Need for Speed Unbound was a surprise late announcement from EA back in October. Just when the release calendar for the holiday season looked set, a new entry in the long-running racing franchise was unveiled for an early December launch. It’s also the first time the series goes next/current gen only, as Unbound is only available for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X – in addition to a PC version. We took a look at the game on a PS5.
Returning to the wheel for development duties on the game is Criterion, which we of course still associate mostly with the Burnout franchise even though they previously worked in NFS with Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted and Rivals all coming from the studio. It’s been almost a decade since they released a racing game though, so we were eager to see how they would treat their return to the series.
Need for Speed Unbound focuses on street racing – which of course isn’t a first. We’re also used to the game having an interesting real life-inspired backdrop, and this time it’s called Lakeshore City, which was modeled somewhat after Chicago, complete with the rain you’d associate with that. And because audiovisual flair is definitely a thing here, Unbound comes with another stellar soundtrack too. Is looks great, it sounds great, but there’s still something that sets it apart from previous Need for Speed games – a rather unique visual style that gives it a different look and feel, also compared to a genre-leading franchise like Forza Horizon.
Superimposed on the usual realistic visuals are a ton of visual effects that immediately catch the eye – think light trails, comic book-style (cel-shaded) puffs of smoke and lightning flashes. How much you enjoy it and whether or not Criterion went far enough with it is going to be a matter of taste, but the end result certainly is striking. We loved it, though it ultimately does feel like a compromise between a radical change in art direction and something that feels like other Need for Speed titles.
Gameplay-wise, you’ll find a mix of street racing and police chases inside an open world environment, though Need for Speed Unbound is also one of the most story-heavy games in the franchise thus far. For better and for worse, as there are moments where it feels like some of the characters just keep on yammering on, keeping you from the racing – while at other games the conversations and interacting do manage to add depth to the proceedings. The latter is often true when the narrative elements and racing blend together, for example when you give a ride to another racer and get better acquainted with them while behind the wheel.
And while police chases are always exciting but rarely offer a huge challenge, you’ll notice that other events in the open world environment do come with a bit of grinding if you’re to meet the top requirements for that challenge. That’s good, as it encourages you to go after the many upgrades and vehicles that the game offers – which in turn unlock additional mission and challenge content for you. What’s also nice is that the customization can not only be seen visually, but also in how the cars handle. For what’s essentially an arcade racer, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how different cars handle in different ways and how upgrades really seem to matter on the road as well, and not just in terms of your top speed.
With multiplayer support also included (letting you wager cars in true street racing fashion), this is a solid new entry in the Need for Speed franchise, although despite the new layer of visual flair it does play things relatively safe. An easy and excellent choice if you’re looking for a new arcade racer this year, but perhaps not as groundbreaking as the trailers suggest.