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Need for Speed Unbound review: Shifting into reverse

Too many cops, not enough cash, and a generic, lackluster story are among the reasons why Unbound isn't as big of a step forward for the series as it otherwise could have been.

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Need for Speed Unbound raced quietly and unobtrusively towards its December 2 release date and jumping in, the game feels as inconspicuous and wholly unremarkable as its initial launch. While there are a number of improvements from Need for Speed predecessors like Heat, there are also several detractors noticeable enough to make one feel the need to pause and reassess before committing to a full purchase.

Pedal mostly to the metal

Need for Speed Unbound screenshot showing two cars in a race flanked by police
© Criterion Games

The first thing you’ll notice when driving around in Need For Speed Unbound is the way the game’s vehicles handle. Compared to previous entries in the Need For Speed series like Heat, Unbound does manage to feel like a half-step in the right direction. Compared to other racing games on the market though, there are still moments where cars in Unbound can feel a bit stiff and sluggish, particularly when cornering.

Speaking of cornering, drifting gives off shades of Heat in that it’s more of a battle than a well-integrated feature in Unbound. Furthermore, the use of nitrous is similar in how it often ends up fading into the background as far as features go. It’s there, you can use it if you like, but it never feels like something that’s critically necessary to win. I primarily used nitrous as a way to help give me a slight edge in sliding past the police in certain areas, with Unbound throwing in a larger number of cops than previous entries.

Need for Speed Unbound screenshot showing a BMW in a race with the game's graffiti style graphics
© Criterion Games

The overabundance and sheer persistence of the police in Unbound doesn’t feel necessary, and is more of an annoyance than anything that could even remotely be considered fun. Despite this, races themselves are quick and smooth with the game’s performance on platforms like PC being stable and commendable. In fact, Unbound feels like one of the most polished Need for Speed games I’ve played. I didn’t experience any major, glaring issues with the game from a technical standpoint.

That said, I did encounter a number of strange design and setup choices to nitpick over including progression in Unbound with the cash you earn coming in more of a slow, tedious trickle than a steady flow. One reason for this centers around how many of the best races from a payout standpoint often have a higher buy-in price. If you’re someone who prefers to focus on spending your hard-earned cash to unlock cars or explore customization options, you’ll almost certainly feel the pain of the way money is accrued in Unbound more so than someone who’s in it solely for the experience of the races themselves.

Slow rollin’

Need for Speed Unbound screenshot showing two racers side-by-side with the police in pursuit behind them
© Criterion Games

The story continues the game’s slow roll downhill with narrative that feels overly familiar and uninspired while also packed with plenty of “how do you do, fellow kids?” type dialogue. Set in the aesthetically pleasing, large map area of Lakeshore, Need for Speed Unbound’s story centers around an out of touch mayor and police force who are attempting to criminalize street races. This helps explain, at least in part, the excessive police presence seen throughout the entire game though it does little to compel you to dig deeper or want to know more. The cops and fictional mayor hate street racing and want to crack down on it? Wow, who could have seen that one coming?

Adding to the predictability of Unbound’s story, you start out as a rookie racer tasked with partaking in an assortment of street racing events including several fast-paced qualifiers ahead of the big Lakeshore Grand. The story sports much of that uninspired “been there, done that” sort of vibe which is a shame given the presence of more stylized graphics. Visually, Unbound is one of the more unique entries in the series and undoubtedly the prettiest with stunning next-gen level graphics. With this, it would’ve been truly delightful to have seen the sort of thoughtfulness that helped make Unbound as striking as it is placed into supporting the game’s visuals with a story capable of tying everything together into a well-rounded package.

Promo image for Need for Speed Unbound featuring a character modeled after musician A$AP Rocky
© Criterion Games

It’d also have helped if the game’s soundtrack had a bit more life and zest to it, with many of the tracks present (with the exception of headlining tracks like A$AP Rocky's "Shittin Me" which I did enjoy quite a bit) feeling as stale and generic as the story beats they accompany.

If you find yourself bored with Unbound’s story like I did, there are other modes to check out including an online option where you can race against real opponents. I had the most fun in Unbound when I stuck with online racing as competition is a lot stiffer and races more intense. Adding to this, there’s a greater opportunity to earn cash in the game’s online mode, and fewer cops to deal with. If Unbound was more like its online component, I would’ve without a doubt liked the game as a whole far more than I did. Unfortunately, the 30+ hour campaign felt like more of a slog than an exciting, tension-packed race from last to first.

Throw it in reverse

Need for Speed Unbound screenshot showing a car with stylized neon graffiti graphics being pursued by a police car
© Criterion Games

Need for Speed Unbound, despite its issues, does manage to feel like a small step up from previous entries especially as far as polish and performance are concerned. It’s also one of the most visually appealing titles the series has seen to date. Unfortunately, the game gets held back from first place greatness thanks to its underwhelming, lackluster story, improved yet still mediocre handling and stiff drifting, overabundance of police that suck all the joy and fun out of the game’s fast-paced races, and cringeworthy moments of dialogue.

If you’re looking for a game to kick back and play race after race with a sizable campaign and other options including an online mode, Need for Speed Unbound has plenty to keep you busy and entertained. That said, it’s also one of those games that’ll likely feel more enjoyable and worthwhile when purchased on sale rather than its arguably steep $70 (USD) purchase price. I can’t in good conscience recommend it at $70 but closer to $40-50? Absolutely, especially given the performance, campaign length, and fun assortment of races on offer.


This review is based on a PC (Steam) code for Need for Speed Unbound provided by the publisher. Need for Speed Unbound races is available now on platforms including Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC (Steam).

Senior Editor

Morgan is a writer from the frozen wastelands of Maine who enjoys metal music, kpop, horror, and indie games. They're also a Tetris fanatic who's fiercely competitive in games like Tetris 99... and all games in general. But mostly Tetris. You can follow Morgan on Twitter @Author_MShaver.

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Pros
  • Visually stunning, prettiest NFS game to date
  • Smooth performance, extremely well-optimized
  • Quick, fun races with plenty to choose from
  • Solid assortment of vehicles & customization options
  • Decent replayability, online mode
Cons
  • Unnecessary overabundance of police
  • Generic, lackluster story
  • Cringey "how do you do, fellow kids?" type dialogue
  • Slow, grindy cash-based progression
  • Vehicle handling still feels a bit lacking
From The Chatty
  • reply
    December 6, 2022 6:00 AM

    Morgan Shaver posted a new article, Need for Speed Unbound review: Shifting into reverse

    • reply
      December 6, 2022 6:52 AM

      Do games like these even need a story mode? Forza Horizon 5 had one. At least one more than they had in the past, and it felt so clunky.

    • reply
      December 6, 2022 9:22 AM

      when did need for speed become part of ubisoft? I have not played one in a while

    • reply
      December 6, 2022 11:12 AM

      Lots of things I agree with here, but there are some that I disagree with also, mostly in regards to using boost / the feeling of cops in SP but minor nitpicks. The main thing I agree with is the progression in the SP is very slow due to the small amounts of cash you get initially. You will be driving your 1st B class car for a long time and not earning a lot of cash to buy a car / upgrade your current car very far as you need to make sure you have X amount by the end of the week.

    • reply
      December 6, 2022 2:30 PM

      I played about an hour and the story was certainly cringetastic.

      Visuals were pretty good, about on the level with Forza Horizon. The dynamic resolution setting on PC was confusing though because I set it to target 60fps but my frames were wavering between 45 and 65.

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