It feels great to have a properly good arcade racing game on PlayStation again. They don't come around too often these days, with petrol heads generally favouring more realistic driving experiences. Despite this trend, Need for Speed drops by every couple of years to provide some high-speed thrills and glorious power slides. The series has been hit or miss for a long time, but we're pleased to say the latest iteration, Need for Speed Unbound, is a winner.
From the moment you start the game up, it establishes a striking identity. Between the varied blend of hip hop and electronic music and the cartoonish, graffiti-like visual flourishes, Unbound has a truly unique sense of style. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but we love the presentation; it brings some much needed personality and flair to a series that's been struggling to rediscover its voice.
We will say the visual effects are somewhat at odds with the otherwise realistic open world and vehicles, but the game would feel a little plain without them. Popping your boost, pulling off a sweeping drift, or catching major air off a big ramp wouldn't feel quite as good without all the sketch-like doodles and colourful tyre smoke. The extra feedback feels great. The trick doesn't work quite so well with the human characters; some NPCs look good while others don't. Still, outside of some story cutscenes, you're not going to see an awful lot of them anyway.
Speaking of story, the narrative here serves as little more than set dressing. Playing as an up-and-coming street racer, the prologue ends with your so-called friend leaving you high and dry without a ride. Fast-forwarding a couple of years, you rediscover the world of underground racing only to learn your former buddy is tearing up the tarmac in the car she stole from you. To exact revenge, you'll need to qualify for The Grand, the biggest street racing event in the city, and win everything back. The writing is a little try-hard, but again, the story is just an excuse to tune up a cool car and take it out on the road.
And that's where the game shines, as it should. Unbound has the best handling model in a Need for Speed game in a long time. It builds on what Heat brought to the table, but there's definitely a noticeable difference. Cars generally feel more responsive, and it's now much easier to maintain a juicy drift. Running at a silky smooth 60 frames-per-second also helps tremendously, elevating the experience all-round.
It's important to note the handling differs from vehicle to vehicle, but it's also highly customisable. By default, tapping the gas or the brakes will initiate a drift, but you can switch those off entirely if you like. Additionally, you can tweak the handling of all cars to prioritise drifting or grip. The latter is usually better for securing those faster lap times in races, while the former comes into play during drift events and Takeover challenges, which are all about style. We prefer the ability to pull off big power slides, and while drifts do slow you down, they just feel so good when you get them right. The point is Unbound caters to all arcade racing sensibilities, and we'd say it hits a great balance.
Whatever and however you drive, the single-player will put you through your paces. The prologue gives you a pretty good car for the opening hour or so, but after that your options are much more tame. The way things are structured means you'll also struggle to pull ahead for a little bit, which can leave a slightly odd impression that the game is crushingly difficult. It can be surprisingly challenging, but once your cars are decked out with better parts, you'll easily climb the ranks.
Like its predecessor, Unbound splits day and night into separate entities, but it treats them differently. Each period has a set of races or competitions you can partake in, with the chance to earn some much-needed cash. However, every event will afford you some heat, indicating how aggressively the police will come after you if they spot you. What's more, the heat you earn during the day carries over into the night, so driving after dark can become pretty risky.
A series of interesting design choices mean the campaign gives you plenty to think about. After a day and night cycle, your heat level will reset and you'll move to the next day on the calendar. You need to spend five in-game days preparing for the big qualifier event on the Saturday, which requires a car within a certain tier and a wad of cash for the entry fee. Oh, and most of the regular events through the week also have a buy-in cost. Because of this, you can't always splash all of your cash upgrading your car, or souping it up with the exhaustive customisation options.
The whole thing is a balancing act; you need money to upgrade your vehicle and enter each qualifier, but to get money, you need to enter races during the week, and these will put you in hot water with the police. The more money you try to earn per day, the harder it will become to evade the cops and bank the cash. If you can forgive the cliché, it's a real risk vs. reward system, forcing you to consider all your options. It's cleverly balanced.
Online, meanwhile, feels a little lacklustre. With no cops on the roads at all, you're free to play as many races as you want with up to 15 other players. This necessitates a separate garage from the offline mode, as earning money is significantly easier. Aside from the various playlists, however, there's little else to do. The online mode really highlights a problem with the sandbox city of Lakeshore; it's quite empty. Sure, there are billboards to smash, collectibles to find, and mini-challenges like speed traps dotted all over, but they're of little consequence. The lack of fast travel can also be frustrating, especially online when you just want to get into events. The open world would be quite a dull place to be were it not for the super fun racing.
Despite one or two small complaints, Need for Speed Unbound is a great arcade racer, finally getting the series back on track. The versatile handling feels fantastic, and the single-player offers a highly engaging campaign, pitting you against the cops and other racers in equal measure. The much talked-about cartoon effects succeed in bringing some flair to the experience, and it all runs wonderfully at 4K and 60 frames-per-second. If you can forgive a slightly underwhelming backdrop and a barebones online mode, the minute-to-minute action makes this more than worth taking for a spin.