You'll love it if:
- You're a longtime fan of the Need for Speed series.
- You like customizing every little detail about your ride.
- Hip-hop and street art aesthetic is your vibe.
Not for you if:
- You're looking for realistic car handling and gameplay.
- You'd rather drive exotic supercars rather than tuned imports.
You guys remember when Need for Speed games used to be good? I do. And from the looks of it, so does EA. The Need for Speed series has been swamped in mediocrity for more than a decade, with ProStreet being the last decent entry in the franchise, before Heat revitalized the series in 2019. To their credit, EA literally tried everything with this franchise up to 2019 (except for making an actually good game), from a movie to an MMO, and everyone, including the publisher, had seemingly given up on this franchise. Need for Speed Heat which released in 2019, showed great promise and the series finally seemed to be heading in the right direction. After a three-year radio silence, Need for Speed Unbound is finally here, and I’m overjoyed to say that the wait was worth it.
Need for Speed Unbound is a true return to form for the series and goes all the way back to the roots of the franchise to revisit what made it so memorable back in the day: illegal street racing. That’s right, we all had our Fast & Furious era, and quite honestly, some of us never grew out of it. I’m still a sucker for Japanese import rides with flashy paint jobs and colorful neon underglows that zoom past corners at ridiculous speeds. This game might as well be Underground 2 with a fresh coat of paint, and I’m absolutely loving it.
Need for Speed Unbound is a good racing game but, most importantly, it’s a great Need for Speed game. A true testament that style over substance is not always a bad idea.
All images in this article are in-game screenshots taken from the PlayStation 5 version of Need for Speed Unbound.
Need for Speed Unbound: Presentation
This game is an absolute treat in all visual aspects. I genuinely appreciate how Criterion was willing to go through with this unique art style, even with EA not exactly known to be a company that takes risks. At least not anymore. This art style is what makes the game so memorable, and distinguishes it from the pile of mediocrity that was the previous Need for Speed games. The unique art style and the partnership with Rocky make this game an instant attention grabber, even if you’re not a fan of the series!
Art style coming in with the freshest drip
Need for Speed Unbound’s art style is really out there. It’s got tons of style, and man do I love it! The cars and the city are realistically portrayed, yet the characters are cel-shaded, anime-like sprites. Racing effects also deploy a cartoony aesthetic with colorful smoke coming off your tires when you’re drifting, your screen flashing in all kinds of colors when you’re using NOS, or wings coming off the sides of your car when going airborne. It really makes you feel like your car is powering up, going all Super Saiyan on your rivals. This makes for some really memorable moments and can give you a crazy adrenaline boost in key moments of races. Winning races is one thing, but looking this good while doing it is another. Whether you’re a fan of this art style or not, one thing is for sure: Unbound definitely looks a whole lot different from the competition.
The graffiti aesthetic is also superbly implemented and fits so well with the street racing scene and bombastic hip-hop tunes this game sports. Lakeshore City is full of street art and you’ll have to go around collecting tags and graffiti pieces for your collection in order to get cosmetic rewards. And of course, there’s nothing that fits better with street art than streetwear, especially with Flacko being the poster man for this game. Criterion lets you customize your character and dress him up in some of the freshest drip in the scene so you can make sure you always look the part.
The perfect playground for street racing
Need for Speed Unbound takes place in Lakeshore City that is based on real-life Chicago. In stark contrast to the previous cities in Need for Speed games, Lakeshore is brilliantly designed. It is certainly a looker, with some great location variety, but more on that on the open-world gameplay segment. During the daytime, when it’s almost always sunny, all the colors shine through as you zoom past the city centre or the neighboring forests, ski resort or the city port. When nighttime rolls around, is when things get serious, as the city is lit up in neon signs and street lamps provide alongside cop sirens provide all the light you’ll need as you speed through oncoming traffic.
If you’re a fan of racing culture, you’ll certainly appreciate the nod to Initial D (or Tokyo Drift) with the classic Japanese curvy roads that go up (or down) the neighboring mountain. And teeny details like this are sprinkled throughout the whole game. You can tell the people behind Unbound definitely appreciate the racing culture. It’s also important to note that this is the first Need for Speed game (and probably some of the only racing games) to render pedestrians in the overworld. Having actual people roaming the streets of Lakeshore, instead of just cars, does wonders for immersion. Plus, trying to run them over can be very fun, although the game won’t let you do that.
This is a no-stutter zone
Need for Speed Unbound runs like a dream with no stutters, limited loading screens and a solid 60fps frame rate. Admittedly, this is a huge surprise, considering EA’s stellar track record of releasing unfinished and bug-riddled games. The decision to make this game current-gen only and not have a version for PS4 and Xbox One was the right one, as it turns out. I tested Need for Speed on the PlayStation 5 and encountered only a couple of bugs during my two-week review period.
It does come with a few compromises though. Unlike Forza Horizon 5 and Gran Turismo 7, there are no graphics modes to choose from. Unbound is locked in Performance mode, running on variable resolution in order to maintain a solid framerate. And honestly, there’s absolutely no problem there, this game’s charm is not in the high-res textures but in its gritty racing nature and street aesthetic.
Soundtrack that’s meant to be blasted
As expected, the soundtrack in this game is wonderful. It features some deep cuts from renowned artists from all over the world and the genres included range from hip-hop to house. Classic EA stuff, their soundtracks rarely disappoint. There’s a wide selection of artists included, from A$AP Rocky and Nas, all the way to Mura Masa and Diplo, with enough tracks for all to enjoy.
However, there are no radio stations to choose from and you can’t skip tracks or shuffle between them. What’s even weirder is the fact that there’s no music playing while you’re free-roaming, unless you’re in an active cop chase or approaching a meetup.
Need for Speed Unbound: Story
The single-player campaign mode is story-driven, for the most part, and surprisingly enough, the story is quite decent for a racing game. You start off working at the garage of Rydell, a guy that took you in when you were young, along with Jasmin, a friend that you grew up with. Suddenly, Rydell’s garage gets hit by a local gang and all the rides are stolen. Yaz takes off with the crooks that robbed the garage taking the custom car you had built together over the years, leaving you devastated. A few years later, you’re slowly starting to take your first steps in the Lakeshore racing scene again, your paths cross and Yaz promises to take you on if you manage to qualify for the Grand, in a pink slip for the car you built together. You accept her invitation and this is where your redemption arc begins, as you slowly start to make your way up the ladder.
It may be a simple revenge story, but it does offer a couple of plot twists to keep things interesting. More importantly, though, it nails the tone and gives you something to strive towards at the same time. You need to have a goal to work towards in games that make you take your time to reach the conclusion of the story, and in this aspect Need for Speed Unbound does great. At the same time, the interactions between the characters have some real charm to them, and they’re definitely much improved from previous games. If anything, there’s some enjoyable banter between friends to help you unwind after a long night of racing and outrunning the cops.
Need for Speed Unbound: Gameplay
I’m sure this is obvious, but if you’re a car enthusiast, this game will most probably not be your cup of tea. This franchise is not exactly known for its realistic depiction of how cars handle, and the over-the-top drift sequences make this pretty clear. This is an arcade racer, and it takes the racing spectacle to a new high, pumping you with adrenaline at every available moment.
Mayhem is the name of the game
This game absolutely nails the most important aspect of street racing: chaos! The outcome of each race is hard to predict, and no matter how good you are or how fast your car is there are so many things that could go wrong at any given moment. With randomized traffic on the roads you’re racing on, cops being the party poopers they always are and the AI opponents outperforming you on many occasions, you’ll have to try your hardest to be consistently winning races. Each race is locked to a specific car tier, so this isn’t the kind of game where you can bring a gun to a knife fight. That aside, Unbound offers the best depiction of speed in any racing game. The faster you’re going, the less you get to see and the more twitchy you’ll have to be to maintain control of your vehicle.
The chaos is exactly what makes this game interesting. Besides NOS, the game rewards you with extra nitrous boosts the more recklessly you drive. But when you crash, and you will crash quite often, you can easily go from being in first place to dead last. This game is unforgiving, even on the normal difficulty setting, which is very aptly named ‘challenging’ because it literally can be quite challenging at times. Making mistakes when going 200mph can be fatal, and the game wants you to feel that. Restarts are very limited and you can reset races a set amount of times per day cycle, so you’re forced to be on your best behavior.
Cops are very realistic in this game, and by that, I mean that they’re constantly trying to kill you. There are five different levels of heat and participating in races or getting involved in cop chases can increase your level very quickly. The police force chasing you ups the ante with every level you go up, and you’ll quickly find yourself chased by Ford Raptors that are built like tanks and can flip your car over with the lightest of touches. Contrary to past games, your heat level goes up even during daytime, and while the story explains why that happens, it can make your life a living hell if you’re trying to stack up some cash. Heat level 5 can be downright infuriating and can ruin your races aside from free-roaming so tread carefully. Personally, I really enjoy the extra difficulty, even if it brought me close to smashing my controller on numerous occasions.
Packing a tight schedule
The single-player campaign is broken up in 4 weeks, each leading up to one qualifier for The Grand. This is very smart planning by Criterion because it forces some much-needed variety with a different event rotation for every day. It also helps create a sense of urgency, since the qualifiers need some hefty buy-ins that you need to gather money towards, along with a specific vehicle class, so you need to make sure your car is up to par with your rivals and that can get real expensive, real fast.
There are many different types of races you can compete in, and while most of them are not trying to reinvent the wheel, they do a good job of keeping things fresh, mostly thanks to the rotating tracks or the different car classes that force opponents to race with different cars every time. Circuit and sprint street races are self-explanatory, while Endurance races take place in a large area of the map and is essentially a challenge to see not how fast you can go, but how far you can keep going at top speeds without crashing. Drift king and corner king events are a test of your drift cornering or grip handling respectively. The newest addition to the bunch is Takeover events, where you have to smash and drift your way through a custom-made track and stack up points to take over the top place in the local leaderboard, just so you can have Flacko tell you “Damn, kid, you’re driving like you stole it”, which honestly, is all the reward you should need.
Open-world driving is a decent experience, with interesting scenery and lots of collectibles. Delivery missions and high heat chases that start through phone calls, give you a chance to try out performance cars and get a taste of this game’s full handling capabilities. There are some side missions where you need to rescue your rivals from the cops in exchange for getting permission to use their safehouses. The best part is the interactions between your character and the rivals while you’re trying to shake the cops. Obviously, don’t expect award-winning storytelling, but they cared enough to give all of these characters their own backgrounds and stories and they sprinkled in quite a few cool little easter eggs in these missions, something that I can definitely appreciate.
Tuner culture is back
Vehicle customization was one of the highlights of every Need for Speed game in the glory days of the franchise, and I’m happy to report that Unbound is bringing all the customization goodness back! You can pick apart your car and put it together again with a completely different set of parts to maximize its performance and have it look exactly like you dreamed it. A wide selection of separate parts is available to customize your car’s exterior, as well as a decent number of body kits for each vehicle with some of them only being available through car blueprints you can win through certain race events. Of course, a powerful livery editor and community livery library could not be missing.
You can fine-tune the performance of your car by changing each individual part of the car’s motor system, from naturally aspirated and forced induction types, all the way to the car’s clutch. And if that’s not enough, you can even swap engines and start fresh on a new canvas with different building blocks. Every car’s handling can be modified by a super easy-to-use slider in the settings menu, and its attributes change according to the parts you have equipped. Every car handles differently, so you will most probably find yourself having to tweak it to secure that sweet spot for every car.
Style is of the essence in this game, so you can obviously change your tags (the visual effects) and the vanity items, like your horn or even your engine’s sound. Neon underglows are included in the customization options because that’s how we roll.
Need for Speed Unbound: Conclusion
Need for Speed Unbound feels like the racing game we’ve been waiting for all these years. It ticks all the boxes that made the Need for Speed games of the early 2000s so iconic and improves on their formula to make gameplay feel as fresh as it feels familiar, that you won’t need rose-tinted glasses to enjoy. This is a game made for fans of the racing culture, not fans of car culture. The gameplay loop can be as punishing as it can be rewarding, it’s jam-packed with action sequences that will get your adrenaline to go 0-60 real fast. The art style is so unique for a racing game, that makes Unbound instantly memorable, and the subtle nods to all the classic racing pieces of pop culture like racing anime or films just proves that this game was put together by a team that respected and cared for the fruits of their labor.
Need for Speed Unbound is bold, a clear-cut gamble from EA to see if this franchise is dead in the water. And from my perspective, it’s proof that gambles sometimes pay out, because this is the most fun I have had with a racing game in years.
We would like to thank Bandai Namco EU for providing the review unit we used.