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Need for Speed Unbound Review – Visually stunning, stunningly fast

Need for Speed Unbound is a solid racing game that will lure you in with its fantastic visuals and hook you on the racing.
Need For Speed Review Image
Image: Criterion Games

When Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hit theaters in 2018, it came with a highly stylized take on the idea of an animated comic book. The visuals were, put simply, stunning, and combined the BOOM-BOP-POW comic book style with the look of a notebook filled with graffiti sketches. While Spider-Verse wasn’t the first to do this style, they certainly perfected it, to the point where it is the easiest comparison to draw when discussing the style.

Need for Speed Unbound does the Spider-Verse thing.

The striking visual style of Need for Speed Unbound is the first thing many people interested in (or playing) the game are going to take notice of. The game really stands on its visual style, propping it up as perhaps the main selling point, and that’s not a bad thing whatsoever.

If you want me to discuss the driving in Unbound, I really can’t say much. The racing is solid. I’m no expert on racing games, but driving felt good, the cars all seemed to handle well, and I never felt like there was a point where I lost a race because the car did something I didn’t want or the system broke. It all felt good to me, and good driving in games where it is present is something I’ve always found important.

Nes Racing Image
Image: Criterion Games

When a racing game has solid driving, there’s very little else it can do to really stand out and sell you on it with a hundred other similar games out there. In this regard, Unbound leaning into its visuals is a big strength of the game, offering a unique and stunning looking you definitely won’t find in other raciing games.

The graffiti and neon effects that chase after your tires in a drift make the game feel like a comic book jumping off the page, making each roar of the engine and sick maneuver feel all the more impactful. The visuals alone offer little distractions from the repetition of racing and gave me a dopamine rush each time they popped on the screen. The whole stylistic choice makes the game feel all the more exciting, without being so distracting that I lost a turn or couldn’t see where I was going.

While the contrast between the comic book-style characters and the hyper-realism of the cars and city might put a lot of people off, I didn’t mind it. In fact, I found this contrast worked for the game in a lot of places, making the style feel all the more unique. My only gripe with the realistic look of of the cars and city is that some stylistic outlines really could have worked in the game’s favor; The super realistic, shiny car with a shimmer of red and blue outline ala the Spider-Verse inspiration would have been a fantastic visual that I’m disappointed the game didn’t capitalize on.

Nes Jump Image
Image: Criterion Games

Delving deeper into the gameplay, Need for Speed Unbound features a lackluster story with a street racing mechanic that is pretty solid, which is sort of to be expected of the genre at this point.

The gameplay revolves around betting on and engaging in illegal street races, earning heat from the local law enforcement as you chase greater winnings and harder races. Heat is required for higher-paying races, which also require a buy-in before you can compete, meaning you can actually lose money if you don’t perform well. This is a gripe of some players, but personally, I liked this inclusion, as it plays into the street-race fantasy and makes the races have a lot of weight. Street racing is why I’m playing a Need for Speed game, after all, and if I wanted a risk-free race I could play Formula 1.

The game can be pretty difficult at times, and a common complaint I see from other players is that the AI has the tendency to cheat. Personally, I just assumed I was bad, but this wouldn’t totally shock me. Thankfully, progressing in the game isn’t hard-locked to actually winning races, a fact of the game I’m intimately familiar with.

The dialogue in the story, frankly, sucks. Many of the characters missed the mark for me, and overall a ton of them felt like they were written by corporate writers trying to create the most marketable, safe characters possible. I didn’t feel a lot of grime, edge, or relatability in a ton of the cast, and most of the cutscenes I used as a chance to go and get a snack or drink between races.

You can skip out on the single-player experience and go online, but I personally found more enjoyment in the offline segments of the game. Notably, there is no cross-progression, so anything you earn offline will not be present online and vice versa.

The Final Word

While the game is not without its faults, held back by a lackluster story and characters, it’s hard to call a racing game bad when it does the racing so well. The style of Need For Speed Unbound is enough to keep me hitting the streets over and over, chasing bigger fame and a bigger payday each time I hit that virtual ignition.

8

Our Need for Speed Unbound review was written based on the PC version of the game. Find more detailed looks at popular and upcoming titles in the Game Reviews section of our website!

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