Since its inception nearly three decades ago, Need for Speed’s best entries have combined style and substance to deliver thrilling tributes to the street racing scene. Need for Speed Unbound feels like the ultimate realization of that philosophy, one of the best of the franchise in years.
It feels great to slip into the driver’s seat of nearly 150 cars in Need for Speed Unbound. Blasting down the straight in the McLaren gives a remarkable sense of speed but recovering a corner drift in the Mitsubishi feels equally cool. Actions like drifting and drafting fill up your boost gauge, creating a satisfying rhythm of spur-of-the-moment racing as you move from move to move.
Distinctive visual effects pervade nearly every moment of Need for Speed Unbound, making it one of the most stylish racing games I’ve ever played. Although the cities and vehicles retain their photorealistic look from the previous games, the characters are cel-shaded cartoons. These two contrasting styles sound like they should collide, but they work together to create a refreshing amalgamation. Unbound leans further into stylization by adding street-art-inspired flourishes to the car as you drift, boost, and jump off ramps. I appreciated the neon colored smoke during a tight corner, but the tag that pops up when your boost is full sometimes blocked my view during critical points in the race.
You have a bunch of events to choose from as you take to the open streets of the fictional city of Lakeshore. You can take part in linear races, lap-based circuits, head-to-head contests and drifting events – not to mention the various collections and challenges spread across the city. These each present exciting challenges, but my favorite event is Takeover, which puts you in a tightrope and rewards you for drifting, boosting, ramp hitting, and smashing targets.
The single-player story of Need for Speed Unbound focuses on a betrayal and the subsequent rise of the city’s underground racing scene. While it’s easy to overlook the overarching story, the frequent interactions between the characters emphasize their jarring personalities. Rivals repeat hackneyed lines at each race, while open-world exploration is frequently interrupted by calls from your annoying manager or radio segments featuring ham-fisted politician caricatures. After my first few hours, I loathed the dialog in the menus. However, I actively enjoyed hearing from Riddell as the garage owner and father of the character you create, as their conversations deliver some truly earnest humor despite the brutal style of the game.
Police chases have long been a key element of the Need for Speed formula, and Unbound executes them effectively. Each incident and chase you take part in increases your heat level for the day, more tough police officers with better vehicles with higher heat spell. I often left the base model police cruiser in the dust on heat level one, but as the heat turned up and the police broke out the more capable vehicles, tension spread throughout my body as I gripped my controller tightly .
It can be difficult to get it back to a safe place with high heat; I often changed my route to avoid a long chase. Although I usually got away with it, the threat of knowing that if I got caught I would lose all the money I made in that session produced adrenaline-fueled affairs. Although there have been a few times I’ve wanted to run away after getting caught, it’s hard to match the joy of a high-stakes escape.
Unfortunately, the police chase is absent from the online suite of games. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if I could just find the events in full. However, since the online side only dumps you into the Lakeshore instance with 15 other players who are more interested in exploring the city than racing, online races are often sparsely populated. Once you’re in a race, the servers are stable, and crossplay works well, but I was disappointed that my garage progress in the story didn’t keep up with my initial race Found. Thankfully, the generous reward system let me catch on fast, but I missed out on the upgraded vehicles I’d grown accustomed to from the story.
Need for Speed Unbound feels like a foundational entry for where the series can go from here. Competing in the title’s many events is a blast, and I love the visual aesthetics surrounding it. Although some elements left me wanting, Unbound is as much fun as I’ve had with a Need for Speed title in years.