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Need For Speed Unbound review: One more time, in 4K60

Need For Speed finally makes its proper next-gen debut, and it’s fallen to Burnout developer Criterion to show how it’s done.

As a result, you get elements of Burnout (takedowns, driveaways, insane speed and drifts), coupled with glorious, 4K60 visuals which make every frame look like a high-quality CG render. Ah, but it’s a render where someone’s scrawled graffiti over it, drawing cartoon smoke and angel wings. What’s going on?

This is the bold new art style adopted for this game, turning the otherwise 100 per cent predictable street racing action into something a bit more edgy and cool.

Need for Speed cel shaded chracters

*That* art style

It does look really nice when you hit a long drift and your car leaves billows of coloured, customisable smoke in your wake. Wheelspin spawns little coloured spirals drawn beside you, and if you crash or take down a cop, you get to show off the latest graffiti tag you unlocked, which flashes above your car.

It’s cute, and is technically ever-present, but in practice, it actually feels underplayed, like it could have gone even bigger on its artisan sensibilities. And it’s inconsistent, too. The characters and pedestrians are cel-shaded, which is one art style, the overlays are graffiti-esque which is another, and then there’s a near photo-realistic city underneath it all, which is a third visual style.

It looks great, but it doesn’t wholly gel, and it would arguably have been better and more memorable if the game had gone all-out to make it a Jet Set radio-style cartoon racer. But the fanbase wants its realistic cars on night-time streets, so they’re in there too.

Day by day

The main gameplay loop involves starting the day by finding a meetup, earning money from racing and side-bets, perhaps completing a delivery mission and then getting to the safe house without the cops busting you and stealing the entire morning’s takings.

Your heat level and remaining restarts are then held over to the night, where you do the same again. Successfully make it home and you get all your day’s money to spend on cars and mods. You need to save some for the weekend Qualifier races too, and many small events also have buy-ins, so there’s some money management involved.

Bottom out by the weekend and the game just lets you play Friday again, keeping your current balance.

Need For Speed Unbound modified car, Nissan Z

All-new car handling

Gameplay-wise, the arcadey handling has been built from scratch for this title. You can still drift, but the mechanism feels different, adding to the challenge in a positive way. Just tap the brake or feather the throttle (or select one of the two) and you start to slide. The cars naturally oversteer while drifting, and lose momentum if they skid too much, so the trick is to gently drift through turns.

You can also force a drift by slamming the handbrake, which triggers a sort of ‘catch’ in the grip as you regain traction – like the old Ridge Racer games – allowing you to skid sideways into a tight turn and accelerate smartly away.

Need for Speed wet LaFerrari

Cornering like this fills yellow gauges on your boost bar, while driving in oncoming traffic fills a secondary, blue boost too. So performing drifts and other skill moves like near-misses, jumps and slipstreams will keep your boost meter filling perpetually, allowing you to keep up with the leaders of the pack.

This is easier said than done, and there’s a great deal of close, exciting racing as you do your utmost to take the lead and stay there. With so few tight corners to navigate and make up time, you need to stay focused on avoiding oncoming traffic and staying on the road.

At the crazy speeds the game reaches, this can be very tricky, and there are limited restarts (four on normal difficulty, which must last you the whole in-game day), but things are made easier thanks to incredibly, unrealistically, forgiving collisions with trackside scenery.

Turned up to 11

You can flatten lamp posts and trees and even disintegrate sections of Armco barrier with just a touch, with little to no impact on your car’s inertia. It might be nice to at least have some resistance from the trackside barriers at times, but instead, if you go flying off, the game resets you, already moving, just a little behind your previous position in the race. It works well, but it’s very arcadey.

Need for Speed unbound police crash

Indeed, this is most definitely a video game for entertainment and not a sim. The jumps are insane, there are challenges to complete to unlock new mods and art tags, and it’s all up to you how much you pursue side-quests like smashing billboards and collecting bear statues.

It doesn’t feel as much of a collectathon as most other open-world racers, and it’s all the better for that. Only the drop-off quests popping up ever feel intrusive, and they at least carry high rewards and offer faster gameplay when you’ve only got a crappy, B-grade, car yourself.

Here for a long time

The story mode takes some 25 hours to complete, and is as generic as they come, though the quality of the production is commendable. The cel-shaded characters look cool, and everyone’s fully voiced with many minutes of dialogue as you drive from one safe house to another event.

There’s no fast travel or rewind, and by the end of the story you might wish there was a bit less driving (especially when the cops pose a greater threat to your journey), but for the most part, it’s a well-paced and varied game.

The police are present during the day now, too, and it can be a real pain to get spotted. There are auxiliary mod slots available to slow down police recognition time, and it can be a lot of fun to take down five cops cars, hide from the chopper overhead and make it back home with $100k in your trunk, but sometimes a bit more breathing room would be nice.

Need for Speed story

While you can blaze through the whole campaign in a few days, there’s potential for months of play in here. After the credits roll (complete with a very strange monologue from a hip hop star A$AP Rocky) you’re then free to just keep playing the game, completing challenges and buying as many cars as you like.

And the car list and number of modifications are very impressive, with famous marques like Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini and McLaren well represented. Not all of the cars can have body kits applied to them, but a great many can. There’s sadly no true interior camera angle to choose, but the cars are given loads of screen time, with obscene close-ups of snarling exhaust pipes and oversized rims. And you can buy neons to go under your car, which may be a bit cheesy today, but really fits the vibe.

Need for Speed Unbound police chase

The alternative is to head to the separate, online version of the city, though this side of the game feels underdeveloped by comparison. With the cops removed, the city feels even quieter than usual, and while the playlists of events work well enough, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as well-integrated as Burnout Paradise.

Familiar feeling

It has to be said, the spectre of that game still hangs over Criterion. Paradise has a better soundtrack, better takedowns, far better crashes and crash damage, and better online integration too. It’s a shame this new game doesn’t have the same impact as that game did, but at this point, the open-world street racing genre is demonstrably over-done.

It is, however, simply good fun and will make hours of your life disappear into the ether like so much cartoon tyre smoke.

Need For Speed Unbound review - car effects

This is at least one of the smartest, most well-balanced and exhaustive examples of the genre, and anyone buying the game on PS5 or Xbox Series X is in for a real visual treat. It frequently looks amazing.

But there are surely only so many times we can play what is essentially the same game. But hey, this time it’s 4K60 so, y’know, once more can’t hurt.

The Traxion.GG Review Verdict: Wishlist
Developer Criterion Games
Release date 2nd December 2022
Available platforms PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Version/s tested PS5
Best played with DualSense controller

Full disclosure: A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Here is our review policy.

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