The Madonna of racing games returns with another reinvention. Promising a fully reworked handling model and with Burnout developer Criterion at the wheel, Need For Speed Unbound has the chance to do something genuinely different with its first new-gen incarnation. And it almost does.
Release Date: December 2, 2022
Platforms: PS5, PC, Xbox Series X
'Almost' in that it takes a bold stride into previously uncharted territory. NFS Unbound arrives with a bold new artistic slant, yet seems to stop short of going all-in, making for a strange mishmash of visual styles. The action still plays out in a realistic city, complete with gorgeous, real-world licensed cars, but the characters are cel-shaded so they look like cartoons, and the cars kick up what looks like hand-drawn smoke. Little graffiti-style tags flash up above your car when you perform a successful takedown, story scenes occasionally add cartoony elements for effect, and the cars even sprout cosmetic-only spray paint wings when they get big enough air. It's cool, but could have been even more so had this sense of style spread to the city itself.
As with its predecessor, 2019's Need for Speed Heat, there's a day/night mechanism to contend with, only here neither is cop-free. Instead you start most days with a zero Heat level, and this builds as you complete illegal meet-up events and take down patrol cars. Your Heat level only resets each morning, which means any money you make must be sneaked past the cops and banked at a safe house or you risk the fuzz confiscating the whole pot. It can be very difficult to lose a five-star Heat level, so it's often better to bank your money after a couple of successful events and side-bets.
On the other hand, the police chases are easily the most impressive segments of Need for Speed Unbound, and decent fun, though it would be nice if there were more opportunity for canny takedowns or clever driving between scenery elements. When even medium-sized trees pose literally no threat to anyone, it's hard to lose your tail.
It's not just the trees, either. Need for Speed Unbound has been optimized to remove as much frustration from the core racing experience as possible. Oncoming traffic is light and easy to spot in the distance, and it's rare to have a rival car or police vehicle overtake you with inhuman speed – an all-too familiar sight in previous Need for Speed games. But most of all, much of the scenery may as well simply not be there. If an object doesn't stop you dead, it'll barely slow you at all. Lamp posts, bus shelters… even 80% of Armco barriers just go up in a disappointingly small puff of debris and you continue unabated. It feels odd, especially when you cut a corner, hit an actual boulder, and it bounces away like a balloon.
The racing itself, however, is surprisingly challenging. You have to be absolutely on point to keep up with the leader of the pack, and Need for Speed Unbound is beautifully balanced when you're gunning for the win. Following closely behind other cars fills your boost gauge, as does drifting and performing near-misses with civilian road users. Keeping your boosts coming is the hook here, and it's enjoyable. Though it has to be said there really isn't that much tight cornering to deal with, so if you get left behind, you might as well reach for the restart.
The number of restarts varies too. On normal difficulty, you get four restarts to use each day, which is a good, challenging number to keep you honest. It is still entirely possible to mess up and get to the weekend Qualifier without enough money (or a good enough car) to enter it, at which point the game allows you to keep your progress and simply play the Friday again. It's a logical solution, but it's a pity it doesn't throw you one last bone before making you replay several story scenes.
The ultimate showdown
You can hear the other characters and police radio while you race, which is a welcome throwback to classics like Dirt 2 and even Destruction Derby. And hearing the cops say "They're a s*** driver, they're hitting everything!" is pretty damning. Speaking of which, Need for Speed Unbound loves to swear. F-Bombs and mother******s are at least bleeped, but people are dubbed 'sons of b****s' constantly. It's clearly trying to look as grown-up as possible, in an effort to appeal to a wider audience without going over a PEGI 12-rating, but parents should be warned: Unbound is very sweary.
After the prologue has played out for the first couple of hours, you settle into the main bulk of the campaign, which involves earning money over four in-game weeks, with the aim of qualifying for the ultimate showdown. You get called up on the phone to run a few errands in-between, and the story progresses a little every day. But it's up to you how you earn the cash, whether that's betting on races, completing many small events, or going for the big money special events.
Most race types are pretty standard for the genre, with point-to-point sprints, street circuits, and the now-obligatory drift challenges, but there's also a special meet-up event where an enclosed course is littered with green boards and blue cans to break. If you keep your combo going by smashing something or doing a trick (jump, drift, hit a checkpoint), your multiplier goes up. These tracks are well-designed, with pathway choices each lap that reward the adventurous with risky jumps and bigger scores. These courses offer a welcome change of pace and are some of the best parts of NFS Unbound, no question.
On the downside, it can get a bit tiresome having to drive everywhere with no fast travel, especially when the police presence ramps up and you end up essentially playing a micro game of Metal Gear Solid on your GPS map, avoiding the red coned eyes of the law. But mostly NFS Unbound runs at a good, enjoyable pace with little other padding. Even the collectibles like bear statues, billboards, and street art can be completely ignored, as collecting them only opens up new cars and mod items for sale in the garage.
Racing against expectations
While the core racing experience is enjoyable, and the overall structure is solid, the city itself is disappointingly empty. Which is odd, considering there are actual pedestrians walking the streets. You can't hit them (remember, NFS Unbound is rated 12), but it is good to see them jumping out the way like you're in a Crazy Taxi. The story characters are well-designed, the sense of humor is surprisingly gentle, and there's a heck of a lot of dialogue – perfect for filling that time you spend not being able to fast travel.
The Need for Speed Unbound soundtrack should be a standout in the genre, with nearly half of the music supplied by worldwide artists, which is very cool. However, the best music is fleetingly used on menu screens, and the lack of a true car radio makes the game feel oddly empty and detached. It just doesn't have that 'driving your car through the city' feeling that the Need for Speed Underground and Carbon games – and even Ubisoft's The Crew – did so well.
The offline map also stays open post-completion, allowing you to keep earning money and buying new cars, modding them and making custom decals, basically letting you live the street racer lifestyle for as long as you want. But there is also a separate, online version of the city, where you can take part in race playlists, earning more cash and fulfilling challenges. So there's plenty more to do after the 25-30 hour campaign is over, but the online mode doesn't feel particularly involved and, without cops on the streets, it all feels eerily quiet, too.
There arguably isn't anything left to do with this now-saturated genre without taking risky leaps away from mass-market expectations, but Need For Speed Unbound stops short of truly doing that. The few glimpses of its potentially standout identity are excellent, but it is undermined by otherwise familiar street racing rhythms. Nonetheless, at a consistent 4K resolution and 60 frames-per-second Unbound is still a clear showcase for the new generation of consoles and plays beautifully, especially when you get into the faster cars. A strong return for Need for Speed, then, but I can't help but wish EA had been brave enough to push the underlying concept just a little bit further.
Need for Speed Unbound was reviewed on PS5, with a code provided by the publisher.