Need for Speed Unbound launched with a low hum instead of a roaring engine. Developer Criterion is a veteran of the racing genre and its return to the Need for Speed franchise should’ve been something worth celebrating. Instead, Unbound revels in its striking graffiti presentation and a bizarre mish-mash of the styles in gameplay but falls short of being as memorable or finely tuned as its predecessors.
The story of Unbound is as basic as they come, meaning you’ve probably seen it before in countless other racing games including the Need for Speed series. It’s a revenge story about a friend who betrays you and takes your ride. You now have to start at the basics of starting your garage collection, competing in races and building your reputation again. It’s a formula that evidently works since it’s repeated so frequently, but the novelty wears thin when you’re going through the motions of the same tired narrative beats.
The first thing you’ll notice about Need for Speed Unbound is its style. Instead of going for the photorealism of games like Forza Horizon, it leans into a cartoonish aesthetic that gives it a very strong sense of identity. The style is, to the game’s benefit, unmistakable. While vehicles are detailed and gorgeous, it’s juxtaposed with graffiti-Esque effects that pop up when drifting, hitting nitrous or pulling off big air-time jumps. It feels different enough from past titles to stand out – so much so that I wish Criterion committed a bit more to just going all-in on its over-the-top style.
The same can’t be said about Unbound‘s jarring character models, though. Characters are animated with a cel-shaded effect and you can often tell an NPC’s entire personality by just looking at their attire, but when placed next to the glossier and detailed world of the game, something just feels off. These styles, while unique on their own, clash far too often and pull you out of the experience. On the plus side, you can create your own character in the beginning and customise your appearance by purchasing cosmetics. It’s a nice touch that I hope future games expand upon.
The gameplay in Need for Speed Unbound follows a similar routine to Heat and at times, even feels cut from the same cloth. The controls have weight to them so it makes steering and pulling off tight corners with a well-timed drift feel rewarding. For some reason, hitting obstacles on the road turns cars into wrecking balls with the slightest nudge having a tremendous impact. I guess that forced me to really focus on not crashing, so it all worked out.
There are three vehicle types to choose from: Drift, Grip and Neutral. Drift is self-explanatory as these cars perform better on corners for tight turns, while Grip is less about cornering and more about nailing a turn at a pace that allows you to maintain a good amount of speed when coming out of it. Neutral falls somewhere in the middle of the two. Unless drifting was the goal of a challenge, I remained Neutral for my personal preferences since it felt well-balanced.
You can build nitrous up by driving against traffic, pulling off drifts or getting air-time. Nitrous isn’t exactly a sure-fire way to close gaps and pass opponents, though, as it’s more of a slight speed boost that doesn’t really make much sense when the AI easily keeps up or ahead without it. A second meter for Burst Nitrous is better in the long run as its short bursts of speed help you come out of drifts and corners with good momentum.
Structurally, you’re competing in smaller races for the chance to appear in bigger races that take place at the end of every week, repeated over a month. You have to rack up enough cash to spend on upgrading your vehicles while also having enough to enter each qualifier. The only problem is the police, who return in Unbound with the same relentless energy of Heat.
Getting busted means that your winnings for the day are confiscated. It adds plenty of tension to cop chases when you know that you need to escape since you just spent the whole day accumulating cash. As you can imagine, getting busted is frustrating since it means you have to rack up that cash all over again.
There are legal races that take place during the day and illegal races at night, but obviously, the risk for the latter is higher, though that doesn’t really matter when every race is against the law. Luckily you can deposit your winnings to the nearest safe house, but making it out of a race in one piece provides some of the game’s most exciting challenges.
What isn’t exciting is driving a car in the beginning that’s clearly not built to outrun the cops or even win races. It took me a while before I started getting first place in races but this came with an increased heat level. Cops will demolish you in a slower car so it’s best not to get on their bad side too early in the game. Unbound encourages you to slowly and steadily build yourself up to the point where having fast cars, winning races and outrunning the cops are all second nature – but it’s a pretty slow and grindy rise to get there.
Adding to that slow and steady climb is the difficulty of Unbound, which can be brutal even on the lower options. AI is just as relentless as the police and will often bully you off the path or gain massive leads that seem impossible to the point of being supernatural at times. Winning is a matter of nailing a perfect run with little room for error, because AI can and will catch up to you quicker than you can say “Riders on the Storm”. It may seem unfair at first but there’s a fantastic sense of accomplishment once you start gaining leads and perfecting races.
In the end, Need for Speed Unbound ended up feeling like a step sidewards for the franchise instead of forward. It’s still trailing behind other arcade racers in the genre despite having a strong, stylish presentation. That said, it’s a formula that will probably appeal to Need for Speed fans even when it doesn’t take as many daring risks as it should at this stage to drive the series into the future.
Need for Speed Unbound is currently available to purchase on PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC at R1,440
Need for Speed Unbound
Story - 5/10
Gameplay - 6/10
Presentation - 8/10
Value - 7/10
Need for Speed Unbound will probably appeal to long-time fans, but its strong presentation can’t save it from feeling like a step sidewards instead of forward.
Challenging but rewarding racing
AI is often brutal
Conlicting styles can be distracting
Start is a slow grind