Need for Speed Unbound — now out on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series S/X — sets itself apart from the competition by adopting a unique street art-inspired style, while continuing to offer the high-octane action that the NFS franchise is renowned for. We get police chases with real jeopardy, a racer AI that is happy to take you out, and a high-risk high-reward system that prevents the action from ever getting dull. There is also a classic underdog story on our hands in its ‘Story’ mode. All these things come together to deliver an exhilarating arcade racing experience.
Set in the fictional city of Lakeshore, the NFS Unbound map is on the smaller side, considering the scale of most open-world games today. It still serves as an effective backdrop to the street races with various tracks and terrains. Petrol heads will be excited to see an assortment of some of the most iconic rides from the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Porsche, and BMW. Overall, Need for Speed Unbound includes over 140 cars at launch. There are also specific body mods and extensive customisation options available for each vehicle. These are some of the most realistic-looking car models in an NFS game to date.
NFS Unbound review: gameplay
Rather than asking you to take the perfect racing line, Need for Speed Unbound rewards players for taking a corner in the flashiest ways possible. Drifts, near-misses, drafting, and high jumps add to your two nitrous metres — one meant for a long blast, and the other intended for short bursts. Even at the start line, a perfectly timed acceleration can give you an instant boost. However, tip slightly over the edge or lag a bit short, and the engine will stall, leaving you stranded and allowing other racers to gain an edge. It is this high-risk high-reward approach that kept me thoroughly engaged for most of my play through.
While getting to grips with the arcade-style handling was a piece of cake, mastering it took significant time. (There were a lot of crashes involved, I admit.) NFS Unbound can be a bit unforgiving in this regard. The game does not include a rewind option that has become a staple of modern racing titles. Instead, depending on the race, you get a limited number of retries in the Story mode. The only saving grace is that cars reset almost instantly after a crash.
The Unbound racing AI doesn’t make things easier either. Other racers will fight for every slight space and cause some frustrating collisions. On the flip side, it is equally satisfying to see them crash into oncoming traffic as they make mistakes — or when you force them to. Need for Speed Unbound also has police cars, who raise the tension by interfering with races and continuing with the chase even after you’ve crossed the chequered flag.
Returning to the garage after piling up wins on the road, you will get to spend your cash on plenty of performance parts and body modifications in NFS Unbound. You can have your pick from a list of 140 cars if you have enough money in the bank. There are also a plethora of options available when it comes to paints and wraps. I am glad there is an option to copy community-made designs. However, if you are more artistic than I, then you will find yourself spending hours creating the perfect look for your ride.
NFS Unbound review: Story and multiplayer
Need for Speed Unbound includes a single-player campaign that could have very easily come across as cheesy and unforgettable. The premise leans heavily into traditional action movie tropes — betrayal, friends becoming rivals, and dirty police. But it’s the authenticity of the characters that upholds this underdog story. Their hearty banter made me appreciate it more than I thought I would. More importantly, it does a great job of setting up the world of Lakeshore. Without going into spoilers, our protagonist has four weeks to qualify for The Grand, Lakeshore’s ultimate street race. Each week, you hit the streets during the day or night to win races, and earn enough cash to enter the weekend qualifier.
Races are split based on vehicle tiers, which encourages players to make conscious decisions about upgrading their vehicles. You can’t pack top-tier performance parts in all your cars and bump them up to the highest “S+” rank. If you don’t have the right vehicle, you might miss out on high-stakes races. You will also need to ponder which vehicles to upgrade, and which ones to keep as the best-in-class model. It is a minor alteration from the norm — but one that adds a surprising depth to NFS Unbound.
While races earn you money, you gain heat from police with each race. Challenges like Speed Trap and Drift Zones are the only way to avoid attracting police and still earn cash. The Police will become an increasing presence as your heat grows. The real thrill of the chase comes from the fact that if you get caught, you lose all the money that you earned in that particular session. Considering that a significant amount is needed to enter the big weekend races, these NFS Unbound encounters become even more nerve-wracking. The only way to reset your heat is to be caught, or return to your garage without getting busted.
Unfortunately, police vehicles are restricted to the Story mode only. There are no chases in multiplayer, nor any worries about losing cash. It instantly makes the online experience duller than the Story mode. There are no live events, instant head-to-heads, or any other interactive means to make Lakeshore feel alive. With those features absent, the whole city feels like a glorified hub in multiplayer. And with NFS games having been terrible in terms of post-launch content, I’m not holding my breath for any significant additions to its online scene. All in all, NFS Unbound multiplayer feels like a massive letdown in comparison to its well-executed single-player.
Need for Speed Unbound review: music and graphics
The graffiti-inspired theme and its artistic flair adds to NFS Unbound’s realistically-designed world and vehicles. Even the character models carry a cartoony look. But none of this bogged down the game on PC graphically — it all meshed together seamlessly. My trusty AMD Radeon RX 570 8GB was able to output 55–60fps, on a mix of ‘Medium’ and ‘High’ settings. While Need for Speed Unbound ran smoothly and didn’t suffer from any major crashes, there are frequent visual glitches in the game that can be annoying.
Music has always been a core part of NFS games, and it is no different on Unbound. There are tons of tracks that complement high-speed racing. Annoyingly though, music only kicks in during races, which is a weird choice. Why can’t I enjoy music while simply cruising down the highway? On top of that, there are no radio stations — and there’s no option to skip tracks either. I have found myself stuck with terrible songs during intense races that sullied the experience.
NFS Unbound review: verdict
Overall though, there is a lot that works in Need for Speed Unbound. Its arcade handling is easy for newcomers, but a real challenge to master. Vehicle body customisation is miles ahead than the likes of Forza Horizon 5. Its unique visual style and character models help the game stand out, what with most racing games leaning more and more towards life-like graphics. Add to that likeable characters and a simple premise, which makes its Story mode an enjoyable affair.
On the flip side, NFS Unbound fails to take advantage of its open-world setting in multiplayer. The absence of police online particularly hurts. The way music works in the game is also infuriating. All these shortcomings bring Unbound a few pegs down, in what is otherwise a solid entry in the NFS franchise. If you’re on PC, I suggest you opt for the EA Play Pro subscription, complete the Story mode (and skip its abysmal multiplayer), and unsubscribe.
- Unique visual style
- Exciting police chases
- Rewards high-risk driving
- Likeable underdog story
- Vehicle variety, customisation
- Frequent visual glitches
- Bland multiplayer experience
- No music radio stations
- No police vehicles in online races
Rating (out of 10): 7