Need for Speed, a mainstay racing series since 1994, again enters the circuit with Unbound from developer Criterion Games.
NFS Unbound is Criterion Games’ first time as main developer on the series since 2012’s Most Wanted. The game is also the follow-up after 2019’s Heat took the series in an interesting direction.
Pairing the expected arcade action with a blended art style that combines the typical NFS visuals with a graffiti and cel-shaded look and based in the Chicago-inspired Lakeshore City, NFS Unbound had equal parts hype and question marks chasing it to the finish line.
Drifting in its own way, NFS Unbound crosses the finish line with a flair that makes it stand out on its own quite well.
NFS Unbound won’t shock most when hearing it’s a straight-up fun experience. Vehicles have a nice weight to them, different classes perform with the expected variety and controls are responsive and snappy as expected. It’s a boost-heavy experience again where drifts, close tailing and other accomplishments keep that boost meter filled.
Where NFS Unbound really might raise an eyebrow is in how versatile it is for players. Those who want a more corner-hugging, simulation-like experience can tweak their vehicles for that. Those who prefer to slide early and often on the dryest of pavements can do that, too.
While other games have accomplished similar feats, it feels like most attempt to stay in a lane and master it these days. NFS Unbound manages both nicely and besides the visuals, it’s a prominent thing that sets it apart from other racers. Other small details—like the lack of a rewind button found in even the most hardcore of simulators—set it apart nicely, too.
There is a familiar gameplay loop here. Participate in events, which racks up police attention, then try to get back to a safehouse before the police can capture the player. If a player gets caught, their hard-earned winnings go poof. The day-night cycle means when the sun’s up things feel a little more relaxed, where as players get swamped by police during the night.
Very much to NFS Unbound’s credit, there is a constant tension to the gameplay that makes it so much fun. That’s not to say other racers aren’t fun, but the presence of insurance policies like rewind buttons, restarts and the lack of a threat to lose what has been earned provides a comfortable cushion that cuts the tension off at the legs. These staples of racing games these days are either gone (rewind) or in some cases (restarts), very limited.
Rest assured the same applies in the moment during gameplay too. There’s a very Burnout-styled feel as players dart through oncoming traffic, crash through barriers and take risky jumps.
That crashing through stuff extends to more rural areas too, where players can bash through trees and fences. There’s a bigger-than-expected bit of property destruction going on that hits a refreshing note. The only drawback is that with so much destruction, it’s actually more difficult to shake a police tail than it might normally be and not a ton of ways to interact with the environment that makes escape easier.
If there’s a complaint, it’s that opponent A.I. can sometimes feel infallible, especially in tougher challenges. And getting wrecked by a rogue A.I. that decided to ruin the player’s day, meaning the player loses buy-in costs and can’t restart, stinks. But this is an arcade racer wrapped in a street-racing narrative and those sorts of things come with the territory, right?
It’s also worth pointing out that as annoying as opponent A.I. can be at times, losing in such a manner still feels better than the horrific rubber-banding found in other racers where the opponent comes flying out of nowhere to take the lead despite a big lead built up by the player.
When the big complaint across a variety of modes and types of vehicles in an expansive city is that sometimes things feel unfair, it’s really hard to knock NFS Unbound much. The game is a blast in a predictable way, which isn’t a bad thing.
Graphics and Presentation
Presentation, visuals and overall vibe were where NFS Unbound really had a chance to set itself apart from a saturated market.
That’s not a knock on Need For Speed as a series, either. Quite the opposite—as a heavyweight with a proven track record, it seemed a given the series would drop another solid racing installment. But would it separate itself from the pack in a big way?
Turns out it has.
The game doles out super realistic cars as usual, but anime-inspired cel-shading visual makeup to effects, characters and environments is a refreshing change of pace. Some of the colorful pops and effects that dominate the screen when say, activating a NOS burst are almost visually reminiscent of a classic such as Viewtiful Joe. For a more modern comparison, think Into The Spider-Verse.
The city itself feels massive (if not empty at times), whether on the outskirts ducking into tunnels and back out with the skyscrapers looming tall in the background or actually within those buildings taking tight turns in varied environments. A stellar playlist with real-world artists accompanies players on their journies.
At this point, gamers are a little spoiled in these areas. But it has to be pointed out that the game has really fun lighting work, especially at night, plus fun details like puddles that form on blacktop or in the dirt after inclement weather. There’s a lot of detail packed in here that some might take for granted. And while the world doesn’t feel the most alive (it’s not trying to be Grand Theft Auto, after all), it’s fun to just cruise, appreciate and let the immersion flow.
NFS Unbound deserves praise for fun camera work, too. The perspective pans and angles in interesting ways during jumps and big collisions.
All of this falls into the as expected column—sans the anime-ish cell-shading. It’s a beautiful complement and a worthwhile risk that helps remove NFS Unbound from the just another racing game column.
Career Mode, Features and More
There is indeed a narrative to NFS Unbound across a surprisingly lengthy campaign, though it doesn’t track far beyond what one might expect from a plot found in the millionth The Fast and the Furious entry. Main character and their mentor were wronged and the quest to get revenge includes winning back an old car and winning a tournament.
The dialogue throughout the game is quite bad in spots with a Fellow Kids vibe every now and then (the fact there’s a ton of cussing doesn’t help, either). Plus, the fact they’re speaking so calmly while hitting 120 miles an hour into oncoming traffic hurts immersion a tad.
But there is a give and take. The dialogue might track as corny for some, but it’s better than nothing and the constant chatter, even if it’s some NPC talking about how they nicknamed a wrench, does really make them feel like actual characters.
What the narrative does do, however, is set up the gameplay perfectly. Racers usually chop the player down to size so that they have to earn their way back. It’s a classic videogame-ism and happens here.
The effect is downright enthralling. Other racers in events early in the game are just straight-up faster than the player. That means no guaranteed wins. And some events even limit the number of restarts, too, so there’s no room for cheesing the same event over and over in order to steal the upset win.
It doesn’t really feel unfair as much as it feels like a superb progression system done well. That doesn’t mean it is frustration free, but the climb to the top feels great.
Outside of the main narrative, there are plenty of checklist items to tackle out in the open world. They won’t appeal to everyone of course, but smashing billboards, taking scenic jumps and the other usual side items are fun within the game’s systems.
Taking the game online, like in the past iteration, is a fun way to approach things. If nothing else, it’s nice to see other players out exploring the massive city and having the ability to throw up events that others can join. Players can explore every nook and cranny of the huge map while online, hitting up safehouses for the usual things and gas stations for health and NOS recharges. The actual map that lets players sort by activity is easy to read and use. Hovering over another player quickly shows their character, banner and platform, which is a nice touch.
Actual unlocks in the online category of the game are meaty in size that should keep players coming back for more. Some of the high-ticket vehicles, for example, sit behind not only a challenge barrier, but they also need to purchase them once overcoming the task.
On the customization front the game hits the expected beats, with droves of items and looks and banners for players to choose from and earn. Same deal for the bigger-than-expected car list, with much about the vehicles customizable and even upgradeable to improve performance.
Interestingly, there appears to be a major lack of the typical monetization riddling modern games. On this same topic, the game’s campaign is 100 percent playable in offline mode. Add in this is the best-running game in the series from a performance standpoint and it’s a fun flex of what next generation consoles can do.
In many ways, NFS Unbound throws out little in the way of surprises. It’s very much like attending a summer sequel blockbuster — players know exactly what they’re walking into when the boot up the game.
But it is a fantastic example of how great open-world racers can be. The gameplay is tight, so NFS Unbound tried to throw in a heartfelt story and knocked a unique visual styler out of the proverbial park. It might be divisive, but perhaps a good reception could encourage the sequel to apply that same unique style to a city itself, too.
Those are just the obvious things, too. There’s a fantastic, old-school progression system here that is extremely rewarding to overcome and otherwise droves of content to keep players busy for a long time.
While Need for Speed used to dominate the market, plenty of contenders have stepped into the space now. But Unbound is easily the best entry in the series in a long, long time, a strong return to form and deserves its name right up there with the best.