Need for Speed: Unbound is a surprising addition to the franchise that takes things back to basics, and while not perfect, offers the best Need for Speed game in years as a result.
Has any racing franchise had as much of an identity crisis as Need for Speed has over the last few years? Between the (excellent) Underground series, to the (also excellent) Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, and the bizarre Michael Bay-esque Payback and the cringe-inducing 2015 reboot, the road has been anything but smooth.
Still, Need for Speed: Unbound has me quite pleased that Criterion and EA are continuing to mix things up regularly because it’s the most fun I’ve had with the series since the halcyon days of 2010’s Hot Pursuit (that game’s remaster notwithstanding).
Need for Speed: Unbound Key details
- Developer: Criterion Games
- Price: $59.99 USD / £59.99 GBP / $89.95 AUD
- Release date: December 2
- Platforms: PC, PS5, Xbox Series S|X
Need for Speed Unbound Trailer:
With the likes of Gran Turismo 7 and the upcoming Forza Motorsport leaning into photorealistic graphics, it’d be fair to say that Need for Speed: Unbound’s new graffiti-inspired art style makes the game stick out like a sore thumb — and yet, it works.
While I was dubious from initial glimpses, having cartoonish smoke kick up after a drift (and you’ll be drifting a lot) or a pair of small wings appear as you send your car flying off of a ramp adds a layer of fun that makes even prior games in the franchise appear a little po-faced and flat.
Unbound’s commitment to its unique style extends further than the on-the-road action, and into every facet. Menus are slick and set across gray backgrounds, making the colors of your car all the more noticeable, while characters fall somewhere between cel-shaded and more traditionally designed, almost always full of color and some degree of sass.
“How do you do, fellow kids?”
As good-looking as Need for Speed: Unbound is, it struggles to find reasons to commit to its story. While Need for Speed has never been about the story (and that may be down to its desire to reinvent itself with every iteration), here you’re dropped into a series of conversations that are well-voiced but feel written by a committee of folks trying to put themselves in the boots of someone in their early 20s.
As a result, it just comes off as forced, and while much of it plays out through in-action dialog so it’s easy to let it wash over you, it’s more than a little awkward. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m an (almost) 33-year-old British man, but there were times when I was tempted to put things on mute.
Thankfully, the fun soundtrack made me reconsider, with A$AP Rocky (who makes an in-game appearance that feels bizarrely freestyle and is actually pretty fun) leading the charge on a hip-hop mix of tracks including a great Pixies rendition and plenty more. The alt-rock audio heyday of Need for Speed Underground 2 is nowhere to be found, though, I’m afraid.
Where the rubber meets the road
Need for Speed: Unbound also mixes up the format a little, and while there’s plenty of open-world roaming to be done, you’ll race in a series of events in an in-game week that builds to a bigger one at the end. After four weeks, you’ll be the best racer in Lakeshore, the game’s fictional city.
That initially felt like it would funnel the racing experience into being a little too predictable, but the return of an overly aggressive police force (what’s a Need for Speed game without it?) and some solid AI racers means every race is a challenge. As you win more, you draw more attention from the law, too, and the money you make needs to be banked before you can keep it. Do you run another event and risk the “boys in blue” catching you, or do you play it safe and head home?
2019’s Need for Speed Heat offered day and night events, and while the same applies here, the biggest difference is the buy-in. You can expect to need to pay serious cash to take part in Lakeshore’s toughest races, while others require you to have the police’s attention already. It’s a smart setup, and it’s fun to see the Unbound do some narrative gymnastics to convince the player they’re not the bad guy after you crash headfirst into a lorry driver just doing their job.
It’s here that we see a little of the old Criterion come out to play, too. While Unbound is far from a Burnout successor (it feels as though that ship has, sadly, sailed), there’s a premium placed on building boost and using it well. This, combined with the drift-heavy foundation of the Need for Speed franchise and Lakeshore’s wide streets means that you’ll be chaining drifts regularly, and while there are no traditional “Takedowns” here, the crash cam when you drive into that poor lorry driver is certainly jarring.
It’s the most fun I’ve had with an arcade racer this year, and while Forza and Gran Turismo purists may turn their noses up at Unbound like an uncouth dinner guest, I couldn’t get enough of it, even if the AI feels like it’s sitting on unlimited nitrous boost at times.
The Verdict – 4/5
Like a friend that refuses to grow up, Need for Speed: Unbound brings the franchise back with all of its inherent silliness and ill-advised driving. And, just like that friend, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Its story is forgettable, and its characters are more than a little irritating, but it’s a solid arcade racer that hopefully acts as a springboard for the franchise.
Reviewed on PS5