Need for Speed Unbound Review

Need for Speed Unbound NfS Header

Need for Speed is arcade racing. Whether it’s the original titles, Underground’s timely rendition of street racing culture, or Criterion’s first exemplary run, Need for Speed has been there, often year-in, year-out. That’s probably why some gamers cast a wary eye over the series. There’s been some weaker entries along the way, and a swathe of different design choices that have given the sense that Need for Speed doesn’t truly know who, or what, it is. With Need for Speed Unbound, Criterion have returned to the steering wheel, and in doing so have carved out a characterful and creative new direction for this iconic series.

Unbound recaptures that sense of individuality that Need for Speed Underground set in place. While there’s still room for plenty of neon colours, Criterion have settled on an art direction that mashes the real world with comic art and graffiti. It works. Characters have a bold, almost cel-shaded look, with motion-captured movement that looks and feels authentic beneath their animated exterior. There’s a host of customisation options for your racer, with a batch of branded threads to throw on, and a pleasing array of options that aren’t gender-locked. You also get to see your racer a fair bit, so these are actually worthwhile.

You’re a hopeful new street racer operating out of Rydell’s garage. The curmudgeonly and forgetful owner lets you and your partner Yaz work and hangout here and this serves as your base of operations. From here you can tune up your various rides, give them a lick of paint, slap on a new body kit, or buy and equip new clothes for your racer. You’ll return here at the end of each day or night to lay low and throw off the built up heat from law enforcement. Things take a fairly swift turn for the worse though, and soon Rydell’s garage is a ghost town, with you taking cab rides to make a few extra bucks. You’ll hopefully have the racing skills to turn things around though.

Need for Speed Unbound cel shaded character art

Set in the fictional city of Lakeview, the expansive map plays host to a city’s worth of driving, as well as the street racer meet-ups where you’ll make your cash. Your target is The Grand, the biggest race event in the street racing calendar, and you’ll need to collect four suitable cars for each of the different categories if you want to compete. Unbound is smart about the way it represents street racing, making the less – ahem – legal aspects of it actually make sense.

If you compete in races you will earn heat with the police. Higher profile races and those at night come with higher rewards earn more heat, and the more events you try to do in sequence becomes an increasingly risky proposition. Heat is cleared at the end of a day, and you have the opportunity to bank any winnings by getting to a safehouse mid-afternoon and/or when you head off to bed. When you finish some events you’re straight into a high-speed getaway from the fuzz. Get caught and you can kiss goodbye to all of that cash. This can feel brutal at times, but really emphasises the risks and reward tension.

What’s great is how authentic it feels. Once the cops have lost sight of you, you’ll need to play a spot of cat and mouse with them, the different units and their field of vision appearing on the mini-map and lending it a tense Metal-Gear-Solid-on-wheels vibe. Slowing things down and driving sensibly to avoid detection is way more fun than it sounds, as you congratulate yourself for outsmarting the donut brigade. The tweaks that have been made over the similar system in Need for Speed Heat are a lot fairer, and by extension, a lot more fun.

Whether you’re trying to escape the cops or are involved in a tight street race, Unbound’s racing sits perfectly on the side of tense and dramatic. Each moment is thrilling, exciting and hard-won, and unlike in some of the previous Need for Speeds, you never feel like the game is cheating you. Once again, it aims for accuracy; the chances of you finishing first at the outset are minimal and even one untimely mistake will knock you down a position or two, but as you steadily improve your car you’ll start to bother the racers on the podium. You can add in a little side bet with them too if you’re feeling confident, just to add some more drive to the driving.

Need for Speed Unbound street racing cop chase

A core part of Need for Speed Unbound is looking the part, and if your racer is looking drippy then your car needs to match up. You can alter and design your car in any number of ways, starting with all the important stuff under the hood through to picking the elements of your body kit. Everything you could want to mess with, you can, right down to the brake discs. It’s an easy system to use, making the ride of your dreams accessible to you, as long as you’ve earned enough money that is. Once you’ve spent all that cash, it’s nice to find that whether you opt for a pearlescent paint job or an eye-catching wrap it’s not a paid cosmetic, and you can save multiple different designs that you can transfer across cars if you want to.

There’s also the effects overlaid on the action, with cel shaded smoke as you drift, light trails as you go fast, and graffiti crowns, wings and other customisable iconography that pops up when you trigger a boost. You can avoid to a certain extent if they’re not to your taste, but I actually rather like them alongside the other non-photorealistic elements.

Need for Speed Unbound graffiti art overlays

The PlayStation 5 version looks fantastic, and delivers a stunning 60fps throughout the city. Those vibrant visual effects and the animated characters make this a truly characterful racer, though, if anything, they could have gone a little further. It plays things a little safe in its fundamentals too, with an open world that has the expected speed cameras, drift zones and little inflatable bears to find and run down, though that individuality still comes through with elements like graffiti art you can find around the city and add to your car design studio.

The overarching drive, of making educated decisions about what events to take part in while avoiding the police, remains as fun and engaging at the beginning as it is as you hone-in on the finale of The Grand. It would have been nice to see a touch more variety in the event types, but the racing is so well-weighted that you’ll barely notice.

Need for Speed Unbound is the best arcade racer of 2022, and a real statement from EA and Criterion. Why it’s snuck out with so little fanfare will be one of the mysteries of the year.
  • Great open world arcade racing
  • Risk & reward of doing just one more race
  • Tons of visual customisation
  • Looks great as a current gen exclusive
  • Those graffiti graphics won't be for everyone
  • Missing a little variety in the event types
Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.