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Need for Speed Unbound review - "Drifts, drafts, and drag"

Need for Speed Unbound is the best NFS in a decade

The city streets are rain-slick, reflecting the bright neon palette of Need for Speed Unbound back onto the world. Underglow neon, headlamps, street lights, and the blaring sirens of police officers. Unbound is a reflection upon the series itself – it has been seventeen years and fifteen entries since the high-highs of the series, when we saw the likes of Underground 2 and Most Wanted hit the streets, and Unbound seems to finally – mostly – understand what made those titles so great.

Things start off with fast cars and high-investment races, before everything goes wrong. As a new racer in an established crew, you soon find yourself with an empty garage, no funds, and the most basic possible vehicle to allow you to participate in races. From there it’s a classic rags-to-riches story as you become one of the best racers on the Lakeshore City streets.

Almost every race requires money to even participate – with a few free races available each day to keep you playing even when the wallet is low. You won’t make a guaranteed return on races either, as the difficulty here is fairly high. You should not expect to come first place in each race – in fact, finishing in the top three is far from a guaranteed in most races. In a basic vehicle, almost all competitors will outpace you on straights, leaving sharp turns and cheeky driving your only options for high positions.

Characters are given a distinctive cel-shaded look.

Characters are given a distinctive cel-shaded look.

You can upgrade your standard B Tier starter vehicle if you wish, but upgrade it too far and it’ll land in A Tier, excluding it from lower tier races unless you have other vehicles for that tier.

Of course, those upgrades are expensive, and especially at the start of the game, you just might find yourself spending your entire day’s earnings on a single upgrade for your car to stay competitive. And those earnings are precious, as you’re not guaranteed to keep them once a race is over. Just like the Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted games, police chases take center stage here, and cops will often pursue racers even after a race has climaxed – if your heat level has built up from police engagements, you’ll even find officers you drive past in the street will decide to give chase, even if your driving is perfectly sensible.

Low heat police chases are fairly simple, and you just have to get out of sight for a short period of time to escape. As the heat builds you’ll encounter supercharged police vehicles that go much faster and can pursue you much further, in addition to helicopters that can spot you pretty much anywhere. Cars can be outrun or wrecked, while helicopters can’t see through bridges and will eventually need to refuel, meaning there’s always a way out of a chase – but once you’re caught, the money you’ve earned during that session is all gone.

You can customize your vehicles heavily.

You can customize your vehicles heavily.

You can get bonuses for outrunning the police though, adding an extra risk-reward element to the game. At low heat levels, baiting the police into a chase can actually become a cheeky way to get more money – though faster cars will obviously be better at outrunning them, meaning chases actually get easier as the game goes on.

Money gets the gears turning in this game, but of course that should just be the thing you earn while having fun – and the racing here is pretty darn fun. Drifting is the name of the game, and a simple tap of your brake while turning is enough to send most vehicles into a full skid – let go of the control stick while hammering the accelerator, and you’ll glide around most corners effortlessly, as long as you’ve got the angle right.

Drafting, drifting, grip turns, jumps, and more driving tricks will allow you to build up nitrous so you can boost through races, but there are two distinct boost types here – a blue boost which stays in place, and a yellow Tap Boost bar which burns through all at once, but disappears quickly if you don’t decide to spend it. You’ll be hitting the Tap Boost to tap into these yellow reserves after pretty much every corner and during every overtake, if you can. It keeps you fully engaged in the driving experience – you don’t just accelerate and turn, you boost, tap boost, and work to get better, bigger, cleaner drifts and turns to build up your nitrous more quickly. And hey, if you can wreck a few opponents along the way, that’s cool too.

Need For Speed Unbound car drifting with a man shouting into a mega phone

Takeover Events include drifts, boosts, and destruction.

It’s all beautifully accented too. Cel-shaded clouds of smoke plume out of your rear tires during a drift, and graffiti-style wings are overlaid onto your vehicle when soaring through the air after clearing a ramp. The character models are also charming, with the same cel-shaded style, though they do sometimes feel like an afterthought, as you’ll rarely be looking at character models.

Things start slow with that B Tier beginner car, but once you’ve managed to collect a few vehicles and have enough money to get into High Risk races regularly, the funds slowly start rolling in, and you’ll gain access to bigger, tougher races, with higher stakes, and better rewards – which can include entire vehicles for first place finishes. It does feel unfairly slow at the start of the game as you lag in lower positions and struggle to get away from the police, but once you’ve built up a decent starting point, it’s smooth driving.

The grind for cash can feel endless – and because you can lose or spend it so easily, you just might find yourself replaying familiar races to refill your bank – but once you’re on a roll, Need for Speed Unbound is one of the best racers the series has ever had. The cars are fast, the visuals are striking, and once you’re one of the biggest and best racers Lakeshore has ever seen, you’ll be glowing like that neon.