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Need for Speed Unbound puts a new spin on the racing series with a graffiti-inspired aesthetic that helps enhance both story and gameplay in refreshing ways. It’s amazing what a new coat of paint can achieve, especially when it’s combined with 60 FPS support on consoles, the return of police chases, an interesting approach to difficulty options, and a well-curated soundtrack. However, there are some pain points that drag the experience down.
In Unbound, the player-created character suffers a betrayal in the game’s Prologue, losing their awesome car and forcing them to work their way back up. It’s the classic “power reset” cliche, where players are given a taste of what max-level gameplay feels like before it’s quickly taken away. It fits perfectly here and is a refreshing change of pace from games like Forza Horizon, which quickly give you the keys to the best cars. Working your way through the ranks to obtain better, faster vehicles is a staple of Need For Speed, and Unbound is built on this template.
When it comes to the story, there’s a strong Fast and Furious vibe, which works well enough to carry players from race to race, as they build up an arsenal of cars. Don’t expect a particularly deep narrative here — I can see some players just outright ignoring cutscenes and dialogue — but it gets the job done.
As with most open-world racing games, the true main character is the setting. Unbound’s Lakeshore City is loosely based on Chicago and it’s a fine place to drive. The opening area explores the tame streets and highways, though the world soon opens up to include mountain roads, muddy paths, and a test track.
Better late than never
It’s so great to see Need for Speed running at 60 FPS on consoles. I was beginning to lose faith as NFS seemed to be the only racing franchise that wasn’t putting frame rates first. Both PS5 and Xbox Series X|S support 60 FPS, which not only means smoother gameplay but also quicker inputs. This is a huge win for the series and I never want to go back to 30.
I’m a big fan of Unbound’s overall aesthetic and commend the team for taking a big risk. Going in the opposite direction from the competition, who have focused on photorealism powered by the new generation of consoles, the use of new cartoon-style graffiti effects is extremely refreshing and unique, and they especially pop out during nighttime street races. However, they can also be toned down, for those who aren’t so into it.
Risk it all
Need for Speed Unbound has an interesting gameplay loop. During each day/night cycle, players build up as much cash as they can, while also steadily raising the Heat. The more players race, the more attention they’ll attract from the cops. The higher the Heat level, the more stubborn the police become, sending in tougher and faster units. It’s an interesting risk and reward system that kept me on my toes throughout.
Players keep racing to build up a collection of cars that they can use to enter big races at the end of the week. The race types are your standard circuits, point-to-point sprints, drift challenges, and whatnot. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, aside from the difficulty.
You see, most players aren’t going to win every single race they enter. Hell, they might not even come in the top three racers. Instead, players select a competing racer to be their Rival, betting money on the win. I’ll admit that I was initially frustrated by the super-speedy first-place finishers, but I quickly learned that the focus is more on besting Rivals than coming top every single time.
The lonely road
Don’t buy Need for Speed Unbound for its multiplayer. It’s a lonely experience with long wait times where players trickle in. Players can at least drive around while they wait for the match to start, but it can take a long while, despite a 10-hour trial being available and theoretically boosting the player pool.
When a race does get going, it’s the same content that’s found in the single-player. Sure, this is fine, but I expected at least some extra modes or routes made especially for multiplayer. Hopefully, the multiplayer is expanded upon with future content updates but, after seeing many NFS multiplayer components left to die, I’m not optimistic. This is especially disappointing given Need For Speed Heat’s simple-but-effective multiplayer mode, with this feeling like a barebones step back for the series.
I spent 22 hours playing through Unbound’s story and completing several side missions. I dabbled with the multiplayer, too, but a lack of players meant that I couldn’t try many races. Happily, I had already gotten my fill from the story mode and I can see players squeezing out more play time by continuing to tune their vehicles and perfect their skills in each race type.
Need for Speed Unbound Review: The final verdict
Need for Speed Unbound marries classic NFS gameplay with a hot new graffiti-inspired aesthetic. Gameplay-wise, it’s a safe approach that sticks to what has always worked for NFS, with police playing a big part during races and open-world exploration. Thankfully, the visual shift does a lot to make this racer feel fresh, taking it in a different direction from the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo.
Those looking for an arcade racer with some attitude should check out Unbound, as it wins far more than it loses, and looks great doing it.
Need for Speed Unbound was reviewed on PS5 with code provided by the publisher.