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Ever since its rocky start with the 2015 reboot, the Need for Speed franchise has had a tough track record with its releases and the 2019’s NFS Heat could only provide a mild sigh of relief to the franchise’s die-hard fans. In the same period, Microsoft’s Forza Horizon series has primarily solidified itself as the best arcade and open-world go-to racing game. With stakes higher than ever before, EA has taken up the big guns by handing over the mantle to the Criterion Games – creators of the critically acclaimed Burnout Series and 2010’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit

With the release of Need for Speed: Unbound, Criterion Games is taking a unique approach to restoring the franchise’s originality by introducing visual tweaks that provide a crystal clear experience with its luscious cel-shaded anime-like characters and visual effects. This game also draws some heavy inspiration from the previous works – Burnout Paradise and 2012’s NFS: Most Wanted. All of it has been geared towards amplifying the series’ rebellious street racing culture as we know it. 

Need for Speed: Unbound was released on November 29th, 2022 exclusively for the new current-gen PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X consoles along with Steam, EA app, and Epic Store for PC. You can also get 10 hours of free trial via EA Play included in Xbox Game Pass or play it for free on EA Play Pro subscription. 

Onto the Canvas of Reality

On booting up the game for the first time, Unbound feels like a whole new experience. The graffiti-like visual effects along with cell-shaded characters undeniably give the game a unique look. While initially, I wasn’t so sure if this was a welcome addition, after seeing it in action this was by far the best addition this time and solidifies the clear boundaries of the racing path. Whether it is a U-turn, roundabout, or a sharp corner most of the time it is clearly telegraphed what’s headed your way. The use of contrasting color schemes makes everything stand out a little more.

And that’s not all. You can also tweak the smoke effects, neons, and trailblazers to your liking. When you take your ride in the air, its anime-like wings spruce up and it is quite a sight to behold. And even if you find all of this annoying, there are a ton of tweaks available to ease the experience.

The only issue that I faced was not the visuals but the music. Despite having an Indian Rapper featured in its fold, the music doesn’t seem to complement the in-game art style. Thankfully you can simply turn off the in-game music and sideload your own music via Spotify. To my liking, I just loaded my favorite NFS MW 2005 OST playlist and it just felt right. 

Pimp it, Don’t Scrimp it

Most racing game storylines are cringe and in the case of Need for Speed, it has been even clingier, thanks to its silly cast and its forgettable backstories. Thankfully, this time, the team took the ‘Cut the crap, Take nothing for granted’ approach. Despite being mostly pointless, all the in-game cutscenes are snappy to the point it doesn’t interfere with your play. The emphasis has been more on driving than developing the story or its characters. Needless to say, it totally paid off. 

Campaign wise it’s the usual stuff but with limited retries and a no-fast-travel system. And the difficulty of it is no joke, this game’s default mode is challenging and it lives up to its name. The racer AI is more fierce and the races with high rewards come in with the risk of losing a ton of cash. The overall progression system has been divided into 5 weeks with a big event lined up for each Saturday. Each day has two racing sessions- day and right. You make cash by winning races called ‘Turntables’, doing drifting events named ‘Takeover’, and doing hot-ride car deliveries for Rydell’s garage – your base.

Overall you will have a limited no of sessions to make money and pump up your ride for the Saturday Showdown Qualifiers. And there’s always a risk of losing money. The cash doesn’t come cheap, it also brings in the heat. Any heat that you get during the day carries over to the night session and dies down the next morning. The same logic also applies to the game’s online campaign which comes with $100,000 cash if you get the Unbound Palace Edition. It also features PvP mode and matchmaking times are pretty decent for now.

Homage to the Lost Era of Blacklists

While games like Forza Horizon take a more freeing approach to their driving system with realistic and padded-down emphasis on street racing and more on exploration,  NFS: Unbound has a majority of emphasis geared only towards the street scene. While you can take the wheels off-road if you want, the off-road terrain lacks the realistic friction that one can expect. And street driving experience is very similar to that of 2012’s Most Wanted. That means heavy yet not overwhelming traffic and a city filled with safehouses and repair booths. During one of its campaign missions, it also pays homage to the all-time classic 2005’s NFS: Most Wanted and solidifies its lore as canon to its own.

Besides that, it also features two Nitrous gauges – Normal and Burst. The Burst Nitrous can only be gained by ‘drafting’ near racers or cops and it sends the car flying once engaged. Overall the racing experience can be more chaotic than relaxing but it always keeps you on the edge. Even in such tense moments the racers and cops would exchange dialogues that feel more natural. And to add to that, we also have pedestrians on the street who are great at dodging and will call you out on your rash driving skills.

While driving skills will definitely come in handy, there’s a lot of emphases put into brake tap drifting on sharp corners and using the burst Nitrous by slipstreaming near other cars. Other than that it would be your performance customization that can make or break a ride for you. As for me, I had a really tough time with driving vehicles geared more toward drifting as it is really hard to stay on track. If it wasn’t for my Lotus Elise’s grippy tires, I probably wouldn’t have made it past the first qualifier.       

Real Talk

Need for Speed: Unbound feels fresh when compared to its recent predecessors by featuring a progression system that’s more challenging and does not take things for granted when it comes to street racing. Instead of putting longer cutscenes, it tells the bulk of its story through dialogue exchanges between racers on the street. Thanks to the new art style it is filled with wet Neon-lit streets with influences from the East. Its array of lackluster soundtracks, never-ending police chases, forgettable plots, and messy traffic may dampen the experience during long hours. Thankfully most of these issues can be dealt with if you put on your own music and chill with it. Overall, It is an easy recommendation for series veterans and new-comers alike.

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