Need for Speed Unbound is, without question, the best Need for Speed game in years. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Criterion’s latest entry into the series is the best since its heyday in the early 2000s. An open-world racer that allows you to participate in a multitude of events – though not on the level of Forza Horizon 5 – and really get a feel for the cars you choose to drive. What’s not to enjoy?
It’s a game that’s both as tough to master as it is easy to get started. But is it one that you’ll be coming back to after the initial rush of fun wears off?
Driving is the name of the game in Need for Speed Unbound, and it can be a bit of a mixed bag at times. Turning can be a little twitchy and drafting can feel like your car has no real weight, making it tough to get the hang of. There are certain elements of realism behind the wheel of your cars, but there’s enough arcade feeling that you are either going to love or hate how the cars drive. I’m on the enjoyment side of the fence.
Some critics will complain about the speed of some cars or say that “it doesn’t feel like a Need for Speed game”. To that I say, you’re wrong. While yes, some of the cars aren’t very fast, they are usually the cheapest and lowest-level cars in the game. As you upgrade your vehicles and buy or unlocked better ones, you immediately feel how different each car is. In time, you’ll find yourself flying past the competition and reaching high speeds with no problem.
That said, winning races won’t come as easy as you’d expect. Between the AI racers and the police, you have to really earn your victories. Sure, in some races you’ll find yourself cruising to a win without problem, others will have you fighting for every open inch on the road. AI will try to run you off, cops will try to take you out, and you have to handle that while focusing on the quick turns that sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere during a race.
Everything in Need for Speed Unbound focuses on a cash-based economy. There’s no rep that you earn or lose this time around. Instead, there are day/night cycles with various events that are either free to enter or cost money. The events with buy-ins are the most rewarding, but they obviously come with a higher risk. You can even make a side bet with the AI racers over finishing positions if you want to gamble for a little bit more cash.
Regarding the police, there is the returning heat system though much more generic than in the past. The higher it gets, the more aggressive the police will be when they see you and try to stop you. Going back to your cash, each day you run the risk of losing it all if you get caught by the police. What you’ll find yourself doing is doing enough events just until the police get almost too difficult to get away from. Then, you’ll just go to your safehouse at the end of the day to get the heat off you and store your cash…because that’s how the world works in video games!
Playing the game can be done with either a controller or a steering wheel. While I usually lean towards the wheel in all of my racing games, Need for Speed Unbound just doesn’t feel right to me with the setup. I had more fun using a controller than anything else, and it’s what I recommend everyone to use with the game.
There are 143 cars in the game at launch, all of which can be unlocked in some way, shape, or form, and then upgraded how you see fit. You can upgrade the engines, exhaust, and almost anything you can think of. Aesthetically, you can either create your own paint and wrap scheme, or download designs shared by other players. Myself, I’m not the most design-inclined person so I just utilize the great looks others have made.
From a modes perspective, you only get two real options: Story and Online. The story mode is the primary place to play, especially when you are just getting started. You take on the role of a former foster kid that becomes a garage apprentice. After spending months working on a car, you get betrayed by someone who you believed to be a close friend. The rest of the story is spent going through the events to get to the ultimate goal of a major racing event and as much revenge as a Need for Speed game can offer.
It’s not the deepest story and some of the voice acting feels lazy, but it’s also not as try-hard as some of the past Need for Speed campaigns.
One thing I really enjoyed throughout the story mode is that wins weren’t necessarily depended on in order to advance. While you obviously get more money the better you do, it’s all about earning just enough to get to that next event to advance the story. It became a grind at times, especially when your starter car gets stolen and you’re racing in the worst car ever. But it makes the rewards so much more impactful as you progress.
During events, there’s no rewind feature for players. Instead, you have the option of restarting a race if you really need to, but you only have a limited number of them.
Online play is an open-world environment where you head into a server with other players on various platforms – PC, PlayStation, or Xbox – and enjoy a number of racing events. There are longest jump and speed challenges scattered throughout Lakeshore among others. You can also race with the players online, though it can be tedious to set up as you have to go to a meetup location and hope others in the game choose to accept. Luckily, because of crossplay, getting full races is more common though not as common as you’d like. I would like a bit more to do when driving around online as the world can start to feel empty after you’ve progressed with collectibles and done a number of small challenges. Hopefully, that comes in the form of updates as the weeks and months pass by.
The first thing anyone who plays or even looks at Need for Speed Unbound will notice is the design choice. While the cars and environments look realistic, the character models are all cell-shaded, which was certainly a choice. But, to be honest, I actually love it. It makes the game feel different and gives it a style that no one else is doing in the racing space. It also doesn’t go overboard with the “anime-like” look that could’ve made the game unplayable.
When driving, you have a number of camera angles to choose from. Unfortunately, an interior wheel camera isn’t one of them. I love to play my racing games from inside the driver’s seat, and Need for Speed Unbound not allowing that is really disappointing. There are various elements to the game’s presentation that may seem over-the-top to some, but it fits in the grand scheme of what the design team was going for. Things like neon lines circling the tires on when doing a burnout or wings coming to the side of your vehicle when you get airborne. It all just fits and looks really nice in the game.
With vehicles, they all look great and identical to their real-world counterparts. Even the sound is pretty spot-on for the most part. Overall, I think Criterion hit a home run by meshing the cell-shaded design and the realistic feel. It’s a great template that could, and should, be built upon moving forward.
Need for Speed Unbound Review Verdict
For a series that’s nearly 30 years old, Need for Speed has seen plenty of ups and downs through its time. While there have been a number of poor outings over the past 15-20 years, Need for Speed Unbound feels like a game that is there to set the stage for another resurgence for the series.
It’s not the greatest Need for Speed ever, nor is it the best arcade racer of the last couple of years. What it is, however, is a fun game that shows promise for what Need for Speed can become for future generations to grow up with. Some may not like where the series appears to be heading, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I haven’t been this excited about the future of Need for Speed in a long, long time.
Note: A copy of Need for Speed for Steam (PC) was provided to SGO for the purposes of this review.
Need for Speed Unbound
Need for Speed Unbound pushes the series forward in new ways with a change to the game’s economy and overall feel, and it’s primed to take big steps in the coming years.