Need for Speed Unbound review

Need for Speed Unbound released towards the end of 2022, almost shadow dropped with very little marketing, but this racer from Criterion and EA is a whole load of fun, and a worthy contender to the current king of racers, Forza Horizon 5.

The last Need for Speed game, Heat, released in 2019 received a fairly lukewarm reception, and didn’t make in-rads beyond the Need for Speed faithful audience. Need for Speed Unbound is a sequel, building on the positive elements of Heat, and contains many modern day racing features like a large open-world to explore and get missions from. It’s a strange marketing tactic from EA, given Need for Speed is very good, and arguably the best Need for Speed in years. Whether this reflects EA’s lack of confidence in the series, or something else, this is for sure a return to form for Criterion and Need for Speed.

Need for Speed Unbound is all about underground racing, where you travel across an open world map with your mechanic partner in your eyes, searching for new races, where you gathering prize money and then invest back into cosmetics for your car. You can play through the game’s story mode where you’re part of a crew, and it’s a tale of living the underground racing life, working as a mechanic, plus friends, betrayal and the consequences of all that’s come before. Multiplayer is a separate entity in Unbound, where you can load into the map with 16 other players and take them on in a variety of races that take part in the busy streets, and the side roads of this city.

The story campaign takes place over four weeks of in-game time, which is a mixture of races, transporting ‘friends’ to various safe houses, plus you have a number of special events which culminate in the grand final races. As you take part in races, you’ll build up police interest, and often at the end of races you’ll have to continue and outrun the cops. Over time your wanted level raises, and that carry over race after race. Every time you complete a race you’ll earn some cash, but you have to go back to the garage or safe house to bank, then you can use these fund to enter more races. Given you have the cops on your tail, this system pushes you to explore the open-world, which is a nice side effect of one of the main mechanics in Unbound.

The open-world is great, it’s dense with other cars and people, plus there are plenty of events, important locations and interactivity through escaping from the cops. You have to be relatively careful exploring the open world and driving in a semi-responsible manner. For example, I was driving, minding my own business, maybe going a little fast, when I crashed head on into a cop car, which led into a full blown chase through the city.

Need for Speed Unbound has it’s own visual identity, with realism focused on the cars and the environment, and then players, characters, NPCs and driving effects and flourishes done in a cell-shaded design, flat and coloutful in an otherwise realistic driver. It’s a nice combination and the flourishes are particularly good.

Lakeshore, the location we’re left to explore via the open-world, is similar to Chicago in the United States. There’s a busy downtown area, train tracks to cross and drive on if you wish, plus you have dense urban areas too filled with people, plsu the long winding roads of the areas just outside the city where you can really put your foot down.

In terms of gameplay it’s a decent racer, one which I found much easier to control comapred to Forza Horizon 5. Drifting, braking and controling around corners is much more forgiving, and that led me to easily pick this one up and play it, having much more fun in a shorter amount of time. You have to be careful of other cars on the road as when you inevitably smash into one of them you’ll stop and have to start over a second or so later, which is definitely going to mess your race ranking. I started out with a Dodge Charger and so far it’s served me very well.

You can customise pretty much every detail of your ride, and you are encouraged to when entering new races, you are a mechanic after all and living that underground lifestyle. You can charge the wheels, suspension, exhaust, allowing you to personalise your car to the smallest detail. You improve the engines, and you really feel the extra power as your car grips into the road, controller vibrating in your hands. It’s a great feeling racer, and for me, easy to pick up and play and get going quickly.

There are definitely improvements that could be made with the game. Police AI can be a little intense, it’s generally OK when you have a low wanted meter but things ramp up quickly and becomes overwhelming. While there are a decent amount of cars, unfortunately it doesn’t really compete with Forza Horizon 5 on that front. This Need for Speed title is one of the best Need for Speed’s I’ve played in some time, but a few small tweaks and improvements could really make this title excel.

Overall, Need for Speed Unbound is a great ooen-world racer, one that controls really well, is visually stunning and has it’s own unique visual style and the music is great too. The storymode is entertaining, and online works seamlessly and very well, with little to no lag, and it was easy to get matches. The game is also available to try on EA Play’s timed trial feature, where you can play up to 10 hours of the game for free if you have access to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

Developer: Criterion
Publisher: EA
Platform: Xbox Series X/S, PC, PlayStation 5
Release Date: 29th November 2022