The world of racing video games is experiencing an interesting paradox in this period: compared to the past simulations are much more popular that try to faithfully reproduce cars compared to lighter games where it matters only to put a supercar on the road and have fun.
The saga of Need for Speed has represented for years the bulwark of this philosophy more attentive to style than to tire wear and lap times, also thriving thanks to the success of a certain type of tuning subculture that has become mainstream thanks to Fast & Furious and to the aesthetics made of neon, fluorescent cars and NOS turbos.
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Today little remains of that legacy, e Need for Speed it has had mixed fortunes in recent yearsbut this year with Unbound things seem to have changed, also because the franchise has not only returned to the hands of a studio that has worked on its best chapters (Criterion Games, now part of the Electronic Arts galaxy) but also seems to have nailed the mix between aesthetics, narration and progression. We also talked about it with Gero Micciché, development director of the game who came to Criterion Games after a career that saw him work first as a journalist, then as a teacher at the Digital Bros Game Academy and finally devoting himself to development, first with Gameloft and then with EA and Criterion.
“There is still a lot of room for this kind of title, but obviously they must be declined in the right way – he bent us – The multiplayer part is important, but perhaps the thing that matters most is make the player feel part of a world, of a culture, something that goes beyond the actual race. This is why personalization, both of the car and of the protagonist, is so important, because it serves to create a sense of community, both in the game and in the multiplayer”.
And indeed Need for Speed Unbound is not only full of objects and stickers with which to make cars unique, but also boasts the collaboration of brands such as Vans, Versace, Puma, Fila and Napapijri with which to dress your alter ego. And the writer admits that he has a strange feeling not being able to afford a Versace garment even in video games. And to say that you normally play to escape.
Lo style chosen for the game is perhaps among the most appropriate choices, because it manages to mix the graphics of a modern title, with particularly beautiful and accurate car models, with a cartoon aesthetic vaguely inspired by Japanese anime that overlaps without obscuring. It’s almost like we’re witnessing the explicit coexistence of two worlds, on the one hand the seriousness and importance of knowing how to manage supercars that are technological prodigies and on the other the bravado and irony of those behind the wheel. From this point of view, the only drawback is the city itself: Lakeshore doesn’t offer particularly breathtaking views or interesting areas to drive through and soon everything becomes just a series of back-to-back street circuits to drive around to see where the story goes.
A key aspect of Unbound is also the narration: the story takes place precisely in the fictitious city of Lakeshore, which somewhat reminiscent of Chicago, and revolves around the obvious desire of one’s alter ego to excel in the clandestine racing underworld. Exactly as if it were an action game like God of War: Ragnarok, the action parts, or those in which you drive, alternate with narrative moments and the improvement of the car. The whole is of course declined for a young and modern audience: there isn’t a single character who doesn’t look like a model on Instagram or ready to make content on TikTok, the bland political background obviously takes it out on corrupt politicians who want to curb the ambitions of young people and so on. Perhaps you will find it a little difficult to feel part of this world if you were born before the 90s, or maybe you enjoy feeling young and rebellious. Certainly, after a well-managed twist, you will find yourself deciding what to do with your time in two precise moments: day and night.
Of day the races are simpler and you may have to perform secondary tasks, like recovering the car for another driver or driving someone somewhere, while night it’s serious, the prizes are higher and the risk of compromising the challenge is greater because of the police who get in the way. To raise the stakes, we can also bet with our opponents on who places better. The interesting thing is that, once a race is won, we will be able to decide whether to go home and collect the prize money or run somewhere else, increasing the money made overnight or risking losing it due to accidents or law enforcement.
“One of the things we are most proud of is undoubtedly the handling system of Unbound, or the component that concerns driving the car and the balance between a fun and accessible model and the more simulative part. I think this is among the best of the whole saga,” Micciché told us. Effectively Unbound offers the player the ability to customize the handling of the car with some handy indicators, so as to change (for example) grip, a fundamental factor for drift racing but also to find your own driving style.
The progression of the game is obviously based on buying more and more extreme cars and improvements, but Criterion has chosen to calibrate the rewards: you won’t have everything right away. A choice that on the one hand rewards a gradual improvement of the player, who is not immediately faced with complex cars to keep on the road, but which on the other limits the more tamarro side. If you have little money and you have to choose between one muffler best and a fender conspicuous, it is likely that they will be used first.
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We are facing an arcade game, so a title in which keeping the level of challenge high is essential, this involves game design solutions that some might appreciate less, namely the fact that sometimes the computer-driven cars seem to go very fast even when we have spent a lot of money in tuning, or strangely easy to overtake. Luckily it’s more of a nuance for the trained eye: who just want to run and have fun it will pay little attention to this and Unbound in being a linear, classic and accessible driving game does everything right and knows how to entertain, rewarding those who risk a little more and not punishing too much those who end up with their wheels on the grass.
Even if not everything is perfect, Need for Speed: Unbound he will be able to entertain you with its revenge story and its curves to the limit, without you having to worry too much about everything other than a new ECU for the car and a designer dress. Undoubtedly a step forward for a saga that has yet to fully figure out how to speak to new audiences.