NFS Unbound Review: New Paint Job, Same Old Car

The game is available for purchase on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and Microsoft Windows.

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NFS Unbound is perhaps the flashiest entry in the series, making one heck of a bold statement right out of the gate with its anime-inspired art style and a soundtrack befitting a game centered around the racing subculture. The game is an amalgamation of ideas from the series’ past as it carefully treads familiar ground in a flashy, new paint job.

There is very little about NFS Unbound that feels exceptionally groundbreaking as these are all ideas and mechanics we’ve all seen before. Yet, the game does things with a sufficient amount of flair to keep things interesting and players engaged. The game’s high point comes from its ridiculously fun gameplay that surprisingly features fine-tuned progression that has players working consistently towards a certain set of goals.

Easily the best part about NFS Unbound comes from the studio’s decision to ditch photorealism and opt for a far more interesting art style. This helps the game stand fathoms above similar sim-cade racers. Developer Criterion makes a couple of neat changes to the formula by adding things like the “Nitrous Boost” which helps deepen the core gameplay loop. In a game that is packed to the brim with style and flash, NFS Unbound doesn’t quite hit the mark, thanks to a rather tedious police chase system and a severe lack of variety when it comes to events.

NFS Unbound: Dude, Where’s My Car?

Campaign/Story

Picking up where NFS Heat left off, Unbound treads familiar ground again by introducing a story element for its single-player experience. Going into a Need for Speed story, you’re going to want to keep your cinephile feelings in check as this isn’t really a script written by the Coen brothers. While most NFS dialogue leaves me cringing and looking for the skip button, Unbound’s characters and their dialog aren’t really that bad.

The story, here, isn’t going to win any writing awards but it serves its purpose by giving players an end goal to keep working towards. The game kicks off with you and your friend running the streets as newbie street racers, only for you to be betrayed and left carless. From that point, you must work your way up the street racing community and battle your former friend in a good ol’ showdown.

As the saving grace, rival drivers you now go up against have personalities and histories of their own. At each meetup, you can check out their Bios and figure out exactly who you will be squaring up against. This provides a layer to the campaign that feels much appreciated as you are no longer racing against faceless husks. The character creation is also pretty basic but functional, and thankfully, the clothing on offer is a massive step up from NFS Heat.

NFS Unbound

Character customization is pretty well-done and doesn’t really get in the way of the game’s overall experience. It provides just enough tools for you to give your character some personality to go with the shiny cars they end up owning. Thankfully, the player character isn’t obnoxious, but rather comes off as earnest and genuinely fun. There is a lot more emphasis on clothing and customization, as EA has roped in popular streetwear brands for players to choose from. Thankfully, there aren’t really any microtransactions and the only way you get to unlock more customization options is purely through gameplay. While it really doesn’t feel fair to chalk that up as a “positive”, racing games have been known to dabble shamelessly with microtransactions and loot boxes.

For once, the story in an NFS game did not feel like a distraction as it carefully feeds into the progression system of the game. Which, for a story in an NFS game really is a big compliment as it does its job silently and fairly well without taking away from the action on the streets. The game thankfully doesn’t try and throw remember-berries at the player with tons of callbacks and references to older games, which might seem like good ideas in practice, but they don’t exactly help a new NFS player feel welcome.

Gameplay

The best thing NFS Unbound has going for it, apart from the obvious visual flair, is just how well-tuned and polished the driving mechanics are. A Need for Speed game lives and dies by its driving mechanics and thankfully, Unbound’s driving feels super-tight and the best NFS has been in years.

Progression works quite flawlessly in Unbound as the story has you going up against your rivals in a series of challenges spread out over a neat Calendar. Each day consists of Day and Night Events, with your “Heat” carrying over. This creates a pretty rewarding risk-and-reward loop as staying out for longer during the day and completing races will have you earning tons of money – but it also puts you at the risk of losing it if you’re busted by cops.

You can stash your money by going into the Garage, but mind you, this means you will be accelerating the Calender towards the big events reserved for the weekend. You will be tasked to upgrade or buy cars, and the only way you can do that is by staying out longer and judiciously allocating resources. While this is a pretty solid progression system, it can also fall apart with terrible consequences.

At one point, my console crashed several times during a particular race, which meant I kept losing the buy-in money each time – which left me unable to get into a race and make any sort of money. For some reason, I could not accelerate the Calender by going into the Garage to find new events. This left me helpless and forced to delete my save file so I could start from scratch all over again. While this is a pretty rare case, crashes or power cuts are bound to happen and it is a shame that the game doesn’t account for inconveniences like that.

Apart from that whole thing, the game is pretty solid to play. The driving feels responsive and challenging in all the best ways. Each car can be tuned and the game smartly rewards all kinds of playstyles. Not every player wants to throw their car into the corner drifting as some might enjoy a nice grippy turn through the corner. The game rewards different playstyles by providing nitrous boosts, which is easily my favorite aspect of the driving.

Nitrous Boosts, in addition to the nitrous bar, provide a speed boost, which players can use to zoom past their opponents and use in clutch situations to make a last-ditch effort across the finish line. The animation department has also worked wonders when it comes to Nitrous Boosts as you see sparks and all kinds of shapes flying around your car as you hurl your car into hyperdrive.

The constant pursuit of Nitrous Boosts provides a good incentive for players to drive creatively as these boosts can be earned in a variety of ways such as by Drafting, Drifting, or just avoiding oncoming cars. Even though the game has a solid gameplay system under the hood, NFS Unbound fails to capitalize on it in a variety of ways.

For one, Police chases aren’t nearly as chaotic and frantic as anything from NFS Most Wanted (2006). Elements such as Pursuit Breakers could have really used a comeback in this one as even though the solid minute-to-minute gameplay is tight, the chases don’t take full advantage of the tools at the game’s disposal. This is a theme pervasive throughout all the different race events present in the game.

Barring a couple of notable tracks in the city, each event feels like a rinse-and-repeat of the previous without any particular variety. Each race feels exhilarating enough because of the solid racing and decent AI, but the lack of variety adds to the fatigue in a massive way, really bringing down the pacing of the game. Multiplayer, while not bad, doesn’t really have much to offer apart from the same experience, except against other players.  For the most part, NFS Unbound is a game that feels super rewarding, but it is ultimately brought down by its lack of variety in racing events and the rather sterile police chases.

NFS Unbound: Graphics, Art-Style, Sound Design

Now onto the real brass tacks, the thing that really sold me on NFS Unbound in the first place – the presentation. Criterion carefully avoids the pitfalls of trying to create the most photorealistic racing game, because that is a battle they will most likely lose going up against the likes of Gran Turismo or Forza Horizon. Instead, opting for an anime-style art style feels more in line with the Need for Speed brand.

This art style not only helps add a ton of flair to an already stylish game but also gives it a lot of personality. In the age where all sim-cade racers begin to look the same, NFS Unbound stands out in all its animated glory as one of the flashiest games around. The game simply oozes personality in practically every minute of gameplay. From the incredibly well-put-together soundtrack to the customization options available for your cars and character, everything about NFS Unbound’s visual and audio presentation feels extremely well-curated and polished.

The sound of your engine roaring to life as you push the Nitrous Boost button and seeing wings sprout from your car in a blaze of glory is just one of the things that will keep you coming back to the game. The soundtrack, here, is also incredibly effective as the game carefully picks the best songs for each track and mixes them according to where the player is in during the race.

The attention to detail is also pretty astounding as the customization also stretches to engine sounds, which the player can tinker with to make their car a silent predator or a roaring beast. There is very little room for complaint when it comes to NFS Unbound’s sound design and visual presentation.

Final Word: NFS Unbound

Need for Speed Unbound

Need for Speed, as a franchise, hasn’t been quite as exciting as it used to be back in the mid-2000s but efforts like Unbound can be what sets it back on the trajectory of greatness yet again. NFS Unbound feels like a solid, polished affair that could have used some more variety – but even with that said, the game does what it has set out to do fairly well.

The incredibly fun gameplay loop and the art style are a great platform for Criterion to build on and one can only hope that the game is supported post-launch with even more race types and events. I can see Unbound turn into one of EA’s bigger sleeper hits with post-launch support as it has a pretty solid foundation to build on.

In its current state, NFS Unbound is a solid Need for Speed experience that delivers on its promise: a fun racing game accessible to players of all skill levels.

Review copy provided by Electronic Arts and reviewed on a PlayStation 5. 

Need for Speed Unbound

4,499
8.2

Gameplay

8.5/10

Campaign/Story

8.0/10

Multiplayer

7.0/10

Performance

9.0/10

Value for Money

8.5/10

What Is Good?

  • Solid Gameplay
  • Decent Progression
  • Incredible Art Style and Sound Design

What Is Bad?

  • Lack of Variety
  • Sterile Police Chases