After it leaked earlier this year, many were curious about the next Need for Speed game’s apparent new direction. It seemed to be going full anime, complete with cel-shaded characters. And while that isn’t entirely the case, NFS Unbound is still a fresh and exciting shift for the franchise, which might help elevate it beyond its current “also ran” status among fellow car games.
NFS Unbound, out tomorrow on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC, is the latest installment in EA’s decades-spanning racing franchise. Developed by former Burnout studio Criterion Games, Unbound is set in a Chicago-like city called Lakeshore and features a large open world. As you race during day and night events, you rack up cash and police attention. If the cops get you before you can make it back to your safe house or garage, you lose all your winnings, making every race and open-world drive that much more tense and exciting. All of this is in an effort to get payback on a racer who wronged you and your mentor, with the ultimate goal of beating them, getting your old car back, and winning a large-scale racing tournament.
Let me just be honest here and explain that I’ve not played a Need for Speed since 2015’s confusingly titled Need for Speed. And I barely played that. In a world with Forza, Gran Turismo, Dirt, and Grid, the Need for Speed series could never keep my attention. But NFS Unbound is different, and I’m finding myself unable to put down the controller.
NFS Unbound’s colorful and unique art style is not only the big reason I’m even checking out this installment, but also part of why I’m having so much fun. NFS Unbound mixes realistic cars with cel-shaded characters and a world that lands somewhere in between; not quite hyper-real yet not quite fully cel-shaded or cartoonish. The end result works, and helps NFS Unbound stand out in a sea of other driving games that are all chasing the same goal of rendering photorealistic cars and environments.
I also appreciated all the flourishes and colorful on-screen pops and effects that happen when you hit your NOS or leap off a ramp at high speed. NFS Unbound has style, and knows how to use it. Even the characters look sharp, with tons of great fashion and customization options on offer.
A colorful and cool-looking racing game is nice and all, but if the driving sucks, who cares? Thankfully for NFS Unbound, its driving is solid and responsive. And Unbound is flexible enough to support all kinds of driving styles. Are you someone who loves to get sideways around every turn? You can tweak your controls and car to become a drifting machine. Or maybe you love hitting the apex of every turn and driving more like an F1 racer? No worries, Unbound lets you do that too. Both styles feel well supported and rewarded.
Something I really love about NFS Unbound and what helps set it apart from fellow open-world racing games, like Forza Horizon, is how the game makes you work to earn fast cars and victories.
Once you finish the prologue you get stuck with a junker and have to scrape together winnings from small races around the city to upgrade it. And early on, you get your ass kicked a lot. Other racers in the city are just faster than you, and unless they eat it during a race, you will likely not win every event. And unlike in other racing games, you can’t just restart forever until you get first. Most events strictly limit restarts, and some don’t let you begin again at all. And unlike many current racing games, NFS Unbound doesn’t have a rewind button. This makes every race more exciting and nerve-wracking.
Sometimes I’d skip events because the buy-in was too high or I knew my current ride wasn’t up to the challenge. But for the truly skilled drivers out there, Unbound will let you push your luck as much as you want and will reward you if you succeed.
I’ll admit, I spun out and crashed sometimes, and with no restarts, I was mad. It can be frustrating, especially when a random NPC driver takes you out of an event you paid to enter. But losing is part of the process. As you save up cash and upgrade your car you start winning more and it feels so much more satisfying than Forza Horizon 5 dumping 20 high-end supercars on you within the first hour of playing. (I still love Horizon, but I always found its progression system to be boring.)
Of course, the police can and will derail all your fun and progress, and managing your heat between events is important. Get too wreckless during the day while exploring and finishing up some small races and the fuzz will be harder to shake at night when the big-money events happen. And if you get caught with $20,000 in your pockets, you lose it. This can sometimes be annoying. But it’s all the more satisfying when you do make it back home safe and sound with all that hard-earned cash.
Need for Speed Unbound is unlikely to pull the franchise out from underneath the shadows of bigger, more popular racing games in 2022. But I do think it has a chance of helping the series stand out more. And regardless of if Unbound becomes a big hit or not, it’s a damn fine game with some great ideas that make every race more exciting and every upgrade feel more valuable. And it looks rad the whole time, too.