The latest Need For Speed already seems to have been a sales flop but did it deserve to be and why were there no reviews at launch?
Given EA’s reputation for shutting down whole studios at the drop of a hat – plus that period they went through where they insisted that single-player games were no longer economically viable – they have been extraordinarily patient with the Need For Speed franchise. This is the third new entry since the failed 2015 reboot and according to the most recent sales charts it’s been an even bigger failure than the others.
It’s been obvious for years that racing games – or at least anything that’s not Gran Turismo or Forza – no longer have the draw they once did but it’s easy to forget just how far Need For Speed has fallen, as it still counts as one of the 10 most successful franchises in UK sales history. The days of being the Christmas number one are long behind it though and while this one is easily the best in a decade it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.
To be clear, none of the previous three games were very good but that doesn’t seem to have been the problem, in the eyes of the great games buying public. All of the best Need For Speed games, going back to 2010’s Hot Pursuit, have been by Burnout creator Criterion and while most fans would probably wish they continue that franchise, unfortunately it’s Need For Speed that sells the most – comparatively speaking.
Need For Speed’s fall from grace is peculiar in one sense, in that it never seems to have benefited from the success of the Fast & Furious franchise. The closest it came was with Underground 1 and 2, which featured the same street racing origins as the movies, and yet EA has refused fan demands to make a new one. Unbound is pretty close to being that, in all but name, although its relative qualities already seem to have been lost amidst controversy over its anime special effects.
It’s been categorised as anime by disgruntled fans but, really, the primary influence seems to be the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse film. Either way it’s an odd choice, given everything else is a very self-serious representation of American street racing culture. Which in turn seems slightly absurd when you consider Criterion is based in leafy Guildford.
If you want to live the fantasy of being an obnoxious jackass, spouting outdated internet memes like a behind-the-times Twitch streamer, then Unbound has you covered. Although the game’s tone is weirdly inconsistent, especially with the constant low-level swearing which seems desperate for an 18-rating and unaware that its casting call took place in Toontown.
The cars and game world are rendered in an impressively realistic style, but the characters and ancillary effects, like puffs of smoke, are all cartoons, along with things like name tags and the cars sprouting wings when they jump through the air. The latter effects can be turned off but that still leaves the main characters, so you can neither have the game looking entirely realistic or so anime that the effects ever seem like more than an afterthought.
Given the lack of commitment to the concept, not to mention its general incongruity, it’s not surprising that many fans have taken against it, especially as the rest of the game is, unfortunately, a fairly bog standard Need For Speed game. A bog standard Criterion Need For Speed game, we should emphasise, so the handling is great: a near perfect balance between arcade and simulation sensibilities, that emphasises drifting and smooth 60fps controls.
The racing is heavily focused on boosting, as you try to fill a gauge by drifting, staying in the slipstream of opponents, and engaging in near misses with non-race drivers. None of that makes sense, of course, in real life terms, and yet the skills and concentration required is just as much as something more realistic.
You start each day with a reset Heat rating, which increases the more illegal races you take part in, attracting increasing levels of interest from police cars during the day and night. This not only makes races increasingly more complicated but you have to bank your winnings at a safe house in order to keep it, and that becomes very difficult when you’ve got a five-star rating.
It’s a nice touch but the only other new idea of note is a particular race type where you’re in a closed-off course, where you have to do tricks and hit objects in order to keep a score multiplier going. There’s some fun, well-designed courses for this but they only represent a very small proportion of the overall game.
Beyond that it’s just the same old, same old, including some dishearteningly limp crashes that are shamefully unexciting given this is the same team that invented Burnout. There’s almost nothing in the game you can smash into that will do anything more than slightly slow you down, which seems to be an attempt to keep the action flowing. All it really achieves is making the already empty streets, which have curiously little in the way of traffic and pedestrians, seems even more artificial.
This becomes a particular problem in the underdeveloped online mode, which has all those problems and no cops, so it feels like you’re driving around a ghost town. There are only 15 other players at once and you have to use a separate garage, since it’s much easier to earn money online, and so it’s here that the lack of fast travel really hurts.
Need For Speed Unbound is a relatively enjoyable arcade racer and one that does seem to realise that innovation is needed, but it provides far too little of it. What’s here is enjoyable enough, if you’ve somehow never played another open world racer before – although to be fair that may include a sizeable number of PlayStation owners, who don’t have access to Forza Horizon.
Sadly, the unremarkable competence of Unbound is difficult to get excited about no matter how long it is since you’ve played something similar. It is certainly the best game since Criterion were last in charge but it’s still very hard to see how the series can continue unless it unbinds itself from its well worn formula.
Need For Speed Unbound review summary
In Short: The best Need For Speed in a decade – but that says far more about the moribund state of the franchise than it does this workmanlike new entry.
Pros: The driving model is great and races are unequivocally exciting. Good graphics and the anime effects are actually quite fun.
Cons: Boring open world and an especially dull online mode. Very few new ideas and no decent crashes. Obnoxious characters and storytelling.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Developer: Criterion Games
Release Date: 2nd December 2022
Age Rating: 12
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