It wouldn’t be too mean to say that Need for Speed has been stuck in something of a doldrum over the last decade. With the last majorly successful release in the eyes of many players being 2010’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and with many entries since then having dabbled in different genres of racing, from track racing in Need for Speed: Shift, to an attempt at returning to Underground/Most Wanted/Carbon-styled street racing in the most recent release, Need for Speed Heat, EA has been bouncing the franchise around different studios with the hopes of striking gold. With Criterion handling Need for Speed Unbound, however, this might be the first real ray of hope the franchise has seen in quite a bit.
Without a doubt, Need for Speed Unbound is the most fun I’ve had with the franchise in a few years, and there are many different aspects of the game that work together incredibly well to help bring in this hopefulness about the future of the franchise. Without wasting too much time beating around the bush, let’s get right into what makes Unbound a solid entry.
The first, and most obvious thing to talk about when it comes to Need for Speed Unbound is its sense of style. The game has gone for unique visuals this time around, setting it apart from just about every other racing game out there. Regardless of whether it’s simulation-heavy games like Assetto Corsa and Project CARS, or the more arcade-styled DIRT and Forza Horizon 5, there’s nothing else out there that looks quite like Need for Speed Unbound, and that largely comes down to the game’s approach to melding photo-realistic cars and environments with anime style effects and character designs.
While originally approaching the game with cautious optimism, Need for Speed Unbound’s look definitely grew on me, especially when it comes to various effects you can apply on your car. Now, these effects might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and thankfully, those players can choose to just not have any of these effects on their cars. For the rest of us, however, the effects also give us some great cues for the newest core gameplay addition in Need for Speed Unbound – the Burst Nitrous. We’ll talk about that when we get to the gameplay bit.
"While originally approaching the game with cautious optimism, Need for Speed Unbound’s look definitely grew on me"
When it comes to other aspects of the more cartoony visuals like the character designs – they’re all quite competently done, and they never really feel like they clash with the look of the game. In fact, the excellent color palette also helps in adding a fair bit of character to what would otherwise be just names floating above various cars as you race. On the subject of the game’s photorealistic aspects, there isn’t really much to say. The game looks great, and the PS5 version is able to maintain a steady 60 fps frame rate while playing the game at 4K.
Now, on to the part that everyone’s been waiting for: is Need for Speed Unbound fun to play? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. The number one thing worth keeping in mind is that, despite the game’s arcade roots, its races can be surprisingly difficult. Outside of certain story beats, the game never really expects you to finish in first place, and you’re often rewarded quite well for even finishing in third or even in fourth place. Despite initial concerns, this made upgrading your car to perform better, and fully committing to either a drifting or grip-turning setup feel much more impactful.
One of the best new features, like I mentioned earlier, is the Burst Nitrous. Essentially, pulling off stunts like jumps, near-misses, or driving in the oncoming lane, gradually fills up the Burst Nitrous meter, which has three segments. Once at least one segment of the meter has been filled, you can hit the Nitrous button to get a small burst of speed. The more segments you can fill out, the stronger the boost you’ll get. This new mechanic allows you to be quite expressive in the minute-to-minute action of the races, encouraging you to constantly look for ways to raise that meter. Even maintaining position behind another car, essentially drafting, is a good way to get some Burst Nitrous.
"Burst Nitrous allows you to be quite expressive in the minute-to-minute races, encouraging you to constantly look for ways to raise that meter"
Speaking of which, you’ll need just about every tool you can get your hands on to take on Need for Speed Unbound’s racers. Even on the medium difficulty, I had a fair bit of trouble not only gaining the lead, but even maintaining it. And for the hardcore racing fans out there, I noticed little in the way of rubber-banding AIs, and if I ever lost my place in a race, it felt quite natural.
The opposing racers themselves also have personalities to them, and after a few races, you’ll quickly start identifying your opponents just by their cars. They all have surprisingly distinct driving styles, and even responses for how you drive in the midst of a race. For example, crash or overtake a rival too much, and they’ll start calling you out for it. Admittedly, this is all superficial stuff, and you’re never going to see a deeper exploration of this aspect of the game from a mechanics standpoint. You can, however, place bets against your rivals before races, allowing you the chance to earn some extra cash on the side.
When it comes to the general gameplay loop, Need for Speed Unbound offers what is essentially an evolution on what we first saw in Need for Speed Heat. You’ll race around during the day and night, with night-time races featuring more aggressive police AI but greater rewards for racing. When it comes to cop chases, not too much has changed aside from the game being more transparent about what higher Heat levels actually mean. You’re also rewarded for successfully avoiding arrest, and that’s about it.
"The opposing racers themselves also have personalities to them, and after a few races, you’ll quickly start identifying your opponents just by their cars."
Need for Speed Unbound also has a curious emphasis on a story. Now, this story isn’t really anything to write home about; in fact, it even displays some of the worst aspects of the earlier Fast and Furious movies, with some ridiculous slang being thrown around by characters that are trying to sound like they’re “hip”, and “with it”. I, personally, found the ridiculous story to actually be quite endearing, and by the time the prologue was over, I had a hankering for the kind of revenge that can only be achieved by driving really fast.
When it comes to the soundtrack, Need for Speed Unbound offers essentially a mix of electronic, R&B, and hip-hop music. Now, taste in music is quite subjective, but I do find it to be quite an upgrade over the soundtrack from Need for Speed Heat’s shallow attempts at emulating the vibe that Fast and Furious movies tend to go for. Need for Speed Unbound’s soundtrack feels much more at home in this game.
Need for Speed Unbound is a curious game. After several years of bland, often bad games, Need for Speed Unbound feels like a breath of fresh air. While it’s far from the most perfect racing game out there, it’s definitely filling an important niche, and it’s doing so with a hefty amount of style. Need for Speed Unbound looks great, is a lot of fun to play, and most importantly, leaves me feeling quite good about the future of the Need for Speed franchise as a whole.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Super stylish; Feels great to drive; Looks gorgeous.
Early races can get quite difficult.
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