps with the realistic world reminded me of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and it was always a cool addition to mechanics like boosting, drifts and big jumps. It only added to my experience every time I noticed it, like a garnish on top of the meal that was the gameplay. Aside from one bug I faced where whenever I ended my game for the day it wouldn’t load the main menu, forcing me to close the game and wait about five minutes for the save to sync up, the game ran very well both in the glitch and framerate departments.

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Driving around the city always felt clean in “Unbound,” no matter what car I drove. Aside from getting used to specific cars and how they felt, I never felt like a particular model or loadout led to my mistakes in races; it was almost always on me. Just keep in mind that whenever you swap out your car, you can go into your handling settings and change things like what you want to press to start drifting and more. At first, the drift settings were a bit annoying, but as soon as I changed it to the brake-to-drift setting, I started to get better a lot faster with any car I acquired. Plus, as you get to test out better cars in events such as deliveries and escapes from the cops, you get a taste of what the supercars feel like.

Overall the gameplay reminded me of “Forza Horizon 5,” but elements like limited restarts every day and the way cops chase you increase the tension a lot. I can’t even count how many times, by nighttime, my heat score was so high that I’d have to pull gymnastic-like stunts and take weird paths just to avoid starting a chase that I knew I wouldn’t win. However, the elation of getting away from the cops and cashing in for the night or demolishing the cops chasing you by making them hit incoming traffic is incomparable, especially if you’re carrying a lot of cash or were in multiple chases in one night.

In the end, “Need for Speed Unbound” is a street racer simulator that nails what it sets out to do. The style that you can bring to the racetrack goes from you to your car and even the comic-book graphics you summon with your racing skills. At the same time, it doesn’t feel arcade-y; it still feels like a beautiful racing game. It doesn’t sacrifice style for substance, or vice versa. It just brings one of the best racing experiences of the year.

Michael Czar is a freelancer writer covering gaming and esports. His esports writing has primarily appeared on Upcomer. You can follow him on Twitter @xtraweivy.





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