Need for Speed Unbound is the 25th iteration of the 28-year running series of racing games. Developed by Criterion Games and published by Electronic Arts, Unbound released on December 2, 2022 on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5 and PC, and this review focuses on the Xbox Series X version. Following from 2019’s Need for Speed Heat, Unbound takes the same day/night cycle and risk versus reward cash earning system, adds anime effects, a progression system that is grindy but feels far more rewarding with a focus on single vehicles rather than growing your garage. This one of the better Need for Speed games that I have played.
There are two modes to play – story and online. I had played story mode for several hours before wondering why there were no other player vehicles or drivatars in the game. It was then I remembered to check out online mode and it’s completely separate. Interestingly you need to create a character and choose a starting vehicle for both modes. Despite creating a new driver and starting with $0 cash, the collectible stats seemed to have carried over between the two modes, so there is some connectivity there. Having played the Forza Horizon series that blends story driving with online play so seamlessly, it was strange that the two modes are separated in this game.
When Need for Speed Unbound was first advertised, I was really turned off by the anime effects and ‘cartoony’ characters. The smoke from burnouts, wings out the side when you’re flying, and various icons that pop up above the vehicle were jarring at first. The icons above the vehicle sometimes got in my way when turning the vehicle in third person camera which is my preferred viewpoint. I thought we could completely disable these effects; however, I cannot see an option to turn them off in settings. Despite this, I did get used to them the more I played, and you can customise their colours to suit your vehicle, so they are now passable for me. The music also isn’t anything I would listen to ordinarily. There were a few tracks that worked well but it’s nothing like the magic of the Need for Speed Underground 2 soundtrack. That will sit timeless in my mind.
Character creation gives you several preset male and female characters that you can then further customise, modifying the hair, facial hair, face details, sunglasses and clothing. Again, I am not used to the cartoony looking characters with the last few Need for Speed games having a mix of real actors and well-animated models. But aside from a couple of times my head popped up through the roof of the car in cutscenes, I got used to these characters, particularly as the story progresses and you get to know them.
In terms of general environment and vehicle graphics though, Need for Speed Unbound is certainly the best-looking game in the series. The game runs amazingly smooth on the Xbox Series X with very little blurring at high speeds. I love the moments driving at dusk as the sun is going down, giving the sky and clouds a pink/orange tinge as you hurtle down roads and burn out in Lakeside City streets. I still don’t know if I prefer day driving or at night as there are bonuses to both. You see a lot of people walking the streets who will jump out of your way as you speed along sidewalks which makes the world feel alive. Day driving was an opportunity to spot collectibles and jumps that would come in handy later to escape from the cops. The cops get tough at heat levels four and five preferring the biff, ramming into you to stop you, so fair warning.
Once you complete the game’s prologue, you are thrown into the main core of the game. You can see several meet up locations on the game’s map, and each meet location has different tiers of races to compete in. You can only choose races that match your vehicle class. Some races are free to race while others have a buy-in cost. You can see how much money you will earn depending on the position you come, and interestingly the game predicts your place. Later, you can challenge a racer to earn some extra cash in that race. Most races will see the cops start chasing you or another racer, and once you finish a race you generally must then escape the cops. Like in Need for Speed Heat, if you are caught by the cops, you will lose all money you earned that day/night.
Every in-game week you need to work towards meeting the requirements of a qualifying event on the following Saturday. You will need to meet the vehicle class and have enough cash to buy your way in. Given this need for cash at the end of the week, rather than splashing on new cars regularly, I preferred to invest in upgrading my starting car. I am less about how flashy and cool my car looks compared to slowly upgrading its performance, and this is one of the big reasons I recommend Need for Speed Unbound.
While earning the cash is a grind, it is fulfilling to keep upgrading my main car and hone my skills in it. Need for Speed Payback had you racing in multiple cars depending on the race type, so it was a breath of fresh air to not have to worry about multiple vehicles and with the cash earning system, coming first wasn’t the be all and end all. You can still feel progression when you’re finishing mid-field due to the impressive AI difficulty.
Drifting is still my achilles heel in racing games like this though. Ever since drifting was added to the series with 2003’s Need for Speed Underground, I have sucked at it and have never been able to master it. The style and method of drifting as changed often between Need for Speed games, but Unbound feels very similar to how drifting was handled in Heat. As you’re driving, you turn at tap the left trigger to brake and that starts the drifting. You then regulate your speed and the angle of the drift. Initially I was too tight on the trigger and lost speed during the drift, and slowly I got better at it, but I am still terrible at drift zones. It was funny when I was playing in online matches and I could tell who was a new player to the game as their drifts were wild and out of control like my first ones were.
Overall, Need for Speed Unbound is a breath of fresh air for the series, both visually and with the sense of progression. While the anime/cartoony graphics took some getting used to, the world and vehicle detail is outstanding. Progression suited my desire to upgrade a single vehicle as opposed to constantly switching, and so my focus was more on tuning to race better rather than to have the fastest car and win all races. If you’ve been sitting on the fence as to whether to dive in, I highly recommend you give this a go.
This review utilised a key provided by EA Australia and Need for Speed Unbound is out now on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5 and PC via the EA app, Origin, Steam and Epic Game Store.
Written by: @ChrisJInglis