One of the reasons you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is that sometimes it opens up to your liking. Need for Speed: Unbound arrived with almost no hype and very little marketing, despite producer Criterion returning after four years away. While there was barely any hype leading up to its release, review codes weren’t handed out until launch day, usually an ominous sign that the publisher either doesn’t have any faith in the game or there are some big issues. But just like that sleeper car sitting on the line, when the flag drops Need for Speed: Unbound outperforms all expectations. It’s not the best racing game on the market, but it’s better than anything in the series for years and loads of fun. Provided you can look past its terrible story, that is.


Ghost Game, developers of four Need for Speed games, got the short end of the stick when they were retooled into an engineering studio due to lack of success on consoles. The franchise was handed back to Criterion, who came up with a brilliant plan to completely overhaul Heat rather than relegate it to the attic. After all, Ghost Game has had plenty of experience in developing racing games and here they give you both realistic and arcade gameplay while still maintaining Burnout’s arcade feel.


Need for Speed: Unbound’s visually interesting style is too much for me to ignore. The city is highly detailed and realistic, and the cars are modeled beautifully that tip-toe very close to being photorealistic. It’s a good-looking game, perhaps not as impressive as Forza Horizon 5 or Gran Turismo 7, but still beautiful enough to satisfy that lust for car porn, especially once you start customizing those bad boys.

Xbox, Playstation, and PC are all available

PC reviewed

Criterion Games developed the game

EA published this article

All the vehicles and environmental details look like they were taken from a cel-shaded cartoon. The customisable effects, which can be changed to any color you like, will make your vehicle look completely unique. Characters are highly stylized and have been inspired by Into the Spider-Verse. Furthermore, smashing billboards and finding collectables allows you to unlock variants of these models with extra bonuses, which you can apply to your whole garage. It is a little strange that you can’t equip on a per car basis though.


The style of the cel-shading mixed with the realism looks interesting, but I’m not sure it all works. It feels like it’s coming from two different games and doesn’t really mesh together. The two art styles don’t feel like they go together, which is unfortunate because if Criterion focuses on integrating these two art styles more, it could be awesome looking.


This time, we get to slide around the streets and countryside of Lakeshore, loosely based on Chicago. There is a nice mixture of right-angled street corners, tunnels, and hills covered in tight switchbacks. Criterion manages to build some great tracks out of it. Not only that, but it’s an unmemorable locale even compared to Heat’s neon-lit urban landscape. Compared to Forza Horizon’s various settings, it’s all bog-standard streets or hills with a few trees here and there. It would be cool if you could hit the brakes from time to time just to see something worthwhile.


There are plenty of things to do on the roads, including Speed Traps and Drift Zones. Race meetings also feature a few different events. There are circuit and point-to-point races available, but there are drift events and special Takeovers where you can earn points by drifting, smashing, boosting, and jumping.


Unbound has a really cool structure for its campaign, where you have to complete four qualifier rounds before competing in a big tournament. There’s one qualifier per week and each one requires a higher tier of vehicle, meaning the goal is to win races throughout the days and nights to build up cash. These days will be costly though, so the need is to upgrade your station wagon with new tires or fix those brakes before investing in a new car. And many of the races you enter cost money on top of what it already costs to enter, so there’s always the chance that you might lose money if you perform poorly. The good news is that Unbound uses difficulty limits as extra motivation to ramp up the difficulty. The goal here is pretty obvious – make sure you have enough bank at the end of each race or else some really tough opponents will clean out your pockets! I absolutely think this structure works best when you ramp up the difficulty because that means the big payouts come with an equally large risk of losing your bank.


Despite the occasional rubber-banding and AI issues, I really enjoy Unbound. One thing that I love about it is that you don’t need to win every race; as long as you’re making money and keeping your car up to date, you can still rank in the Grand. This differs from a lot of other racing games on the market that base all progression on winning races – it’s an awesome feature because there are some days where you may want to just relax and not feel pressured to always be perfect at everything (I’ve won some matches but felt like I deserved to lose them too). When my family has a few hours of free time, we’re more likely to jump into Unbound than other racing games because there are fewer end goals.


Need for Speed: Unbound is a clone of the original Need for Speed Heat. In that game, they made the night events illegal racing to distinguish it from the day events which were legal races. It was an interesting change but in Unbound ALL the races are illegal and it reverts to day when you return to your garage to open up new events every 24 hours. The day/night system is redundant and purely visual because you have to enter your garage each time you want to go into a different event.


There are a few elements of the game that affect Heat. Firstly, evading the police for too long ramps up their response levels and different types of cops become more frequent. Secondly, during races there is a counter that tracks how much time you have left before the cops break off pursuit, with all sorts of cop cars and helicopters appearing on higher tier levels. Finally, in order to escape from a high evasion level, players must get out of visual range or use some clever maneuvers to confuse them (for example when flying pigs – these are known as “flying pigs”) which forces them to stop chasing. The police actually make escaping more challenging because they are fast and will tail behind your car without giving up. This means that it’s not easy to evade them even on higher tiers, so some chases feel like a never-ending loop of sliding through corners and hiding in tunnels.


The police pursuit system in Need for Speed: Heat was a lot of fun. The more cops were after you, the faster your experience points would rack up. In Unbound, it doesn’t work as effectively because there are points where it just doesn’t seem worth it to stay on the streets with tier-5 heat, even though the events that require it can sometimes provide enough cash.


Drift and grip are two terms that Unbound uses to illustrate a car’s handling characteristics. With drift, a driver is more likely to use the S-tier rides, which are more stable and require precision. Grip is more popular with lower tier vehicles because they provide greater control. Successful drifting can be challenging but can also be extremely rewarding if done correctly.


When you drive cars, they build up nitrous. One important thing that can fill your car’s nitrous is sliding, which also helps make your grip turn awesome because it put you in a drift. You can use 3 bursts of boosting when you have all three bars filled. However, this nitros burns away after just a few seconds so you’re encouraged to use it as soon as you get it! For example, if you take down a cop and then have 3 bars filled from drifting, hit the button! I like being able to push myself as fast as possible and feel out of control at all times. This is emphasized by tracks with long stretches of road where you’re flat-out and weaving through traffic without making any sharp turns. These events are about going for distance or getting that high score with speed boosts.


I am most impressed by the Burst Boost system’s impact on drifting. When you pop a bar, you instantly alter a car’s trajectory, so if you’re sliding out of a bend and realise the angle is going to carry you into a car, you can use the boost to change direction. You can use this more and more to slam into other racers, avoid dangers or just take corners more sharply as you get better at the game.


There’s nothing better and more satisfying than finally finding the perfect car to take out on the highway and feel like you’ve struck it rich. Unbound delivers 142 stellar cars to choose from, spanning a variety of automotive brands and era, ranging from the ’55 Chevy Bel Air to the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series. I think most car enthusiasts will find something they like in this selection, as nearly all have customisation options in terms of bumpers, hoods, spoilers and other accessories. A few cars only offer paint options, but a vast majority offer custom modification options for your cars. And don’t worry about creativity— our amazing paint tool will allow novices like me to benefit from creative individuals by browsing their work for inspiration in the community page.


That being said, there are a few brands that are absent. Toyota, for example, decided they no longer wanted their cars associated with underground racing. That, of course, is their prerogative, but it means we won’t be able to mess around with the classic Toyota Supra.


For years, racing games have been attempting to integrate stories into their on-track action with almost universal failure. The genre is not suited to complex storytelling. A story of friendship, betrayal, and family is weaved into Need for Speed: Unbound’s races as if they stole a Fast & Furious script, even referencing the increasingly insane franchise at one point. The result? Bloody terrible.


This is a story about: You, your customizable character, and Yaz. Yaz is the product of a system that was taken in by Rogell, a former street racer who runs the garage for illegal street racers. After kicking it for a while working on an old junker that was laying around, you and Yaz start hitting the streets to make a name for yourselves. Eventually, Yaz begins spending time with someone from her past and this leads to you having your car stolen by some punks. Eventually after years have passed, you pick up Tess and take her to the local meet where Yaz makes an appearance with your stolen car. This plan? Enter the meet to win back your car so that you can beat their butts!


The dialogue was bad. Like, really bad. Not only is it unrealistic and dreadfully unfunny, it’s downright offensive at times. The characters lack depth and their personalities are one dimensional. It’s too bad too because there actually is a good story about found family, betrayals and forgiveness hidden deep below the surface of this book but the cringey dialogue makes it impossible to enjoy it.


When you’re done with racing those icky robots in real-life, head to the internet. There you’ll find nothing but random people (well, at least one) who wants to have sex with your mom. Online racing is fun and fraught with challenges. You may encounter clean racers, psychopaths that want to mess with you, or other hardcore gamers like yourself. Either way, it’s an enjoyable experience! The downside is that your singleplayer progress and your multiplayer progress are mostly separate from each other. Your garage — full of heart-wrenching eye sore cars — won’t carry over online, so you have to remake them from the ground up. That’s okay if you skip the career mode (though it sucks), but not if you do it all over again


For a game with very little fanfare and seemingly no confidence on EA’s behalf, Need for Speed: Unbound is actually a really excellent surprise. It’s nothing special, but it’s just solid, very fun arcade racing. The franchise has been struggling to get traction for years and so it’s such a pleasure when it gets off the starting line. Really, the most surprising thing is how closely Criterion stuck to the formula that Ghost developed and the result feels like a direct sequel to Heat. Considering that Criterion established this strong identity before now, I was expecting any new Need For Speed from them to be completely different to the last few entries but instead they are not.


In any case, if you’re looking to customise some cars and drift them around bends, Need for Speed: Unbound is a good time.


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