Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed Is Still Fun To Play 21 Years After Its Release
Enjoy this retrospective on a great classic car game.
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed was a popular driving game in the year 2000 and a huge part of my childhood. In fact, I blame a lot of my current car enthusiasm on this game. I recently got it running again on my modern PC and felt equal parts satisfaction and vindication – the game is truly a classic. I hoped dearly that the experience would live up to my memories, expecting that it wouldn’t, and it was better than I could have ever remembered.
My free time is generally spent doing innocuous things, like modifying my GTI, browsing Craigslist, or getting old video games to work on my modern PC. Getting back into Unleashed kind of feels like coming full circle.
I remember how I spent school-years nights after I finished my homework vividly. I would fire up my parent’s Compaq Presario tower, watch and listen as Windows 2000 booted up, drag the old-school roller mouse over to the Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed icon, and give it a click. Obviously, the disc would already be in the CD drive, while my other habitual favorites Microsoft Train Simulator, Flight Simulator 2000, Construction Zone, and every NFS to date lived in a CD folder (remember those?). After a few seconds, I would be treated to an intro cinematic that is etched into my grey matter: a funky bassline and a Porsche test driver reminiscing about mobbing the best of the brand until finally settling on the then-new 996 911 Turbo.
This game really is more than a driving sim – it’s a full-on virtual fanfest for anybody and everybody who’s into Porsches… which, let’s be real, is pretty much everybody who’s into cars.
As the game starts you’re greeted by a delightfully 2000s-looking main menu with fun animated buttons for navigation that look like red M&Ms, satisfying sound effects, top-tier original menu music, and historic Porsche footage front-and-center. A statement of intent is made outright: this game is about Porsche and Porsche only, and it is celebrating the brand. Immediately, I can trace another lifelong fascination with synthesizers from this menu music.
I’ve spent the better part of eight years attempting to get the game to run on my various PCs, all the way back from Windows 7. I was doing a Google image search of the hilariously blocky Porsche 944 model from the game and came across a new third-party patch for Windows 10. I installed it, and it needed some more initial setup. Once we got past that, my heart soared as I saw the aforementioned intro graphic for the first time in over a decade.
Before you can hop into actually playing the game, you need to create a quick character and choose one of the many hilarious avatars for it. I christened myself as “cuhris” and carried on.
There are a few options from here: Evolution mode, Test Driver mode, single-player, multiplayer, and Porsche Chronicle. Evolution and Test Driver are the primary modes with loose stories or goals, while single and multiplayer are freeform modes. Porsche Chronicle isn’t a driving mode, but an anthology. It organizes information by model and a timeline, chronicling nearly every Porsche model with original press photography and high-resolution printed literature. It’s commendably complete, save for 1980s 911 G-body cars. The 930 Turbo is the only G to make an appearance. There are even narrated historical videos like a freakin’ Ken Burns film in the “Porsche Chronicle” section of the game where the OG press material is. Insanity.
After spending some time reading up but mostly ogling old press material and watching the videos, I switched over to the Test Driver mode. Here, you engage in a fantasy world of being a Porsche factory test driver starting as a junior test driver. A loose story follows you as you work up to being chief test driver then ace test driver. Mostly, it’s a fun showcase of the still impressive physics of the game with a variety of autocross-style layouts and countryside dashes. I highly recommend hopping into the game with this mode; you get quicker access to better machinery.
Before I go in-depth on physics, there is still Evolution mode to talk about. It’s a simple enough career mode where you purchase cars and race them, but has shockingly high levels of refinement, regardless of age. It starts slow, but once you progress into driving 911s (you start off with an 1100cc 356), it gets faster and more races are available to you.
What do I mean by refinement? First and most interesting is the system of modifying and tuning the Porsches you buy to compete in races. It isn’t just “upgrade package 1” or “stage 1”, you picked nitty-gritty upgrades like larger carburetors, exhaust and intake, sport shocks and springs, tires, brakes, or even mild engine swaps like a 911S engine into a non-S. That minutiae is hard to come by in old games, let alone one from two decades ago. It gets even more mind-blowing: you can tune things! Tire pressures, suspension, alignment, downforce (if applicable), brake balance, and gear ratios are all up to you.
At this point, you might ask: are you really going to feel the difference in such an old game? Don’t be skeptical friends, because now we’re going to get into the real diamond here: the physics.
I say this with a straight face – Porsche Unleashed might have the most engaging physics of any Need for Speed game ever. Unlike any other NFS, this game is appropriately difficult while being fun to drive. The Shift subseries was supposed to be the “simulator” but it honestly just sucked. This game has inertia, has body roll, has rotation, and it drives kinda like a rougher Forza Motorsport. Drive a 930 Turbo and watch yourself spin if you try to trail brake into a turn, or even lift off mid-turn. You can neutralize understeer by lifting off or applying some brake pressure and stabilize with throttle. It has enough dimension and depth to make it fun to play over and over again.
When the game was in development, the developers were actually aiming for an experience closer to a simulator. This was the fifth Need for Speed game, and previous titles were definitely arcade oriented. Porsche Unleashed boasted what the developers called a “four point” physics model, where the four points are the four tires. You can certainly sense that in the game, though sometimes the model can break down and do weird stuff, but very rarely. Generally, it’s incredible how well the game simulates weight transfer, and it’s still impressively advanced to this day. In 2000, this game was difficult for a little kid like me. Now? It’s engaging and fun.
Mid-engined and front-engined cars like the Boxster and 944 are neutral and easy to handle, while early 911s are snap oversteer prone German Beyblades. Modern 996s are heavier but easier to manage, while the AWD models are supremely stable. It isn’t just another one-size-fits-all NFS game, it goes great lengths to differentiate cars and drivetrain layouts.
The driving locations in this game only help that cause. Eleven locations offer a great variety of landscapes and roads, with a nice focus on good European mountain roads. Evolution mode seems to focus the most on the Normandie, Côte d’Azur, and Corsica maps, all of them high-speed backroads with gorgeous landscapes (for the era).
My personal favorites are the Pyrénées, Zone Industrielle, Alps, and Autobahn maps, all featuring strangely haunting soundscapes with relatively lush sonic textures. Lots of small details litter the maps, like welders in Zone Industrielle, a hovering helicopter in the Alps, or garbled German coming out of an Autobahn toll booth loudspeaker. Oh, and they’re also very fun to drive, and incredibly long.
Even with all that goodness, the game is of course not without deficiencies. While the soundscapes of the maps themselves are beautiful, the cars themselves can be hit or miss. The 356 sounds nearly spot on, but the early 911s sound funky. In fact, most of the cars in the game sound a touch odd. For all of the curated excellence the game provides, for some reason, the cars you get rewarded for being a good test driver are dressed in the most heinous paint schemes possible. Skyboxes are a weak point too, looking decidedly low resolution.
Back to one point: this game is curated excellence. Overwhelmingly, this game surprises in spite of its age, and still feels as fun and incredible as it did circa 2000. In the decades that I wasn’t able to play this game, I would bump the unbelievable official soundtrack, which is certainly responsible for my adult appreciation of synthesizers and a great bassline. I had just about 20 years to put this game on a pedestal, I just about set it up to fail.
But it lived up to my standards. This game is a true golden-era classic of automotive gaming. If you have an old copy around or a way to play it, fire it up, experience it all over again. If it doesn’t work on your machine, Google “Varok Porsche Unleashed” and download his patch (that’s what I used). My machine likes the nGlide renderer option in the patch, but try them all until you get one that works. Also, your computer’s anti-virus software may flag the patch as a virus, but I’ve ran it for a month and have had no ill effects.
Ah, but the graphics. In some ways impressive and others pretty dated-looking. Though I love the charm of the interior view and the actual texture detail that went into interior parts, it is primitive. Especially on modern HD and 4K screens, I can certainly see the roughness. The developers thought ahead by allowing you to drag and drop gauge overlays that are pretty faithful to the car you’re driving.
Exterior modeling is noticeably blocky but very sweet. The 944 model is pretty rough compared to the rest, with the 1982 model having the 1986 interior, and weird proportioning and texture work. The rest are fabulous for the period. It seems a touch exaggerated but generally the 911s are modeled faithfully and proportioned nicely, and the 356 is as well. Where the game gets most of its visual identity is in lighting and shading, where it is very distinct. The most vivid visual memories I have of the game are its accurately white-balanced sodium-vapor street lamps and HID industrial lighting. Moods and tone shifts happen often and are visually immersive, even now. It’s the sort of light pangs of nostalgia that make me feel disassociated from the world around me, living the world within the game.
I would remiss if I didn’t mention the cinematics again. They exclusively use Porsche archival footage that I haven’t seen anywhere else, of the 356 production line, 901, 911, 917, all the way through to 996 Turbo. The cuts of the historic clips are great on their own but made even better by the aforementioned official soundtrack that was made for the game. I’ve never seen a harder edit in my life than the Porsche Chronicle cinematic, and once the music “drops” I lose my goddamned mind. I’ll embed it below. It really binds the anthological and faithful focus of the game together, as a true celebration of Porsche. The love and effort is palpable, and clearly people that loved Porsche had input.
It’s strange to think that this game existed well before the “Porsche bubble” that has defined the modern appreciation for the brand. This game came out long before air-cooled 911s were fashionable outside circles of hardcore driving enthusiasts, and the 996 Turbo was brand new. In 2021, an anthology like this would be a hard sell. It’s even more fascinating to think that this is Porsche before VAG, even Porsche before the freakin’ Cayenne. This is old school, this was a different company. Even back then, I don’t think anyone imagined that it would become the powerhouse of today. This was still a small, struggling boutique German sports car manufacturer, nearly bankrupt from the engineering cost of the 993.
I wonder what Andreas Preuninger would think of this game… it even predates his legendary involvement with Porsche.
Now I need to listen to Rezidue again and hit Angeles Crest Highway. Better yet, I feel like I need to go buy a 996…