Since its inception nearly three decades ago, Need for Speed’s best entries have combined style and substance to produce thrilling homages to the street racing scene. Need for Speed Unbound feels like the ultimate realization of that philosophy, creating one of the franchise’s best in years.
Sliding into the driver seat of the nearly 150 cars in Need for Speed Unbound feels terrific. Blasting down a straightaway in a McLaren delivers a remarkable sense of speed but nailing a corner drift in a Mitsubishi feels just as good. Actions like drifting and drafting fill your boost gauge, creating a satisfying rhythm in the moment-to-moment racing as you flow from one move to the next.
Distinct visual effects permeate nearly every moment of Need for Speed Unbound, making it one of the most stylish racing games I’ve played. Though the city and vehicles maintain their photorealistic looks from past games, the characters are cel-shaded cartoons. These two contrasting styles sound like they should clash, but they work in tandem to create a refreshing amalgamation. Unbound further leans into stylization by adding street-art-inspired flourishes to the car as you drift, boost, and jump off ramps. I appreciated the neon-colored smoke during a tight corner, but the tag that pops up when your boost is full sometimes blocked my view during critical points in the race.
As you take to the open streets of the fictional city of Lakeshore, you have a bevy of events from which to choose. You can take part in linear races, lap-based circuits, head-to-head contests, and drifting events – not to mention the various collectibles and challenges scattered throughout the city. These each present exciting challenges, but my favorite event is Takeover, which puts you in a tight course and rewards you for drifting, boosting, hitting ramps, and smashing targets.
Need for Speed Unbound’s single-player story centers on a betrayal and subsequent rise up of the city’s underground racing scene. While the overarching story is easy to ignore, the constant chatter between the characters accentuates their grating personalities. Rivals repeat hackneyed lines throughout each race, while open-world exploration is often interrupted by calls from your annoying manager or radio segments featuring ham-fisted politician caricatures. After my first few hours, I turned down the dialogue in the menu. However, I actively enjoyed hearing from Rydell, the owner of the garage and father figure to your created character, as his conversations deliver some truly earnest moments despite this game’s brash style.
Cop chases have long been a critical element of the Need for Speed formula, and Unbound implements them in effective manner. Each event and chase in which you participate raises your heat level for that day, with higher heat spelling more relentless police officers with better vehicles at their disposal. I often left the base model police cruisers in the dust at heat level one, but as the heat ranks climbed and the cops broke out more capable vehicles, tension crept throughout my body as I gripped my controller tighter.
Making it back to a safehouse with high heat can be daunting; I often rerouted my path to avoid kicking off a lengthy chase. Though I usually escaped, the danger of knowing that any money I earned in that session would be lost if I’m apprehended creates adrenaline-fueled affairs. Though the few times I was caught made me want to walk away in frustration, the exhilaration of a high-stakes escape is difficult to match.
Unfortunately, cop chases are absent from the game’s online suite. This wouldn’t be such a letdown if I could reliably find full events. However, since the online side just dumps you into a Lakeshore instance with 15 other players who seem more interested in exploring the city than racing, the online races themselves are often sparsely populated. Once you’re in a race, the servers are stable, and the crossplay works well, but I was disappointed my garage progress in story didn’t carry over, leaving me ill-prepared for my early races. Thankfully, the generous reward system let me catch up fast, but I missed the upgraded vehicles to which I grew accustomed from the story.
Need for Speed Unbound feels like a foundational entry for where the series could go from here. Competing across the title’s many events is a blast, and I love the juxtaposed visual aesthetics. Though some elements left me wanting, Unbound is as much fun as I’ve had with a Need for Speed title in years.