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

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Need for Speed remains the premier arcade racing franchise in gaming. Backed up by a huge catalog of iconic entries, but which NFS games are the best? This is our ranking of the top ten best-ever Need for Speed games.

Currently, there are 26 unique installments in the Need for Speed series with 2022’s Unbound being the latest entry. Each one offers its own spin on the classic arcade racing formula helping Need for Speed establish itself as a diverse racing franchise.

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From PS1 classics to Wii spin-offs, all the way to exclusives for the current generations of consoles. Need for Speed taught generations of gamers that neon is cool and your handbrake exists solely to rip some nasty drifts and J-turns.

From competitive circuit racing to intense street action, while escaping the law – NFS has had it all. Not every game has been an undisputed success though, so here’s a definitive ranking of the ten best Need for Speed games from throughout the franchise’s history.

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nissan 370z drifting with cel shaded effects in need for speed unbound

10. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

Criterion Game’s second Need for Speed was a remake of the fan-favorite Most Wanted. It didn’t deliver exactly what Need for Speed fans expected instead acting as more of a Burnout Paradise sequel than an NFS game but it’s still a good racing game in its own right.

It didn’t deliver much of a story at all instead focusing on the racing itself. This was forgivable though as the Most Wanted remake had great driving mechanics, impressive cutscenes, and overall great presentation. We just wonder how good this entry could have been had Criterion’s vision been met.

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9. Need for Speed: ProStreet (2007)

ProStreet was an unusual Need for Speed game with the majority of its racing taking place on legal circuits or closed tracks. It offered an interesting spin on the series with developer Black Box taking a risk and creating a genuinely innovative title.

As with most NFS games, ProStreet’s presentation was fantastic and its physics impressive for the time. It falls short of some other entries on this list for its lackluster car list and unappealing soundtrack that both failed to live up to its predecessors.

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8. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 (2002)

As the oldest entry on this list, Hot Pursuit 2 is arguably the game that defined what Need for Speed would look like moving forward. It established the idea of being on the run from the law that would become central to most future Need for Speed games.

Add to that the incredible soundtrack and satisfying career progression and what you’re left with is one of the best arcade racing games of its generation. It didn’t quite have the same level of content as later titles but what made the cut was wonderful.

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Need for Speed Hot Pursuit 2 official promo art of lamborghini cover car

7. Need for Speed: Underground (2003)

If Hot Pursuit 2 established what a Need for Speed game should look like, Underground demonstrated what it should feel like. The sense of speed and fun physics that didn’t take themselves too seriously worked wonders to create a quality game.

One of the greatest strengths of Underground is its simplicity. You start out driving a shoddy ride, racing to get cash, upgrade or buy a new car, and repeat. It’s a tried and tested form of progression that does the job, especially with a car list that included so many beautiful JDMs like the Skyline R34, S2000, and 240SX.

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6. Need for Speed: Shift (2009)

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

Whilst some of its arcadey roots bleed through into the car handling, Shift offered a completely different racing experience to its peers. It featured a wide range of licensed beauties from Lamborghinis to Bugattis and world-renowned race tracks such as the Nurburgring and Laguna Seca Speedway.

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5. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

The Hot Pursuit remake 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 could use on the police, the debut of the intuitive Autolog online system, and tons of longevity and variety in its events. With this installment, Criterion Games proved that it could make great games outside of its signature Burnout series.

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ford gt and pagani zonda racing in need for speed hot pursuit

4. Need for Speed: Underground 2 (2004)

Underground was good but it’s the sequel that took things to another level. Underground 2 introduced a significant visual overhaul, in-depth customization, an open-world environment, and a lengthy campaign. It offered a ton for players to do and is still widely regarded as one of the series’ best entries.

For all the improvements made Underground 2 does fall short in some areas. It does a far worse job than its predecessor at giving the player a meaningful sense of speed and the lack of fast travel made traversing the open world irritating at times. Even so, this is still a superb game.

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3. Need for Speed: Unbound (2022)

Unbound came out right after Heat and it built on the groundwork laid down. However, it’s a far superior product, especially in regard to presentation and visuals. This is the first game in the series to utilize cel-shaded effects alongside its realistic graphics and it grants the game an iconic look.

Characters are presented in a comic book aesthetic, activating nitrous makes your realistic car flash different animated colors, and big jumps make graffiti-styled wings appear above your car. Unbound is a hyper-stylized game that brings some fun and creativity back to the arcade racing genre.

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2. Need For Speed: Carbon (2006)

Carbon wasn’t pretending to be overly innovative, instead building on what the original Most Wanted had laid out. But given how good Most Wanted was, that wasn’t a bad thing. It took the core of Most Wanted and added in canyon racing to give the racing a new twist.

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. It also receives additional points for being a true sequel and continuing Most Wanted’s story with iconic characters like Sergeant Cross once again making an appearance.

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mitsubishi evo 8 and dodge challenger drifting on canyon in need for speed carbon

1. Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2005)

It may seem predictable to give Most Wanted the crown for the best Need for Speed game, but it often places first on these lists for a good reason. It’s just the best game in the series.

The performances, the story, and the dialogue are over the top but that’s part of the charm. The developers tried hard to appeal to 2000’s teenagers and it worked. It worked so well that the original Most Wanted sold over 16 million copies worldwide making it the best ever-selling game in the series.

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The driving mechanics have aged like fine wine with the cars being responsive and handling great. The comical rubber banding isn’t ideal but it’s forgivable given how great everything else is. If it’s the definitive Need for Speed experience you want then look no further than this all-time great.

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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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