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IFeatured & Reviews

Need for Speed Unbound: Return to Old Glory

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The Need for Speed series has seen some difficult times in recent years, never really catching the momentum that it did with Need for Speed Underground and especially its successor NFSU2. Now, Need for Speed Unbound aims to revive the feel of these titles and does so remarkably without feeling out of touch with how times have changed since then – quite the contrary, in fact.

Unbound makes use of the same base formula that made NFSU2 so popular when it released in 2004: street racing, highly customizable vehicles, a big open-world map for players to explore, and a fitting soundtrack for its time. However, it does not shy away from doing some things differently and, as a result, avoids being a cash-grab copy of the glory days.

Graphics & Sound

Visually, NFS Unbound is an interesting mix between realistic graphics for the cars and the environment and the somewhat cartoony cel shading look used for the characters and pedestrians. Additionally, the game introduces customizable driving effects like smoke, wings or sparks that are clearly cartoonish in nature. While some may find this mix off putting, it works quite well to create a signature style for the game.

Performance is good even on mid-range PCs, and the optional adaptable resolution works well to keep the framerate at the desired level, even though there may be some drops in fps occasionally. It does keep gameplay fluent, though.

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In the sound department, NFS Unbound does not disappoint either: Cars sound distinct from each other, and the effects for activating nitrous, crashing into signposts or scraping along a guardrail make for an immersive experience. The soundtrack is mostly modern Hip Hop, Trap and EDM – as always in these cases, its likely not everyone’s taste, but can be turned down or off entirely. It does fit the style of the game perfectly, though, and is a sign of changing times compared to 2004, of course – as it should be since the game is not trying to be a remaster of NFSU2.

Setting & Premise

NFS Unbound takes place in Lakeshore City, a fictional area inspired by Chicago. The open world map features dense city environments as well as industrial areas and winding hillside roads, all of which lend themselves to the various kinds of events in the game.

Lakeshore City also serves as the background for the story of Unbound. Before starting the tried and tested process of buying a low-end car and customizing it to be a high-end beast of a machine, the player gets to pick a junker car from a selection of a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, a 1998 Nissan Silvia K, and a Lamborghini Countach 25th to restore and make a name in the street racing scene with – all with Yaz, a coworker and friend from the Rydell’s Rydes garage the player’s character works at, by their side.

However, Yaz grows to be more and more distant relatively quickly, betraying both the player and boss Rydell, taking not just the restored car but also every single one in the garage. This is the turning point in the story – from here on out, the player and Rydell are on their own and the rise from the bottom to the top begins.

Gameplay

Everything in NFS Unbound revolves around The Grand, the ultimate street race in the game. To get there, the player needs to prevail in qualifier events, which in turn require certain car classes. The game features a weekly calendar, and each day is divided into daytime and nighttime sessions, the latter usually providing high-stakes events.

One of the core additions to Unbound is the Risk & Reward mechanic which is present in different ways. When out on the streets of Lakeshore, players accumulate heat with the police by competing in races or other mischief. The races result in different levels of heat, with law enforcement becoming tougher to evade with each heat level.

It is up to the player to decide whether they want to keep going and get even more heat and possibly eventually busted, losing all the money they have made in that session, or head back to a safehouse to stash the money and end a session. They will lose all accumulated heat after finishing a night session – so getting too much during the day could backfire during the night.

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On a smaller scale, side bets during the races are possible, adding another risk/reward situation. It is possible to bet any of the competitors in a race that you are going to finish in front of them, making it possible to earn – or lose – extra money. Careful consideration is important in this case as well.

There is a nice variety of events, spanning from classic circuit and point-to-point races to drift contests and the all-new takeover events, in which players can get points by performing jumps and drifts as well as smashing objects laid out on the track. A nice touch: Takeover events will not see police interference, making them a bit more relaxed than the others.

Aside from the usual events, the player gets the opportunity to accept missions on short notice, usually one of their rivals needing a ride to a safehouse (which is then unlocked for the player as well) or a car needing to be delivered for Rydell, offering the opportunity to drive some exotic cars even early on.

Driving

Of course, the driving physics of NFS Unbound are anything but realistic – but that is not what the game tries to do. Instead, they feel arcadey and fun, most noticeably with the burst nitro mechanic which can be activated in the middle of a drift to shoot a car out of a corner much faster than it would normally go while also ending the drift, giving the vehicle more grip instantly.

There is a damage model that regenerates very slowly and does not really have an effect on the driving itself, and it usually is not a factor unless you are in a long police chase. Once your damage meter fully depletes, you will get busted if you are still being chased. It is possible to repair damage at gas stations that can be found all over the map.

Speaking of cop chases: The law enforcement has different vehicles at their disposal, and each of them becomes harder to get rid of – some cannot be outrun, others are tougher to take out, and eventually, breaking the cops’ line of sight becomes much harder once helicopters become part of the equation. Players need to get out of the police’s sight and stay out of it for a certain time until a chase is called off. Depending on the heat level, police unites will chase you again once they see you, so it is advisable to keep an eye on that HUD map.

Customization

There are 143 cars in Unbound, and even more ways you can customize each of them. Before it gets to that, you can do the same to your character: Players get to choose one of eight character presets to modify with hairstyles, eyewear, clothing and more. This is not mandatory, however, so if you simply want to jump in and play, you can leave them as they are.

The most important customization is that of the vehicles, of course. This can be done in any of the safehouses, so driving to a shop for specific part categories like in Underground 2 is not needed. Instead, players can upgrade their garages with the money they won while racing to unlock the next level of performance parts. Paints, wraps and decals are completely free, other visual elements like wings, bumpers or body kits cost money, however. Parts can also be unlocked by completing challenges, finding artwork painted on walls in the city or other tasks.

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There are so many customization options that it is unlikely that any two cars are ever going to look the same if not done intentionally. While performance parts are plentiful and even engine swaps are possible, the visual options are enormous in the decal editor alone. Add bumpers, side skirts, diffusors and even brake discs and calipers into the mix, and there is nothing stopping the player from making a car uniquely theirs. It is even possible to tune the exhaust sound to your liking. Ride stance, rim size, the comic-style driving effects – there are a lot of things to tinker with.

The deciding factor for cars is their performance, though: Every upgrade to parts that make a vehicle faster, better-handling or more adjustable affect their rating, and once a certain rating is reached, it will reach a better class – similar to how Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon handle their car classification. Events usually require a car of a certain classification, so having at least one for each level in your garage as soon as possible should be very helpful.

Multiplayer

No big title will come without a multiplayer mode in the 2020s, and NFS Unbound is no exception. It is not tied to the single player mode, instead focusing on doing its separate thing, including online progression. Multiplayer sessions allow for up to 16 players and feature Freeroam mode as well as Meetups, where players can compete in race playlists consisting of different types of events.

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Crossplay is also possible to get players on different platforms into the same session, and it is possible to form groups of up to four players that can race each other without other players getting involved. You can also freeroam with friends and try to complete challenges like speed traps or drift zones, as well as find collectibles.

Small Annoyances

So far, things read generally positive, but Unbound is not immune to things that should be improved. Before even driving for a second, it took us at least 90 minutes to get our Xbox One controller working on PC – it turned out that the problem was most of the SimRacing periphery plugged in. As a result, the game would not recognize the controller as the primary gamepad, but rather a shifter or a button box.

The other annoyance we encountered was also related to the controls – it is not possible to reassign controller buttons in the game, and with the standard assignments, that makes shifting gears manually a hassle. While the left and right triggers act as brake and throttle, respectively, downshifts are assigned to the left bumper, and upshifts are activated on the right bumper – both of those are immediately above the triggers, and the latter are usually used with your index fingers, making quick shifts impossible unless you use the brakes and throttle with your middle fingers. As a result, we ran the game with an automatic transmission – not a deal breaker, but also not a great idea for a control scheme, especially since being in a lower gear would be beneficial in certain situations.

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Verdict

Need for Speed Unbound finally revived what made both NFS Underground titles great without feeling like a throwback to the early 2000s – instead, it has grown with the times and adapted to them. As a result, players who enjoyed the older titles almost 20 years ago may not necessarily get all the references to popular culture, but they should still feel that familiar NFS feeling when tuning a tame road car to a fire-breathing beast of a street racing machine.

With seemingly infinite customization possibilities, Unbound offers anyone the opportunity to make a car uniquely theirs even down to the brake disc. Whether they take it to the extreme or keep it comparatively tame is entirely up to the player, creating space for a lot of tastes.

NFS Unbound dances the fine line between being a throwback to the glory days of old and being a refreshing take on things that have worked in the past as well, avoiding being just a reboot of the older games. Players who liked the mid-2000s titles of the series will feel right at home with Unbound’s core elements – though they also might feel a little old when it comes to music and styling here and there. Nothing to be ashamed of, though.