After three years of pause, Need For Speed Unbound marks the return of the saga to the track. At the wheel is Criterion Games, a software house that stood out with Burnout in the 2000s and that has already worked on the Need For Speed series, developing Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted and Rivals. Knowledge of the subject is therefore certainly not lacking, yet Unbound has proved to be a chapter without great sprint, although it still remains carefree, fun and tamarro at the right point.
New city, old problems
We are in Lakeshore (a reinterpretation of Chicago), a metropolis dominated by the contradictions of modern American society, grappling with the imminent elections and with the candidates for the role of mayor who base their electoral campaign on the fight against clandestine races, which especially at night roil the streets.
In this context, we will take on the role of a driver who, together with his gang of friends, has the ultimate goal of winning La Grand, the queen race against the best aces behind the wheel of the city. However, the ambitions of the protagonist are not only linked to glory, and we obviously leave you the pleasure of discovering the true motivations of our alter ego. The story narrated by Need For Speed Unbound will keep you busy for about fifteen hours and unfortunately has the bitter aftertaste of déjà vu, punctuated by stereotyped characters, punctuated by situations already seen and driven by an all too predictable narrative development. As for the variety of events, we find the classic circuit races, drift challenges and events in which you have to accumulate the highest possible score by knocking down pins and barrels scattered on the track. Between one race and another, our protagonist will receive a few phone calls in which he will be asked to recover and deliver racing cars scattered around the map. Once delivered, these vehicles will become purchasable at the garage. In addition to the clandestine races, the other ingredient that can never be missing in a Need For Speed are the escapes from the police that give rise to long and chaotic chases through the streets of Lakeshore. The framework of the playful fabric is completed by the open world structure, with a map filled with collectibles, jumps, speed cameras and billboards to be destroyed.
Overall, however, there are no distinctive elements capable of clearly differentiating Need For Speed Unbound from its predecessors and the introduction of betting, which at the preview stage had seemed to us an aspect with discrete potential, did not add that extra gear we hoped for .
Before the race, the player can decide to challenge one of the participants: the problem is that the amounts at stake are a small (sometimes very small) percentage of the prize up for grabs for the race and therefore, in fact, they do not affect the balance of the play economy. In short, we would have liked this feature to have more prominence and depth, and instead it remains rather marginal.
Along a progression divided into four weeks, the distinction between day and night already seen in Need For Speed Heat also returns (remember it? Here is the review of Need for Speed Heat), however in Unbound it seems to be less incisive, as the the only difference between diurnal and nocturnal events is of a purely monetary nature, because at sunset the accumulated currency increases.
Unbound is a “playful circuit” that tends to repeat itself in a loop, with a fairly noticeable redundancy. Each day the player can play a certain number of races in order to earn the money needed for upgrades, and each challenge will raise the alert level of the police which will make the pursuits more bitter. Being caught by the police involves the seizure of the earnings of that single day. When the user decides to go back to the garage and move on to the next day, the alert level is reset and the nest egg earned is placed in the bank. This mechanic is repeated throughout the week, until Saturday, when qualifying takes place. Passing these tests for the first three Saturdays will give access to La Grand, held at the end of the fourth and final week.
As already mentioned, a similar structure appears very repetitive because unfortunately every day turns out to be the same as the others and, moreover, the events always end up being the same. To put it briefly: by the end of the first week you have already seen everything the game has to offer in terms of content and variety.
Fortunately, there are also some positive notes, which mainly concern the progression and the level of challenge: the title offers three levels of difficulty, which determine not only the ability of the artificial intelligence, but also the number of “restarts” available . This management of the difficulty based on the number of restarts has proved to be a very good choice.
Furthermore, regardless of the degree of challenge selected, the game seemed more demanding than the previous chapters, and this makes the races always exciting, despite the annoying elastic effect that is now the prerogative of the series.
Even the progression, as we said, has fully convinced us: the player is not covered in credits as happened in the past and indeed, the management of the economy of your garage is a fundamental element in Unbound. The prizes are far from conspicuous, especially in the first part of the adventure and the purchase of upgrades or even new racing cars is always a moment of great satisfaction.
Drift that passes you
As was widely expected, the driving model offered by Need For Speed Unbound is arcade-style and works properly. With some reservations, but it works. There aren’t big differences between one car and another: they all drive the same way and you don’t even notice the differences in weight.
The entire framework of the driving system leverages the maximum speed, the use of nitro and, above all, the management of drift. This last element left us a little perplexed: the driving system in fact seemed too focused on drifting, to the point that putting the car sideways is often the only way to give it direction, as if steering without drifting it was not possible. Similarly, nitro is almost always necessary to get out of a corner, because otherwise, as soon as the drift ends, the car seems to go under torque and stall in place. In short, we are faced with a slightly more rigid system than one might expect, which does not leave much room for the player’s driving style, who is forced instead to adapt to this alternation between nitro and drift in order to be competitive.
Tuning and customization
The most successful aspect of the Criterion production is undoubtedly the car fleet and the deep customization system. Need for Speed Unbound includes 143 vehicles, all licensed, ranging from small cars, sports cars, SUVs and pick-ups to supercars. These cars can be distorted in the tuning phase, with the application of mechanical upgrades and aesthetic kits of all kinds.
The bodywork is customizable down to its smallest elements and the player can give free rein to his imagination by applying paints and wraps of all kinds, neon under the body and colored glass, which are so 2000s and evoke the atmospheres of Fast & Furious and the acclaimed Need For Speed Undergroud, to which Unbound winks not too covertly.
Sometimes the tuning options go so far as to make the cars unrecognizable, in the full exaggerated and over the top spirit that distinguishes this franchise. Even our alter ego is fully customizable, thanks to an editor that allows us to create it almost from scratch, like in the best role-playing games. Criterion therefore wanted to leave ample space for the player to express himself and impress his own style on the adventure.
Street Art comes to life
Staying on the subject of style, the most characteristic trait of Need For Speed Unbound is undoubtedly its artistic direction. The choice of mixing elements with a more realistic touch on the screen with others in cel shading is at least audacious, and we would like to promote it with reservations.
Also thanks to a fluctuating graphic realization, the result is an uneven glance: the car models are beautiful to look at, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the scenario, which was not created with the same care and the visual impact is markedly old-gen for a title that – we remember – only comes out on current generation platforms. To give you an example: the effect of wet asphalt is undoubtedly striking, but it’s a pity that not even a splash of water rises when you speed past a puddle at two hundred an hour. In this context, the team has also tried to amalgamate the presence of characters in cel shading and a comic effect that seems to come out of a work of street art. In short, we appreciated the somewhat original artistic choice, which gives character and personality to the production, but we liked the realization a little less. The version we tested was the PS5 one and as far as the frame rate is concerned, the optimization work is commendable: in fact, the game does not drop from 60 fps even in the most chaotic situations.
On the sound side we are on high levels: the roars of the engines are a pleasure and can even be customized in the tuning phase, while the choice of musical accompaniment includes various pieces taken from the trap and hip hop scene, which blend beautifully with the tone production “underground”. Finally, the very good dubbing in Italian deserves applause, even if the choice not to localize the dialogues of the rapper ASAP Rocky in our language, who is present in the game in the role of himself, seemed a bit alienating.
If the structure of Unbound, in single player, feels the weight of the years, we must say that in multiplayer the “Burnout Paradise scheme” still works fairly well. Sessions can accommodate up to 16 players, who roam freely around the map and in the meantime have the option to continue completing secondary activities.
Anyone who wants can start an event that other players are able to join with the push of a button. The progression between single player and multiplayer is not unified, but here too, just like in single, you can buy cars and upgrades with the money earned thanks to the victories, trying to present yourself at the starting line in the best possible conditions.
A real parallel career therefore, which can give you a few hours of light-hearted shopping, perhaps together with a group of friends thanks to cross-play. Of course, it will be necessary to see how long the servers will remain populated, given that, beyond the ephemeral fun given by the races, there seem to be no long-term pursuable objectives that can stimulate players to frequent Lakeshore constantly.
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