7 best Need for Speed games ranked: From Underground to Unbound

need for speed artEA

Need For Speed is one of the longest-running and most reputable racing franchises in gaming. It has a huge catalog of diverse and different entries to boot, but which NFS games are the best? We have decided to rank the seven best Need for Speed games from the franchise.

At the time of writing, there is 26 unique Need For Speed games in the series – with 2022’s Need For Speed: Unbound the latest entry.

From PS1 classics to Wii spin-offs, all the way to exclusives for the current generations of consoles. Need for Speed taught an entire generation of people that neon is cool and how to use your handbrakes to rip some nasty drifts.

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From basic track racing to intense street action escaping the law, Need For Speed has had it all. Not every game has been an undisputed success though, so here’s a definitive ranking of the seven very best Need For Speed games that EA has produced.

7. Need For Speed Heat (2019)

After 2017’s Need for Speed: Payback which garnered generally unfavorable reviews on sites like Metacritic, the developer Ghost Games really reevaluated their approach to the franchise.

This resulted in Need for Speed Heat which takes inspiration from the IP’s rich history to deliver an excellent arcade racing game.

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The game is set in sunny Florida and the player can participate in both sanctioned races during the day with no AI traffic to drive into and clever shortcuts you can take. But night races are the good ol’ illegal kind where anything goes and police will show up to shut it down.

And the police in this game can be ruthless in trying to take you down, which creates a very tense experience when you attract a lot of attention.

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6. Need For Speed: Carbon (2006)

Despite a reduced focus on the Police element that fans had come to love over the years, Carbon’s on-road presentation was definitely on par with what was expected at the time.

two cars racing in nfs carbon

It was in the unenviable position of following a hot streak of NFS games and whilst it didn’t do anything memorable or seriously inventive to reinvent the racing wheel, Carbon’s freer racing formula, and larger open world meant that fans had many hours to enjoy and waste away in the area of Palmont.

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5. Need For Speed: Shift (2009)

Shift was a literal tonal shift away from the destruction and physical carnage of other Need For Speed games, instead, focusing more on a concentrated driving simulation game akin to Gran Turismo or Forza.

Whilst some of its user-friendly arcadey roots did bleed through into the car handling, Shift was a completely different racing experience. Featuring a lot of licensed beauties from Lamborghinis to Bugattis and world-renowned race tracks such as the Nurburgring and Laguna Seca Speedway, Shift was different but just as gripping and engaging.

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BMW turning a corner in NFS shift

4. Need For Speed Unbound (2022)

Need for Speed Unbound came out right after Heat and it built on the groundwork laid down – especially in the graphics and presentation department.

Unbound is the first game in the series to throw in some cel-shaded effects alongside its realistic graphics and it grants the game an instantly iconic look.

Characters are presented in a comic book aesthetic, activating nitrous makes your realistic car flash different colors for a split second, and big jumps make graffiti-styled wings appear above your car. It all looks great.

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Building upon Heat’s library we got a nice selection of cars, music, race tracks, and mechanics to utilize while racing.

3. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit – the 2010 iteration – just about manages to encapsulate the primary goal of every Need For Speed game – break-neck exhilaration and entertainment!

It also welcomed a brand new mechanic to the series that completely turned the tables, instead of running from the law, you became the law. If you’re a sucker for free roam, then Hot Pursuit may not have been for you as it concentrated on preset races and events with specific race conditions.

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But this was offset by all the game-changing devices you were allowed to use on the police, and your opponents, the debut of the intuitive and easy-to-use Autolog online system, and tons of longevity and variety in its events. Need For Speed has always been seen as one of the great arcade racing experiences and Hot Pursuit 2010 is the quintessential entry.

police car lamborghini in nfs hot pursuit

2. Need For Speed Underground 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)

The Need For Speed equation was pretty much solved and in full effect by 2003, which is why it was a gutsy move from EA to whip out the whiteboard eraser, scrub those thoughts, and rebuild NFS with a complete reboot.

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In hindsight, it was a stroke of genius. Underground would go on to sell well over 10 million units as players couldn’t get enough of its new story element, its array of customization options, and a thumping, pulsing soundtrack.

picking a car in nfs underground

Underground 2 introduced more events to vary the gameplay and the expansive nature of its free-roam mode made it a more than worthy successor. The narrative aspect returned with a deeper look into the life of the underground and the modifications possible for your vehicle were expanded upon.

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1. Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2005)

It feels very stereotypical to give 2005’s Most Wanted the crown for the best Need for Speed game, but no other game from this franchise deserves this spot more.

The performances, the story, and the dialogue are the textbook definition of “campy”. The developers tried hard to appeal to 2005’s teenagers and it worked. It worked so hard in fact that in 2023 it is still considered so edgy and try-hard that it just feels endearing and fun.

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The driving mechanics aged like fine wine, and the cars are responsive and handle great. The only thing that aged quite poorly is the “rubber-banding” AI which becomes a speed demon as soon as you enter the first position, or hit the brakes if you are far behind.

The open world is a playground to explore offering different types of events all across the varied terrain. With a lot of spots where you can activate “traps” to destroy police chasing you. And you will need to use them to get them off your back because they are out for blood (and your car papers).

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If you enjoy this ranked list, then we have plenty more for you to read and debate for yourself:

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