Need for Speed has felt like it’s been running on fumes for about a decade now, with 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted arguably being the last true standout entry in the series. This skid can largely be attributed to EA reassigning the franchise to Swedish developer Ghost Games, which spent the 2010s turning out a series of technically-competent, yet formless racers. Well, it seems EA has finally seen the error of their ways, as Need for Speed Unbound marks the return of series creators Criterion Games with the able wingmen at Codemasters Cheshire (formerly of the Dirt franchise) providing backing.

That said, it should be mentioned that Criterion’s last Need for Speed was also their last racing game, period. They’ve spent the last decade as a support studio mostly focused on the Battlefront and Battlefield franchises. Has Criterion smoothly switched gears back to Need for Speed and the racing genre? Time to give this ride a full multi-point inspection.

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If you’ve played a Need for Speed game in the past, you probably already know what to expect from this one’s story. A surprisingly organized underground street racing scene is taking over the town (in this case, the Chicago-inspired “Lakeshore City”) and despite coming from humble beginnings, you’re determined to make it to the top along with your motormouth foster sister Yaz. Guiding you in all this is the wise mentor/father figure/garage owner Rydell (it’s all about family, dontcha know). But wait! There’s a double cross! You lose everything and have to start from square one! Can you still achieve your dreams of racing glory and maybe get your stolen car back in the process?

So yeah, it’s just another Fast & Furious rip-off, which is… fine. Those movies are popular and there’s only so much complexity that you can bring to stories about driving cars really fast. I can accept the cliches. That said, the insipid chatter from other characters the game inflicts on you as you drive around town nearly pushed me to my breaking point. This has been a thing in Need for Speed games for a while, and I don’t know why the developers think it’s a good idea.

Admittedly, Need for Speed Unbound’s handful of cutscenes look nice thanks to its stylish cell-shaded character designs. While driving, the much-debated animated flourishes are only applied to minor things like the dust kicked up as you drift around a corner, with almost everything else rendered in a mostly-realistic style. NFS Unbound’s cars and world are fairly detailed (although not on the level of something like Forza Horizon or Gran Turismo). While you shouldn’t expect ray tracing or other cutting-edge tech, the game makes better use of lighting, screen-space reflections, and HDR than past entries in the series. Ultimately, the focus is on performance, with the PS5 delivering a crisp, dynamic 4K picture at a very-solid 60fps. This is the type of game that leaves a much better impression in motion than it does in screenshots.

If I had to single out just one thing Need for Speed Unbound does better than Ghost Games’ titles, it’s world design. Lakeshore City is a great vehicular playground packed with challenges, collectibles, memorable landmarks, and unique regions. Lakeshore feels very drivable and fun to navigate in a way Ghost Games’ bland sandboxes never did. The police are also handled well, as they’re constantly patrolling in a natural feeling way but aren’t overly aggressive once you get into a chase with them. The cops are something you always need to think about, but they don’t ruin the fun as they did in some recent entries in this series (Need for Speed Heat in particular). There’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about Lakeshore City, it’s rather quaint compared to the sprawling maps other modern open-world racers offer, but Criterion’s experience with this type of game shines through.

Of course, a well-designed map doesn’t mean a lot if a game’s core driving mechanics aren’t up to snuff. Thankfully, Need for Speed Unbound mostly delivers. The game’s rides offer an impressive sense of speed and power, although controlling them may take a bit of getting used to, as they do feel a bit touchy and slippery at first. You’re going to want to get familiar with the “Handling Tuning” menu as quickly as possible, as it has a real effect on how the game feels, allowing you to adjust the steering sensitivity, downforce, drift potential, and more. With enough tinkering, NFS Unbound went from an experience I wasn’t really digging in my first hour or two to something more my speed. I just wish there were a specific area to test out your handling adjustments – yes, you can freely drive around the open world, but an easily-accessible purpose-built testing area would be even better.

Need for Speed Unbound offers a wide array of different ways to keep yourself busy, from standard street races to timed delivery challenges to the new Takeover events that require you to rack up high scores by drifting, jumping, and smashing through objects. While races remain a bit more chaotic than I’d like sometimes, your path is more clearly marked than in the last few Need for Speeds with fewer opportunities to run off course or get lost. Hairpin turns are deemphasized in favor of layouts that let you put pedal to the metal more often. NFS Unbound would benefit from modern features seen in other racers, like driving line indicators and the ability to rewind mistakes, but their absence isn’t too heavy a blow.

Need for Speed Unbound isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it delivers a solid bread-and-butter open-world racing experience with a nice sense of speed and style. Unfortunately, the “Unbound” in its title feels like a bit of a misnomer, as the game has one of the more restrictive structures I’ve encountered in a racing game in some time. The game’s campaign is spread out over four in-game weeks, with players having to upgrade their wheels and earn enough cash over the course of six days and nights to enter that week's big qualifier race.

Sounds fair enough, but most events have steep buy-ins and relatively low payouts, to the point you can find yourself losing money if you don’t place well enough. You can also make side-bets with individual racers, but if you lose to them, you’re even deeper in the hole. But so what, right? Just win races! Well, that’s easier said than done. Your car’s rating is a very big deal in Need for Speed Unbound, with races with higher-ranked drivers often being essentially unwinnable, barring some miracle. The game outright informs you of this, which can be a bit demoralizing. A game called Need for Speed shouldn’t regularly be telling you “Hey buddy, fifth place is the best you can hope for in this race.”

Of course, you can buy better cars and/or improve your current ride, but there’s also a tier system in place, so if you have, say, an A-tier car, you can’t use it to muscle through B-tier events. There’s basically a very narrow window at the upper end of each tier where your rating is actually good enough to win races, and once you improve beyond it, you’re bumped up a tier and go right back to losing again. When you combine how difficult it is to win races, high buy-ins, low payouts, and the fact that the cops can bust you and take that day or night’s haul at any time, it feels like you’re constantly behind the 8-ball. I’ll admit, I got crushed more than once by that 8-ball and limped to the end of the week without the required cash for the qualifier race, at which point the game just pulled a Groundhog Day and sent me back to repeat Friday until I had enough money to continue. That feels like a quiet admission on Criterion’s part that their game’s progression system doesn’t quite work.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of making you earn your victories, but Need for Speed Unbound pushes it too far, sometimes making what’s supposed to be a liberating underground racing fantasy feel like a not-terribly-rewarding job. Things do loosen up a bit as the story progresses, although I didn’t start bringing in decent cash until Week 4. I eventually managed to bank around $1.5 million, but in this game that’s actually not that much, as you can blow that (or more) on a single car or a new engine and a few higher-end upgrades. Even as a millionaire, it felt like much of what I wanted was out of reach. Ultimately, when I finished NFS Unbound’s story I had a total of nine cars in my collection, the majority of which I hadn’t really chosen as I’d unlocked them through events. Granted, if I had wanted to take more time and focus on car collecting, I could have grabbed more, but still, I think my paltry garage underlines the fact that this game is not structured in a way that feels naturally rewarding.

But hey, if you don’t mind the grind, Need for Speed Unbound will provide plenty to keep you busy. The game’s story took me over 20 hours to complete, and once you’re done there are still countless cars and collectibles to acquire and challenges to clean up. The game also has a full multiplayer mode that essentially acts like a simplified GTA Online, allowing you to cruise Lakeshore and take on events with others online. Progression in the online mode is also largely separate from the single-player (only collectible and open-world activity progress is shared) so you can earn everything twice! Need for Speed Unbound will bind you up for a good long time if you let it.

This review was based on a PS5 copy of Need for Speed Unbound provided by publisher Electronic Arts.  

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7.5
Wccftech Rating
Need for Speed Unbound
Need for Speed Unbound

Need for Speed Unbound is the franchise’s best entry in a decade, although the competition for that title wasn't particularly stiff. The game offers polished tech, good (if slightly dated) open-world design, and a varied array of events and challenges, but still lags behind the current open-world racer pack leaders. The fantasy of becoming an underground racing champ is also hampered by a restrictive, ill-considered progression system. Nostalgic fans will find plenty to like here, and more general players might want to consider a test drive once the game is marked down, but “need” may be a strong word to attach to Criterion’s latest.

Pros
  • Good performance and sense of speed
  • Map is well laid out and fun to explore
  • Can tweak car handling how you like
  • A nice array of races and events
  • Police AI is properly balanced
  • Lots to keep you busy
Cons
  • Visuals don’t break any new ground
  • Open world a bit small and conservative
  • Stingy progression can feel like a job
  • Cliched story and cringy dialogue

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