Need for Speed Unbound: Blazing fast cars, infuriating slow progression

EA /

Title: Need for Speed Unbound
Developer: Criterion Software
Publishers: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed on), Xbox Series X and Series S, PC
Release Date: November 29, 2022

Despite being AppTrigger’s weird casual gamer I have a weird love for Need for Speed games. I will go to my grave confused as to why Need for Speed: Heat didn’t do better despite being gorgeous, fun, and having a great story about police corruption with killer set pieces.

I like it. When I see a new one of these games come out I get…I get all…

NFSUnbound-Need-For /

Well… you know.

I was really hyped too when I saw the first trailer for Need for Speed Unbound. The realistic art style mixed with cel-shaded characters and graffiti-like special effects coming off the cars? Sign me up. Then I played it on the PS5 and found that the city is even prettier than the city in the Matrix Awakens tech demo which, until this moment, was the bar for how good a city should look in a game. This game snapped the bar in half, speeding through it.

My wife was legit laughing as my car would slam violently to a stop in the middle of the road so I could look at the level of detail at some of the city elements. And while NFS Unbound takes place in a fictional city, there are some parts that looked and felt like I was driving through my old familiar city of Cleveland.

The controls are fantastic in this game too. You can freely tweak how drift works so if you have a hard time with it you can adjust it until it works exactly how you need it to. This is a welcomed feature as triggers on a controller don’t always mesh with real car physics. You’re doing hand things to represent foot movements, and let’s just say my driving record from the turn of the century says I might know a thing or two about that.

NFSUnbound-Sunset /

Also, we need to talk about the story. Much like with Heat, NFS Unbound tells a story that is horrifyingly familiar to the modern world. A right-wing politician is the mayor of your city and is using their full control of a violently corrupt police force to help their agenda. They use minor issues and persecute lower class and underrepresented individuals as scapegoats in order to distract from their own heavy levels of corruption while using heavy tones of patriotism to lead people to their side.

It’s more the B-story behind the standard A-story of “this person is my rival and did me wrong and I need to beat them to win back my honor” type thing. But it hangs over the game like a bomber jet shadow.

From the way the police talk on their radio to conversations you have with other racers, you feel this world. I was driving home one particular character who’s one of the game’s top racers and she unloaded on me about how ever since her family kicked her out for coming out as trans, she’s found the racing community to be one of the only groups in town who are willing to judge her on her skill and personality and not for her pronouns. It didn’t do it in a heavy-handed way either, it felt like a conversation I’ve actually had with people who were in similar situations. I appreciated it.

The only thing I couldn’t stand with this game is how painful the progression is. The main story sets you up with a calendar and lets you know that you’re making your way toward a race that will require you to have four cars upgraded and ready to go. I was set. I can get cars no problem.

Then I found out that you progress through this game slower than even Gran Turismo 7. It took me almost a full week of racing to just get my first car upgraded. Roughly around 20-30 races just so my car can hang with tougher gigs.

When I got a second car it was woefully weaker than the one I already had and it cost a fortune to build that one up. There are races where if you get first place you can win another car but they have a five-digit buy-in and there are no cash prizes, so you either get first place and a new car or you’re just out like 15K. And the other racers are no slouches. I even tried it on easy and these fools still used every shortcut they could to win. They were damn good.

The other tough part about this forced calendar is that when you get a new car you don’t really get the time to get the feel for it as the game is, as you’re constantly reminded, all about the hustle. You need to get behind the wheel and earn money because the big event is coming up so you need to learn on the fly.

Eventually, you get the feel for it and I guess it does help you feel the pressure of the story but, man, I love racing games for the freedom of it. I don’t want a game to make me feel the pressure of a deadline. I’m a journalist who has to work within my kids’ schedule, I got that already, we’re good.

But if you can get past the slow progression and the weird need for a timetable, you got a fantastic and beautiful racing game that despite my gripes, can’t seem to walk away from.

Need for Speed Unbound (PS5) Score: 8.5/10

The story paints something that feels all too real-world with things like police corruption and right-wing smoke screening. Combined with real-world visuals of the city mixed with gorgeous graffiti-like special effects, it all mixes into a fantastic racing experience that is hard to quit. The only gripe is an incredibly slow progression system.