Energetic racer 'Need for Speed Unbound' slams on gas, tries to steer into skid

Need for Speed Unbound.jpg
Posted at 12:46 PM, Dec 29, 2022

TUCSON, Ariz. — Hoping to capitalize on the over-the-top street racing culture popularized in the "Fast and Furious" films, "Need for Speed Unbound" takes an exaggerated look at a high-speed urban jungle.

With visuals that boast hints of comic book art, boisterous characters, and a soundtrack packed with megastars, the game seeks to rev its engine and streak past the finish line.

Phil Villarreal: I was most impressed by the musical lineup. With more than 70 tracks from the likes of A$AP Rocky, Diplo, Lil Eazzyy, and Princess Nokia, the music blends with the racing more effectively than I've ever experienced in a racing game.

The problem, though, is that the content rarely lives up to the soundtrack. I got a mobile game feel from the simplistic drifting controls and found the writing grating and the story hokey. The intent was clearly to establish a stylized, anything-goes setting, but it all seemed so goofy and artificial. The song that left the starkest impression on me was Tkay Maidza's cover of "Where is My Mind?" as I was left coping with the confounding things I was dealing with in this strange, silly street racing realm.

What did you think, Sean?

Sean Newgent: You'd get more thrills driving down Speedway during rush hour traffic than playing this vaguely entertaining arcade racer. I think graphically, the game looks fine. Cars are well modeled, and the graffiti styling integrates well with the world, but the characters look so bad. And on top of looking like PS2 models, they talk like a 60-year-old writer's attempt at recreating "hip" "urban" characters. It's some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue in video games this year, comparable to that of the recent "Saints Row". Add to that your character being an orphan, which you'll hear about ad infinitum. A story about gentrification and police corruption — it makes "Need for Speed Unbound" come across as out-of-touch and vapid, masking the ineptitude of its appeal to younger gamers with name brands, cars I can only dream of owning, and musicians who are probably one of the only selling points.

Gameplay-wise, the open world is as empty as the writing, a cursory attempt at modern gaming trends with no personality. It makes driving feel like a chore because you spend half the game driving to the actual races and events. When you do get to race, it's...fine. It plays like an old-fashioned arcade racer with an emphasis on drifting and using NOS strategically. The rubberbanding was bad though, and I never felt the thrill of the races.

You can tell this is a cash-grab franchise title. It just feels so corporate, so soulless.

Will you be coming back to "Need for Speed Unbound," Phil?

Phil: I can't see myself playing as much of this title as I have past games. "Heat" (2019) did a better job of establishing the cat-and-mouse game between drivers and cops, and "Payback" made trading paint with rivals more intriguing. I even appreciated the cross-country madness of "The Run" (2011). "Unbound" isn't able to carve out its niche as well as those games.

I can envision playing more "Unbound" when I want to mindlessly unwind to its soundtrack, but that probably won't be enough to establish a continuing spot in the rotation.

To get the most out of the game, you need a dedicated group of friends you can meet up with for multiplayer sessions. The progression system seems to be solid, and there is some deep customization available for everything from the look of your driver to vehicle wraps and even window decals.

It's too bad that the latest "Need for Speed" didn't coalesce in ways that the best games in the series have. Maybe the next step for the franchise needs to follow "Fast and Furious" and launch into space missions.

Final thoughts, Sean?

Sean: "Need for Speed Unbound" feels dated while trying to be hip. It plays fine and has a ton of customization options for those wanting to indulge in building their dream car. It's a perfectly serviceable game for those already into the franchise or who have a need for speed — but there are a dozen better options out there if you want to take a virtual drive.

The publisher provided review codes. Phil played on Xbox Series X. Sean played on PS5.

Past game reviews by Sean and Phil:
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Diablo II Resurrected
NEO: The World Ends with You
Rainbow Six: Extraction
King of Fighters XV
WWE 2K22
Weird West
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
TMNT: Shredder's Revenge
Capcom Fighting Collection
Capcom Arcade: 2nd Stadium
Digimon Survive
Cult of the Lamb
TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection
NBA 2K23
Lego Bricktales
Gotham Knights
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Star Ocean: The Divine Force
Sonic Frontiers
The Dark Pictures: The Devil in Me
Evil West