Need for Speed Unbound Review

Richard Walker

In Need for Speed Unbound, you play as an achingly cool street racer. A criminal, in essence. But what's more criminal than flouting the rules of the road is the fact that developer Criterion hasn't made a Need for Speed game since 2012's Most Wanted (save for a support role on 2013’s Need for Speed: Rivals). That duty had fallen to Ghost Games for six years, before EA decided to shut the studio down in 2020, and just as it had found its feet with the entirely decent Need for Speed Heat. Regardless, the house that brought us Burnout is back making racing games, and we couldn't be happier – Need for Speed Unbound feels like a real return to form for the series.


Look out! It's the rozzers!

Starting you off with a customisable cel-shaded comic book-style character, Need for Speed Unbound then presents you with a 'junker' to restore, from a choice of 1969 Dodge Charger, 1988 Lamborghini Countach 25th, or Nissan Silvia K's '98. Unfortunately, this starter car doesn't stay with you for long – Unbound's prologue eases you into its story gently, before shit hits the fan, and all of the cars from your mentor Rydell's garage are stolen. And so it falls to you, two years later, to make some scratch to help get 'Rydell's Rydes' back on its feet, and carve out a reputation among Lakeshore City's underground racing elite.

With Rydell's mantra of “Don't just say shit. Win shit” ringing in your ears, you'll set out to rebuild, which means heading out to Meetups and winning stacks of cash. Some Meetups require a 'buy-in' to take part, while others offer 'easy money' with a $0 entry fee. Before long, you'll be engaging in increasingly high-stakes races, where failing to grind out a result can actually lose you money, rather than earn it. Side Bets, meanwhile, enable you to put cash on the line by backing yourself, adding a certain frisson to the racing – the better an opponent, the tidier the bonus to your bank balance. Fail to finish ahead of them, and you'll owe them the stake.

Later on, hip-hop fella A$AP Rocky (who, as luck would have it, is all over the game's soundtrack) will introduce you to 'Takeover' events, wherein the competition involves keeping a combo going by drifting, smashing into things, and hitting the checkpoints as fast as you can to rack up a high score. Events like these are peppered all over Lakeshore City, as are activities like Speed Traps, Speed Runs, Drift Zones, and Long Jumps, seemingly in a tip of the hat to the Forza Horizon series and Criterion's own Burnout Paradise. Lakeshore is a rather expansive urban sprawl, dotted with collectibles (smashable police billboards, fibreglass bears, and so on) challenges, and events to complete, as determined by the game's calendar and time of day.


 

Each time you return to the garage, or one of the safehouses you've unlocked by helping out a rival racer, the time of day will shift from day to night and vice versa, giving you different events to take on, as you seek to qualify for Lakeshore's most prestigious (or, at least, the most notorious) illegal street race, The Grand. Getting to compete in The Grand entails the accumulation of a lot of money, however, and, as such, the ultimate goal is to make bank by any means necessary. Races are hard-fought, and your AI rivals don't tend to play all that nicely, ramming and jostling at every turn. A nitrous boost and a well-executed drift certainly help, as does taking a sneaky shortcut.

With each race, you'll also learn little tricks, like grip turns that give you a short boost out of a drift, or Burst Nitrous boosts that activate a small but satisfying dash to help you keep up with the pack. Boosts like these are accompanied by Unbound's divisive driving effects and tags – colourful, graffiti-inspired flourishes that burst forth from your exhaust pipe, crackle around your wheel rims, or erupt from the flanks of your car like wings as you soar through the air. Though you can apparently turn these effects off (I couldn't find out how), they ended up growing on me, being entirely in keeping with the game's vibrant, energetic style.


You get the drift?

Criterion seemingly pays homage to Need for Speed's past glories, and even gives its own Burnout series a nod, with takedowns and a blistering sense of speed. Lakeshore's police force is never far away, either, your heat level gradually building up each day as you partake in more races, takedown cop cars, and attempt to outrun the fuzz. Hot pursuits with the long arm of the law are particularly good fun, as you crash through scenery and weave through traffic, while striving not to get busted. Should you end up in cuffs, you'll lose all of the cash you haven't banked at a safehouse, so tangling with the local traffic enforcers isn't always a great idea.

Need for Speed Unbound is a cracking open-world racing experience, then, and a more than welcome return for Criterion after a decade away from the series. The level of customisation for your 'rides' (you can swap out parts, body kits, wraps, and more) and character, as well as the wealth of desirable cars on offer, a great online offering, and the game's brash elan, all conspire to make this not only a superb Need for Speed game (easily one of the best in a long while), but an excellent racer in its own right. If you miss the reckless abandon offered by Burnout Paradise, and long for the edgy urban grit of Need for Speed Underground, then Need for Speed Unbound will most definitely scratch that itch.

Need for Speed Unbound

A startling return to form for EA's flagship racing franchise, Need for Speed Unbound offers an enjoyable open-world, with challenging yet gratifying racing, and an infectious sense of gritty urban style.

Form widget
85%
Audio
80%

While the modern hip-hop soundtrack isn’t my cup of tea, it does suit the game well. Engine audio and all the tyre-screeching noises are present and correct, and Unbound’s story benefits from some decent voice acting.

Visuals
90%

Unbound looks absolutely ruddy marvellous, its graphical stylings popping in 4K resolution at a buttery 60 frames per second. Lakeshore City is gorgeous, too, especially when its streets are rain slicked with reflective puddles. Very nice.

Playability
90%

Immediate and instantly gratifying handling makes Unbound always enjoyable, whether you’re fleeing the cops or jostling to reach the front of the pack during a race. This Criterion back to its Burnout best, and we love it.

Delivery
80%

You can jump into Lakeshore solo and offline, or go online with other players - the choice is yours. Either way, Unbound provides a slew of race events, open-world activities, and more to delve into. Just don’t be surprised by the aggressive rival AI.

Trophies
60%

Nothing particularly special here. Get all the collectibles, complete the game, outrun the cops a bunch of times, own loads of cars, upgrade your garage... Fairly standard stuff that requires you dig in for the long haul.

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