Imagining a new way of seeing the world is absurdly complicated. In fact, it is not easy to amaze the eyes of the public, especially if this is by now so accustomed to digital (and animated) worlds that he is more or less familiar with any one, now being surprised very rarely, if not on very rare, if not unique, occasions.
A revolution, in this sense, took place a few years ago, and it spread over various fields of animation and digital art in general, and the credit was, basically, of one person, or of Albero Mielgo. Artist, director, extraordinary imaginator of colorful worlds, but often so complex and articulated that they cannot be investigated at a single glance.
Awarded at the Oscars 2022 with his short film The Windshield Wiper (find it on the Tube, do yourself a courtesy!), Mielgo is the man to whom we owe the artistic inspiration of Spider-Man: A New Universe, or rather the splendid film which also took home an Oscar, also and above all thanks to its splendid artistic characterization, which was partly inspired by Mielgo, even if the latter later found himself leaving the project, for reasons that we will not investigate here.
Extremely bright colours, neon lights, characters often with a deliberately angular style, but immersed in hyper-realistic contexts, are just some of the characteristic features of Mielgo which, thanks to Netflix and its recent Jibaro (Love+Death+Robot, Season 3, Ep.9), has confirmed itself once again a master at tinting new ways of seeing the world and, in particular, to the world of animation.
Now, you say: "but this was not the review of Need For Speed Unbound"? Yes reg, this is it. But since the game is now as good as it came out and that, due to a delay in receiving the code, we have gone a bit long, let's make this review go in a slightly different direction than usual, which by now you will have understood that the game is quite good and worth your attention.
Take me out to the Paradise Ci… ah no.
Developed by Criterion Games, which returns to the series after almost 10 years from the excellent “Rivals”, Need For Speed Unbound is a game that, above all, has its own clear identity and also a direction. Which, frankly, is not to be underestimated at all, especially if we consider the previous Heat who, although he had some good ideas from his side (here, moreover, recycled a bit barbarously), lacked the grace that one would expect, nowadays, from a racing title.
In this sense, Unbound introduces two genes into its DNA that have modified, if not the structure, at least the appearance of the Need For Speed series, making this racing title a concentration of elegance and charm.
The first is the Criterion gene: a development team that, if you were lucky enough to experience the splendid era of PlayStation 2, you will surely know, as the creator of one of the most loved and acclaimed car games ever, namely Burnout. Tremendous speed, devastating crashes, and lots and lots of adrenaline, are some of the traits that distinguish the Criterion gene, and which are effortlessly found in Unbound which, above all, is a finished racing game, in which the speed reached is almost always extreme, and pleasantly mixes the lights and colors of the screen in a swirling tunnel, surrounded by such a motion blur that it seems that the cars are splashing at Mach speed.
Then when the crash comes, SBAM!, the camera moves creatively and cinematically around the carcass, in what is a coup de grace that does not have a great playful impact (if not, well, that of slowing you down a little), but which offers the aficionados a sinking heart, to the memory of what was the splendid combat on wheels put staged by Burnout and its “Takeovers”.
The second gene, on the other hand, is the one with which we opened this review. It is the "Mielgo" gene, which although never involved in any aspect of this game, has evidently contaminated the production, perhaps even only remotely, perhaps even without the art team realizing it (or maybe yes?). Need For Speed Unbound, in fact, is above all beautiful to see, and what was the good promise made by the announcement trailers (which arrived just a couple of months ago), has been sublimated into an impressive artistic direction, which makes this title, in itself, already unmissable.
There are several aspects that work in this sense. First of all, we start from the curious binomial that exists between the cars which, like the city too, are artfully made, with graphics bordering on photorealism, even in terms of details; and the various pilots who, including ours, are instead made with a modern and sharp cell shading style, and the leather colors are far from realistic, and are indeed shot, so much so that they seem vaguely luminescent, if not quite neon.
Secondly, Criterion has decided to include in this game a whole series of effects (which, if you want, you can also turn off… but why should you?!) that adorn the machine practically whatever you do. We go from the clouds of smoke emitted by the tires, to real artistic effects, such as symbols, wings, hearts, flames, lightning: all made to recall street art and which, not surprisingly, are called "TAG".
The visual result is a bit what you might have appreciated in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or in the more recent Jibaro, both with the hand of the aforementioned Mielgo, in which, at different times, around the characters and as a result of their actions, graffiti, symbols, scribbles can be seen that serve to give emphasis to the moment or to the emotions, and in Unbound the artistic imagination set up by the Team has practically the same weight.
Activate the NOS to see an electric discharge run quickly across the livery, almost as if the car senses the effort and tenses its muscles. Carry out a skid and from the wheels, as well as a colored smoke, small symbols or spirals will be projected, to emphasize the rapid movement of the tyres. Make a jump, and a pair of wings will appear around the car, and so on throughout the game, with a result that is never annoying or alienating but, on the contrary, places even more emphasis on cars, always and in any case undisputed protagonists of the action.
The final result is valuable, and it is evident that everything was created for the use and consumption of Generation Z, from which the game inherits a certain charm for clothing, customization, look, but also slang, even if sometimes the results are more (and involuntarily) parody than satisfying. Of note, and then we talk about racing (I swear) also the spectacular acoustic compartment, which among the noises of horns, engines, sirens and metal plates, also offers a cosmopolitan and eclectic soundtrack, with artists from the hip-hop, dance and traps from many countries, and with unexpected choices such as SCH, Terror JR, Diplo, Lous and the Yakuza and A$ap Rocky, also present in the game with a digital avatar.
Need For Speed Unbound… where have I seen you before?
Now, if we stopped here, frankly, we could give this game a very respectable rating, well beyond that 7,0 which, as you can see, sits at the bottom of the page. The point is that if from an artistic point of view Unbound does a great job, placing itself head and shoulders above any competitor's product (provided you are not looking for pure simulation, of course), from a playful point of view it is sad to note that the title behaves a bit lazily, with an overall gaming experience which, in a nutshell, is little less than a version improved of the previous (and mistreated) Heat.
The curious thing is that Heat, moreover, was offered for free just a few months ago to PlayStation users through the Plus program so, if like me you have had the opportunity to play the previous Need For Speed recently, the sense of continuity will be particularly evident to you, if not downright unpleasant.
Proposing itself as an open world racing (which even Criterion is enough, we have already played Burnout Paradise in all its guises!) with different points of interest, and with a varied but not particularly brilliant map, Unbound will ask us to run far and wide, competing in races that will take place both during the day and at night. As for Heat, in fact, the progression is divided into two different moments: races during the day, in which the police alert is generally lower, and there are no events capable of raising a lot of money, and races at night, more dangerous, with more chances of attracting the attention of the cops, but also decidedly more profitable.
The cycle, unlike the previous title, which granted freedom of choice when leaving our garage, is here preset by the game and follows a natural progression, also due to the plot, which will ask us to compete in different and numerous races over 4 weeks.
Mixing slang, urban music and a good dose of family stereotypes inherited from Vin Diesel, Unbound will put us in the role of a rookie driver in the city of Lakeshore, a fictitious metropolis, famous for its passion for street racing, and in which the scene of the pilots is particularly lively and colourful. Here, right in the first bars of the game, our protagonist and his boss, an elderly owner of a garage from humble origins, however, will suffer a betrayal that will put them on the streets, and which will force us, a couple of years later, to lose on the track in the attempt of a common revenge.
Names, events, that's all the narrative context is so formulaic that it leaves no mark, but at least we can say that the game has the advantage of trying to give narrative continuity to our running and wandering which, in short, considering the trend of the genre is still something positive. Returning to the racing scene, we will therefore discover that in order to participate in the "La Grand", or rather the tournament of tournaments of clandestine races, moreover promoted by those who have betrayed us, we would have to compete in a series of races, in order to own, in the space of a few weeks, 4 different cars, of 4 different categories, plus a large sum of money.
In this sense, setting the pace of play, and its day/night cycle, follows what is the pattern of the weeks that effectively separate us from the 4 main events that will lead us to the final challenge, with objectives to be achieved within end of the week, both in terms of money and car performance, in what is a system that is not too complex, but still pleasantly paced.
The point is that, on balance, a bland narrative, and a progression system that forces the player to run continuously to accumulate money, fame and new parts for the car, are not enough to detach us from the idea that this is not other than a Heat 1.5, also and above all because the game board, i.e. the city of Lakeshore, practically never offers any memorable flash that distinguishes it from the previous city, so much so that the whole look is exclusively delegated to speed and artistic direction, which it wouldn't be bad either if this wasn't an open world game.
Of course, the city is really littered with collectibles, and enjoys a good level of environmental interaction, as well as small secondary events to complete, but in the end everything has already been seen, and what we are witnessing is a scheme that, starting from Burnout Paradise, or the most memorable precursor of the "open world racing" genre , today it tastes a bit stale and already seen, so much so as not to allow this Unbound to take off which, allow me, is also a bit of a species considering that we are talking about Criterion from which, at least the undersigned, would have expected a little something more.
In short: ok that you cannot always have a revolution, as mentioned at the beginning, but finding those who, if they invented open world races, copy their own open world context, with partial splashes of the open world context of others is, today as today, a bit cloying, especially if you don't have something behind you that makes you want to stay anchored to the exploration and discovery of the map... or at least something we really don't care about.
This, unfortunately, ends up having repercussions on the entire gaming experience, almost entering a loop which, at times, prevents you from enjoying the title for particularly long sessions, on pain of a certain boredom. You start from the garage, choose a race, reach it, maybe escape the police and move on to the next one. With also the setback of having, not infrequently, to race on the same tracks already seen a few minutes before, without any changes, or if anything with very minimal changes, both because the game asks us for it, and because the money obtained from the races, especially at At the start, they are few, and really not enough to make fast progress to the next car.
Of course, the more skilled you are, the more useful money will be collected quickly, perhaps by skipping a few races in view of the weekly main event, but the point is that such a game cannot entrust its amusement curve to a system which, without too many frills, it provides the player with very few variations, especially if those variations are, in short, billboards to break through or pieces of street art to collect.
The dream car
Fortunately, the whole series of options useful for customizing your machine is anything but boring and here, undoubtedly, the game almost gives its best. Although, in fact, the system is lazily copied from the previous Heat (even the menus are identical...), the vehicle customization system is broad and satisfying, and will allow you to put your hand to your car under a multitude of aspects, which they only affect the car's performance but, obviously, they will allow you to greatly modify its appearance.
In a context of a title in which the artistic direction is strong, directional and precise, there was the risk that the customizations of the cars would go a little into the background, but this is not the case and, indeed, today as today, precisely in virtue of the effects that adorn the game, it seems we are obliged to exaggerate, and to do more, as demonstrated by the rich customization editor which, in a nutshell, will allow you to create your racing car as you prefer, being able to choose between accessories, kits, spoilers, wraps of all kinds and even tiny and secondary details such as license plate, lights, mirror shape or glass colour!
Everything that can be modified in reality can also be modified here, with the possibility of sharing one's creations with the community, so that they can be downloaded by other players or, why not, so that you download them, if you are lazy and don't have want to spend hours and hours in the game editor.
Bro, what a style, bro!
Small comment for the game avatars which, since we are talking about customizations, are also widely "customizable". The graphic style that characterizes them is guessed and pleasant, and even if the options for modifying the physical characteristics are not many, the good sample of clothes (Versace, Adidas, Napapijri, are just some of the names you'll find here) allows for a fairly satisfying customization as long as, of course, you're willing to spend a few hundred on clothes and not on parts for your car.
However, the thing we like about these avatars, in addition to their "dryness" which goes against the trend of the proclamations of realism pursued by the sector, is that in addition to their personality and character, they are perfectly immersed in their context, which you will also realize thanks to to the excellent and engaging Spanish dubbing. Sure, there are stereotypes, and some have seen the Fast & Furious franchise way too many times, but overall they work, and it's also pleasant to hear them tease each other in the middle of the races, although a few more lines of dialogue would not have hurt.
Speech at the antipodes for the police who, while enjoying vehicles quite characterized, sin from every other point of view. Not that we are talking about clothing of course, but at least about "character" and artificial intelligence. If the pilots of the game, in fact, are at least able to put a spoke in our wheels, as well as getting lost in slang and taunts, the Lakeshore police are instead extremely poor, both in interesting lines of dialogue and in the ability to stand by them heels.
Unless you are being chased by an army, and therefore have not raised the state of alert to the highest levels, the patrols are always awkward and not at all oppressive. Even in the middle of the races they represent only an ideological nuisance and never really a practical one. The AI should be seriously revised, and brought at least to the level of the pilots of the competition, even if we understand that, perhaps, we did not want to push too much on this side, in order to avoid frustration for players who love to wander around the city. I'm fine with not wanting to frustrate the players but, in short, if the wheel in front of me keeps crashing into the guard rail by itself, maybe I'd give it a set-up.
Before concluding a brief note on the online mode, which is present and allows you to compete with up to 16 players on servers that reproduce the entire city map. First of all, it must be said that something a little unpleasant, if not completely senseless, was that of dividing online and offline experiences. In essence, you play with two different avatars, who have different machines and wallets. Something that doesn't make much sense in a title which, as we told you, will not only make you spend a lot of hours doing very similar races for mere money reasons, but which will also commit you many hours on tuning and customization .
Furthermore, the online game is the laziest one could expect in a similar title. The map is daytime only, there are no nighttime events, there is no police car and even the races are the same as in the offline game. In summary, unless you need to compete against other players around the world, purely for reasons of ego, there really isn't much else to say.
It would have been better, in the opinion of the writer, if at least the same avatar could have been used, with servers limited by matchmaking and calibrated on the value of our car (a value present in the game system, and clearly expressed in points , which divide cars into classes). As proposed, the online game seems to exist because it is customary for modern titles, and certainly not because of the desire to offer a truly enriching experience for the user.