Need For Speed Unbound comes at an important time for the 27 year old series. It’s had a rocky road for the past decade, with Criterion’s last entry being a decade old in 2012’s Most Wanted and many newer entries getting a divisive response from fans and critics alike. Criterion’s last game was the last entry that got universal acclaim and having the company behind games like Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise at the helm here brings with it an extra layer of expectations due to their pedigree.
Thankfully, they have taken everything learned over the past 20 years of racing game creation and poured it into NFS Unbound – with some massive improvements when needed in terms of accessibility. Racing games can be tricky from an accessibility point of view. Unbound makes accessibility something that is impossible to avoid since it starts off bringing up the accessibility options for menu narration before transitioning to a run-through of the accessibility menu in full.
Unbound mixes things up with non-racing events that feel very much like Project Gotham Racing’s obstacle courses – only with a bit more of a modern flair to them and set in a street racing area. Unbound uses an anime style for the character models and it uses a bold color scheme for cars and the environment that allows everything in the world to stand out from itself.
Right away, an emphasis is placed on visual accessibility with a variety of colorblind options. There is a colorblind mode for deuteranopia, tritanopia, and protanopia but no explanation behind them beyond just the terms being used. Sony’s Destruction All-Stars had a wide variety of colorblind options that truly raised the bar for me as an end user in terms of thinking about colorblind options in games. It definitely feels like more needs to be done in that regard here.
That holds true for every setting when it comes to visual accessibility as well. One area that can definitely be improved upon is in regards to menus not showing what each setting adjusts in real-time. One great thing done in EA’s Battlefield 2042 was a real-time showcase of each change as it’s being made and it allowed me to feel a lot more confident in easily being able to see text across the game. Unbound’s usage of bright and colorful outlines around the cars for things like jumps is something that has drawn mixed reviews so far – but personally, I found it to be a great way to visually tell what I was accomplishing in a stunt in real-time based on the boldly-colored outline.
Deaf/Hard of Hearing Accessibility
Unbound scores big points for allowing all in-game dialogue to be viewed with subtitles and for allowing those to be in a preferred size. The game’s subtitle options are remarkable and cover all spoken dialogue – including small banter between characters while driving. Text size can be adjusted – although there aren’t options to set background color for the text or change the color of the text itself. It would be nice to be able to change those options and not being able to do so even a month after release is something that EA will hopefully work to address. They have done an incredible job with this feature in other games and it’s a shame it wasn’t just carried over completely as a publisher-wide initiative.
However, it is admirable that Criterion accomplished as much as they did with this game as it is more accessible than any prior game they have released. It also could not have been easy to ensure that all of the in-game dialogue, including things like fast-paced police chases, had accurate dialogue. An admirable job was done overall here given how much dialogue is present for a racing game – but there is definitely room for improvement both with updates to this game and for the NFS series going forward.
Fine Motor Accessibility
Racing games can be tricky for anyone with fine-motor issues because they do rely on precise movements of an analog stick alongside using triggers to accelerate and brake. Many kart racing games have taken to allowing for auto-acceleration and that’s something more full-fledged racing games should adopt to allow more players to enjoy the game to some degree. Unfortunately, Unbound doesn’t have anything like this – but it does have very accurate acceleration and braking with the right and left triggers respectively.
Some games on the PS5 aim for “realism” by having tension on the triggers, which thankfully isn’t implemented here as having additional resistance would make controlling a racing game more difficult. One thing that would be nice is to have button mapping as an option to better-optimize the control layout to a player’s personal preference. While the default layout is fine, it does feel odd to have a menu option called button mapping and not be able to make any changes to it.
For a game with both fast racing and cop chases, this is a very forgiving title when it comes to AI driving. The ability to adjust the difficulty between relaxed, challenging, and intense fairly quickly helps a lot and does prevent any frustration from creeping into the experience. You can’t adjust things on the fly, but you can lose a race, go back to the setting menus and adjust it within seconds. The player is supposed to lose races early on as part of the story and the narrative does a fantastic job of weaving that in while making victories seem special.
In the end, Need For Speed Unbound does a largely admirable job at providing an accessible experience when it comes to deaf and hard of hearing features, while doing a fair amount to even the playing field for players with visual and fine-motor disabilities. There is room to grow to be certain as the lack of real-time colorblindness features does make it harder to tell how the game will look with certain settings turned on and more work needs to be done when it comes to offering different colors for text and backgrounds.