Need for Speed has had its ups and downs over the last decade as the series fully embraced open environments while struggling to obtain an identity. Recent trends saw it veer into Fast & Furious territory with over-the-top missions and stories that focused on other elements outside of racing. Thankfully, developer Criterion Games has returned to the franchise with a clear vision and a back-to-basics approach in Need for Speed Unbound that is able to excel thanks to some smart design choices and a stellar style that comes out of a collaboration with A$AP Rocky.
Immediately, that style is what makes a great first impression that gets even better once the game actually begins. From colorful smoke that exits your car’s exhaust to graffiti-style wings that appear when you take air, these small graphical touches when placed on top of an otherwise realistic game give it a clear identity and separate it from nearly every other open-world arcade racer. It’s a personality and distinction that is hard to come by in a genre that is largely focused on painstakingly recreating each vehicle’s every minute detail.
Stylish presentation has to be backed up by gameplay, though, and luckily Need for Speed Unbound provides plenty of thrills by fully embracing the street aspect of street racing. You’re weaving in and out of oncoming traffic and cornering around businesses and busy intersections that are far from typical racetracks. Closer shaves with death yield more nitrous, too, creating a stellar gameplay loop that has players constantly balancing risks and rewards. Races get even more intense as they go on since the relays through the city naturally attract the attention of police; another variable that appropriately adds even more chaos to the wild and illegal races.
If you’re not evasive, a cop car will ram into you, causing you to hit a wall or spin out temporarily. This would be frustrating in a lot of racing games, as most of the time the focus is solely on winning the race. However, Unbound puts players in races where they are outmatched from the start, instilling an attitude that success doesn’t solely come via wins but by being profitable.
Most street races require a buy-in with racers laying down thousands of dollars to compete, so it’s a positive experience as long as players place well enough to come out in the black. Side bets with other drivers also yield another way to stack cash, as the payout is contingent on just placing higher than that one specific racer. This focus on money, which is then spent on other races, cars, and part upgrades, adds a fulfilling sense of progression and it’s great to go from competing for fourth or fifth place to racking up wins once your car is upgraded. There’s also a nice variety of events, and the game’s flexibility means players can invest dough into what they events they want to participate in from A$AP Rocky’s drifting and stunt-focused Takeover events to traditional races.
Small distinctions like this truly make Need for Speed Unbound feel new in a genre that hasn’t changed a ton since its PlayStation 2-era heyday and these additions ripple out to almost every aspect of the game. For example, authorities don’t even stop once a race is called, which keeps the adrenaline and wanted levels high after zooming past the finish line. These post-race pursuits also play into another interesting gameplay system where players have to manually deposit their winnings at a safehouse or risk it being confiscated the cops, adding further nuance to its economy. These slick design choices carry over to the open world, which is filled with collectibles and speed challenges that keep regular drives, meet-ups, and police chases engaging since there is always something to do. While Criterion didn’t innovate in many areas, it’s clear that the team spent a lot of time tweaking the overall racing experience and enhancing it in many small, but noticeable ways.
Need for Speed Unbound is exactly what the iconic racing series needed. The expected customization options and street races that were shaped by Need for Speed Underground are here, but all of it is presented in a fresh manner and has been carefully adapted to fit the modern era. While this stellar presentation and its representation of street racing culture are the most eye-catching aspects of Unbound, the fantastic racing that rewards risky maneuvers is the high-powered engine that gives it an edge over its competition and its last few lackluster entries.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8.5 equates to “Great.”