Need For Speed Unbound has arrived with very little fanfare, and the review coverage has been sparse to say the least. Being the 25th entry in the series (wait, what? There are 25? Yep, I didn’t know either) this game is being fully developed by Criterion, who last headlined the critically-acclaimed, Most Wanted back in 2012. So did they hit the same strides here? Or stall straight out of 3rd gear? Time to find out…
When it comes to this style of game nowadays, variety should be the number one priority. Sadly, Unbound doesn’t offer much outside of normal street racing and side bets, apart from running through speed gates, time trial deliveries and losing the cops. Not that they’re much of a challenge, even on the higher difficulties. But since the spotlight is mainly on racing and qualifying for the Lakeshore Grand, how does it hold up? Well, it’s a mixed bag.
The focus on tailing, drifting and near-misses to gain NOS is satisfying, but the turning controls just don’t feel right. Even though the handling can be tuned, whenever I turned a corner correctly, it almost always felt like a fluke. To add fuel to the fire (pun intended) the random NPC cars that litter the map appear at the worst possible times, making drivers swerve wildly out of control or straight-up crash, ultimately costing vital seconds on the clock.
Unbound’s new art design is a double-edged sword too. The customisable smoke and vehicular effects look slick combined with the realistic graphics, but the same cel-shaded style doesn’t exactly fit the cartoonish characters. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something missing in the animation or rendering that just seems off. Maybe it’s the lack of proper lip-syncing for the cutscenes. It’s hard to say. That being said, the characters themselves fall into that Fast & Furious style of dialogue, where everyone beats their chest and thinks they’re Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The word “family” and “bro” pops up several times as well—easily ticking those boxes. It’s just hard to care for the story and characters in Unbound when everything feels so one-dimensional.
Driving through Lakeshore City is a breeze and is just sizeable enough so you won’t keep seeing the same structures and landmarks over and over again. Running through straightaways, ramps and speed gates is a lot of fun outside of races, but it doesn’t come close to the number of zany antics, minigames and discoverability found in Forza Horizon 5, for instance. Unbound’s soundtrack is pretty solid though, with the hip-hop and techno-centric tunes from the likes of A$AP Rocky, Anna Lunoe and Charli XCX making me want to drop a little boogie here and there.
The safehouses around Lakeshore City are used for lowering heat from the cops, but they’re also the one-stop shop for driver customisation. Here, players can alter their character models’ appearance and poses they make before and after races, as well as change almost every conceivable aspect of their rides. Right down to the paint job/wrap, engine parts, decals and exhaust sound of the 140+ unlockable cars. In terms of impact, the sounds and visuals pack a huge punch. You’ll truly feel each crash and NOS boost when those speakers are cranked up.
The online cross-play works really well too, as it’s a cinch to jump into a set of races and link up to a lobby of 16 players, while the variable refresh rate and NVIDIA DLSS support on PC keep the action as smooth as butter. In terms of gameplay, Lakeshore Online mirrors the story mode experience, in which players gather at car meetups and battle it out to purchase extra vehicles, items, add-ons and so on. Progression from the single-player campaign doesn’t carry over, but there is a fair amount of grinding involved. However, almost every other game mechanic/system from the story mode is active here. This includes some good accessibility options like colourblind mode, menu narration and lighting control to reduce the intensity of flashing lights. Although, there are only a few scenes where this may be required.
Need for Speed Unbound is an average-at-best arcade experience. With the headlights firmly set on street racing, it’s hard to enjoy the action when the turning controls are just not quite there. But the focus on tailing, drifting and near-misses to gain NOS is highly engaging… well, except for when a random NPC driver casually rams your car out of nowhere. Still, there is an extensive amount of customisation and a few open-world activities to take part in like time-trial deliveries, speed gates and escaping cops, though not to the same extent and depth as Forza Horizon 5.
By Anthony Culinas – Reviewed on PC
It’s been a while since Criterion has helmed the Need For Speed franchise, but this new entry has unfortunately fallen flat. The racing controls feel off, NPC cars violently disrupt certain races and the story and characters feel like a knock-off Fast & Furious movie. Unbound does run well both online and off, and there are some side activities to enjoy, although they’re nothing special.
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