Giving you everything, only to take it away, is perhaps gaming’s favorite narrative trope — followed closely by introductory amnesia before creating your character and the best things happening in cutscenes. Racing game fans know it well, in part because of 2005's Need For Speed Most Wanted, which gave you a few short races with an E46 M3 GTR before ripping it from you in a sabotaged race for pinks. You’d spend the whole rest of the game getting that car back.
Need For Speed Unbound, the latest entry in the long-running franchise and the first developed by Criterion Games in a decade, starts this way too. Only, Unbound lets you drive your doomed pride and joy for an hour or more, depending on how much time you take getting through those opening races or tweaking your ride. I honestly began to think I’d get to keep it. I shouldn’t have gotten too attached, though. The next time I saw it, somebody else was behind the wheel.
Little changes like this, departures from the expected formula, make Unbound feel fresh — even if, at its core, this is in many ways the same game that got a lukewarm reception three years ago as Need For Speed Heat. Heat didn’t have the graffiti-inspired art style, bangin’ soundtrack, focus on streetwear fashion and hip-hop culture or environmental diversity of Unbound, but it had the same cop chases. The kind that alternately thrill you and make you want to tear your hair out.
Full disclosure: The fine folks at Electronic Arts provided us with a PlayStation 5 code for Need For Speed Unbound on early-access release day.
Unbound feels like it builds on what worked and what didn’t work in Heat. For example, just like in the last game, the campaign is split between alternating day and night segments. Your heat level — that’s what determines how aggressively the police try to take you down — accumulates by participating in races and repeated run-ins with law enforcement. Unlike in Heat, there’s no second currency or “rep” — your whole aim is to earn money, and fast.
You need dough quickly because you’re short on time. The campaign is split into four weeks, with one day and one night session each. Every Saturday, you need enough money to cover the buy-in for each qualifier for the be-all, end-all race called The Grand. Coincidentally, your friend-turned-rival who stole your ride back in the prologue will also be participating.
I like a good calendar system for a single-player campaign. It contextualizes what you’re doing, and imbues a real sense of progression. Different events become available each day and night, and on some nights you even have the opportunity to win cars. It’s very important that you win them, too, because cars are too expensive to buy in Unbound. Besides; you’ve got to save up for that Grand buy-in. Oh, and your car needs to be in a certain category by Saturday, or else you can’t line up in the qualifier.
This is where Unbound starts to fall apart a little — not completely, but just enough that everything starts to feel like a slog. Criterion was really enamored with the idea of making players feel like they had everything to lose in this game. Small bets happen before every race, and you can get in on the action; every race also has a buy-in that you forfeit no matter the result. Getting busted means waving goodbye to your night’s winnings, just like in Heat. The deeper into the night you go, the likelier that becomes.
I can see why the developers loved the risk/reward theme. Anyone who spent the better part of an hour trying to escape the fuzz in Most Wanted ’05 knows that the rush of an NFS pursuit hits like nothing else in the genre. The pressure has a way of intoxicating you.
But Unbound simply goes too far. The buy-ins can be astronomical, and many races pay poorly. The cars you occasionally win are heavily modified, but only on the outside; most of the time they perform no better than their showroom counterparts, and sell for too little if you try to flip them. Parts are expensive; you also have to upgrade your garage to access better mods — and what do you know, that requires cash too. The game’s three difficulty levels are tied to a preset number of restarts that apply to the whole in-game day, not the individual day/night segments. One time I burned all four of mine trying to beat a Takeover event where I showed up with the wrong car for the job. I lost a $16,000 buy-in that night and failed to snag the prize Lancer Evo, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to have essentially wasted an hour of my time.
It’s not like I could have afforded that Evo, either. Because of all that stuff I had to save up to buy, and the buy-ins and pricey upgrades nibbling away at my balance (we haven’t even discussed the cheating cops yet), I haven’t been able to buy a single car that I actually want, other than my starter NA Miata, and I’m more than halfway through the campaign. Here’s a game with a wonderful roster of vehicles and some of the best customization you’ll find in the genre — and pretty much no way to sample or experiment with any of it. Even pairs of rims are sold separately in this game, and they don’t carry between cars.
What really makes you feel hopeless, though, are the moments when you have no cash, you’re driving a car you hate... and the police show up. The one-sided rubberbanding in races is pretty egregious, as everyone stays on your tail but nobody ever slows up when you’re the one lagging. In pursuits, the cops are much the same way past about heat level 4. You may outrun them temporarily, but during cooldowns they swarm your location in a clairvoyant fashion, no matter which way you try to run off. They also have helicopters at their disposal, and if you’re in, say, a B- or A-class car, speeding out of their perimeter of vision is impossible without the help of a tunnel.
What follows is a cycle of being spotted and briefly getting away, circling the same gas station to heal up after the Lakeshore Police Department’s Ford Raptors bash you to a pulp, and hoping that in those fleeting seconds when you give them the slip, you might be close enough to a safehouse where you can turn in for the night and bank your earnings.
I really do enjoy pursuits in NFS — nobody does them the way this series always has. Or, at least I did. Unbound’s insistence on trapping the player in unavoidable cat-and-mouse chases at every turn, with the looming threat of losing everything you’ve worked so hard to get, simply kills the fun. It doesn’t make me want to push my luck with “one more race” — it makes me want to cash out as early as possible and avoid every good driving road in the game, desperate to stay out of sight.
And yet, I can’t stop playing. Unbound’s economy is even more restrictive than I found Gran Turismo 7's to be at launch, but for me, having to work for shit builds a sense of accomplishment in the way Forza Horizon never has. So I can put up with the annoying cops and the draconian attitude toward progression, because I enjoy the cars I’m able to build, and that feeling when I nail a drift just right.
The latter doesn’t come as often as I’d like in Unbound. Physics have long been a sore spot for this series, and while Criterion has certainly made them more tweakable, you can’t snuff out input delay and unpredictability with sliders alone (nor should you have to). Tires grip or don’t, and it’s never clear why. Low-speed steering is so sluggish — just as it was in Heat — that it almost feels like you’re relaying directions over the phone. Back in the days of Burnout, Criterion understood the merits of an intuitive, responsive handling model better than almost anyone in the business. It could certainly use that insight now.
Which brings me back to NFS Heat. In spite of all my problems with that game, I loved it. Three years later, my criticisms — and praises — of Unbound are pretty much the same, and I’m enjoying it, too. The truth is, Need For Speed returned to form three years ago. The series already found its formula, but still needs to perfect it.