Welcome Back To The Fast Lane, Criterion
HIGH Exceptional driving paired with a unique aesthetic.
LOW Tough AI.
WTF Okay, now can we get a new Burnout, EA?
Need for Speed is a special series when compared to other, modern racing franchises. Skewing closer to arcade handling and sensibility than its more simulation-focused peers Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. While the series has experimented with different directions, the core tenets always involve two things — fast cars and evading the law. The same is true for Need for Speed: Unbound, the 25th and latest entry in the franchise, though a few welcome additions make it stand out among its storied predecessors.
Developed by Criterion Games, the studio best known for Burnout (including the masterpiece that is Burnout Paradise) and a few critically acclaimed NFS titles (Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted), Unbound is a racer set in the open world of Lakeshore City. Players control a young hotshot driver they create and set out to compete in the world of underground street racing, while also building up their collection of cars.
Setting it apart, however, is the new art style. Cars and environments are rendered in realistic fashion, with each vehicle looking exceptionally true-to-life. However, every character and special effect is presented in a stylistic and cel-shaded way, reminiscent of films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and I think it’s a treat.
While racing, the effects are delightfully over-the-top. Each race begins with a flurry of exhaust fumes and flashing lights that sport a graffitti-esque style that could easily be straight out of something like the seminal Jet Set Radio. Very few titles have done something like this right, and the overall balance of realism and pure style between the elements is a welcome change to the formula.
Complimenting the new art is an overhauled gameplay loop.
Similar to 2019’s Need for Speed: Heat, Unbound features a fixed cycle that’s based on an in-game week’s worth of time. Basically, players must earn money and level up their car in that period before competing in a big race. That race can net players a brand-new custom car, though it comes at the cost of a huge buy-in. Not only that, the player needs to have a car that meets the minimum level requirements for the competition.
Every in-game day during that week is a chance to earn money. This can be done by competing in races, completing various side quests (like delivering contraband cars to garages), and even miscellaneous tasks like driving through billboards and hitting certain speed milestones. At any point, players can go back to their garage, bank their rewards and start the next cycle.
My first two in-game days felt a bit overwhelming, as I was losing races and felt like I was wasting a lot of time. However, something clicked as I noticed that I was earning enough money to tune my car the way I wanted to. That’s when I learned that Unbound didn’t care if I won every race, it only wanted me to do well enough to work my way towards eventually winning tougher races. Sure, getting fourth place during the early matches might not feel great at first, but I still won some cash and ultimately felt good about that progression.
Players also have the option to place side bets against the AI opponents, offering a pretty cool risk versus reward-system to events ranging from standard sprint races that have players reaching a finish line, to drift events that test a racer’s ability to hit corners effectively. Payouts vary and some require a bigger buy-in, thus providing interesting choices on whether or not it’s worth risking a large sum of cash on a race that could easily be lost.
Of course there are also cop chases, the game’s biggest challenge.
Completing races earns the player “heat” which is Unbound’s notoriety system. The higher it is, the more aggressive the cops are toward the player as they drive in the open world. Getting pursued is an exhilarating prospect, as it becomes a city-wide dash to freedom from the police. Getting caught means losing whatever money has been earned and a premature end to the in-game day. While the cops are a bit difficult to shake and getting busted burns, I still enjoyed the act of running away from them — as with the rest of the experience, there’s always an entertaining gamble to be had.
All the money earned one way or another can be used to upgrade cars. My first in-game ride was a Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX that I made sure to soup up significantly (as well as add a wonderful Dragon Ball Z-themed livery to its design). There are plenty of options here from new engines to aesthetics, and even clothing options for the player character. Nothing beats winning races and seeing my racer rock a Versace jacket.
So what about the driving itself? It feels significantly better than it has since the Xbox 360 generation of NFS games. Criterion has improved the physics significantly, allowing for cars that have a substantial amount of weight, but can also drift effortlessly at the tap of the brake button. In a way, it manages to marry the gameplay stylings of both Need for Speed and Burnout, with the technical finesse of the former combined with the chaos of the latter. Every race is a true mad dash, and it’s probably the most chaotic (yet confident) triple-A racing I’ve played.
It is almost overwhelming to talk about a game like Need for Speed: Unbound as it’s not only an exceptional game in its own right, but seeing Criterion — who haven’t made a racing game in years — take the helm of this franchise and pull off a mechanically and aesthetically excellent experience is outstanding. Criterion is back and they’ve easily earned themselves a victory lap with this one.
Disclosures: This game is published by Electronic Arts and developed by Criterion Games. It is available on PS5, PC, and XB/X/S. This copy was obtained via the publisher and was reviewed on PS5. Approximately 20 hours were spent in single-player and was not completed. There is a multiplayer mode identical to the single-player game that was not played for review.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T for Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Mild Violence. The site reads: “This is a racing game in which players engage in street races to restore a garage back to its former glory. As players compete in races, they can encounter and flee from police vehicles that deliberately crash into them. Players can also slam into police vehicles to disable them from pursuit. The game contains some suggestive material: decals of female characters in bikinis that can be placed on vehicles; suggestive dialogue that states, “Wow…no foreplay, huh?” and “That back end got more jelly than J-lo.” The words “sh*t” and “a*shole” are heard in the game.“
Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present in the options menu.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are subtitles present in the game (see examples above) as well as visual cues during gameplay. While the subtitles cannot be adjusted, the game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: The controls cannot be remapped but there is a control diagram.