Need For Speed Unbound’s New Handling Is Steering In The Right Direction (Again)

Need For Speed Unbound recently brought back Audi cars into the fold, with three new cars (one new to the series) with a bespoke new handling system.

It’s interesting to see developer Criterion Games is tinkering with the handling physics again, because since 2015, Need For Speed’s physics has been… off. 2015 promised a robust driving model where you can drift or turn around corners but only delivered one of that. Payback is even worse. And by Heat, it feels like it’s improving again. But with Unbound, it’s… gotten worse again.

So I’m glad that the new Audis handle much, much better. Here’s an explainer why the existing handling model in Need For Speed Unbound is rough, and how the new changes improve things.

The Problem With Need For Speed Unbound’s Handling

Need For Speed Unbound’s handling system, on paper, feels similar to Heat. You can spec cars to be more drifty or grippy. Cars can be tuned for road or off-road driving. You can specifically choose how to initiate a drift (brake taps, double tapping the gas, or both. Grip turns also gives you boost on exit just like drifting ensuring some parity between the two handling modes.

But it’s a bit… off. The biggest problem is how transitioning into a drift is sluggish. You have to struggle every time to get a car to swerve hard enough into a drift. Sometimes a hard brake or gas tap for some reason won’t make a car drift, which is infuriating. And when it’s in drift mode, it slows down so much. Exiting out of a drift is also hard to pull off quickly.

It doesn’t feel much of a problem at the lower B, A and A+ classes, but by S and S+ class, the loss of speed during corners is so significant that it will make you struggle to finish first even in a car with the maximum rating. Rivals elegantly drift around bends or take a tight turn while you will usually struggle to get in and out of corners. You just don’t feel like you can pull consistent drift corners, even with the same input at the same timing, the results of a drift can be unpredictable.

What about grip turning? It barely works in Unbound. Most cars feel too understeer-y again, even after whacking full downforce in the handling tuning menu. And braking before turning requires you to go really, really slow to make that turn and as a result, feels undrivable. Again. Using the handbrake to turn can sometime lead to the car feeling sketchy, turning too much, and just lose control altogether.

I genuinely thought Heat moved in the right direction, but somehow with Unbound it somewhat regressed. It doesn’t help that the map in this game is more bumpy and windy, which also exacerbates an issue Heat didn’t have: Cars losing handling grip all of a sudden due to changes in elevation which includes hitting minor bumps.

How The New Handling Tweaks In Need For Speed Unbound Works

Trying out the returning Audi S5 Sportsback, the handling is subtly different. But after suffering through repeating too many Fridays as my S class builds just can’t consistently win races, the differences were very clear to me. The Audi can transition into and out of drifts faster with minimal speed loss. Hitting the Nitrous Burst to exit a drift produces reliable results. You can flow in and out of corners rather than having to tame a beast unwilling to turn and when it does turns too much.

Even in high speeds the handling in the Audi is slightly different. You can make big swerves if you steer hard, which is a scary thing to have but now you can effectively dodge oncoming traffic at high speeds with your reflexes. Previously, if you see an oncoming car barreling straight into you, even if you steer hard quickly you’re probably too late to avoid it unless you brake (and risk getting into a drift on a highway straight which means you’ll be sacrificing so much speed and will end up at the back of the pack).

While I didn’t make a grip tune to test this, I do notice that the game more often awards grip turn boost. I didn’t specifically brake-and-turn, but since the car can be tuned to be steerable (I set the downforce level midway towards High) the grip turn boosts regularly come in clutch, allowing me to get back up to speed more often.

I can win the S class qualifier in story mode in one try without much effort, which I was confounded to not being able to beat previously. So in my opinion, this handling model is much, much better.

The Audi R8’s default handling favours grip driving. Lightly tapping the brake, slowing down a bit, and exit a corner at full throttle is feasible – you also reliably get the grip turn burst nitrous boost like the other Audi. It’s not good enough to handle sharp corners though, even with high downforce settings. But handbrake turning is reliable in doing 90-degree turns. It doesn’t lose too much speed, and it cleanly exits a handbrake turn without much traction loss, making cornering a breeze.

More importantly, it feels planted. I feel confident at straights and can weave between lanes without worrying of breaking traction.

Side Note: The New Speed Pass Sucks

Minor rant. The reason I took this long between testing out the two Audis was due to the new Speed Pass. This time around, the new car additions are locked behind a Speed Pass level instead of a challenge level. And you cannot just purchase the car from the showroom until you unlock it from the Speed Pass. So between the new update’s release and now was other, bigger games I had to cover for the site. It’s only now that I get to come around and try the new Audi cars out.

And I didn’t even test the third Audi. You can earn the Audi S5 and the Audi R8, but they are deep in the Speed Pass grind. And you’ll have to pay to get the new-to-NFS Audi RS6.

Even more head-scratchingly confusing is that body kit sets are also locked behind Speed Pass levels. When I unlocked the S5, I was confounded by the car not having any bumpers and side skirt parts. Apparently, there are two custom body kits, placed deep in the Speed Pass. So I have to keep grinding if I want to put on a new bumper or w wider fender. (Spoilers, mirrors and a few other customisation parts are available though.)

If the NFS team really wanted to get feedback from more players on how the new tweaked driving physics is, then they were doing a disservice for locking these cars behind a grind. Though at least the feedback they’re getting is from the diehard NFS players, which probably is the feedback they wanted to hear from most, by doing this.

Other than the cars and the body kits, there’s really nothing worth collecting in the Speed Pass, which sucks. Too many recolours of the same cosmetics. Cosmetics that not many players would care for (more license plates, really?).

Clearly, the development budget is not there to create lavish new assets anymore- there’s no new outfits or emotes for your character, for example. Yet this is the first time the Speed Pass is monetised with a Premium track. It doesn’t inspire confidence to put my money in. Just about RM40 for a new car plus some superfluous cosmetics? No thanks.

Closing Thoughts

It is rather tragic that Need For Speed still hasn’t figured out their fundamentals for about a decade. The current handling model has its moments but it doesn’t feel flowy, fun and worth mastering. The new handling tweaks seen in the Audi cars is a step in the right direction, and I hope Criterion can continue to massage the handling physics to a point where driving fast cars at high speeds is fun again.

Sure, Criterion made it look effortless back in Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2010. But a modern Need For Speed needs to deliver the promise of being able to drift or turn around corners and have both be viable driving options. A promise left unfulfilled to most for about a decade already.

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