Struggling to keep up with its legacy, the Need for Speed franchise could easily be swept under the rug as done and dusted. The open-world approach of the Forza Horizon series and the track-focused appeal of Dirt 5 offer joy in entertaining ways for racing fans but does the latest Need for Speed entry offer something better? The short of it is yes. In moment-to-moment gameplay, Need for Speed Unbound is a proper comeback for the series.
Need for Speed Unbound review
Grinding your wheels
The game urges you into completing races in a very clever manner. Races earn you cash which you can spend on upgrading and tuning your car, standard stuff, right? Well, you also earn Heat from racing because it’s illegal in Lakeshore City. The level of Heat dictates how ruthlessly the cops will hunt you down to seize all of that money. The only way to secure it is to scurry away into a hideout. Need for Speed Unbound is also using the day and night cycle from Need for Speed Heat. Only this time, there’s a proper calendar with day and night cycles. Once you finish races, earn cash and pick up Heat during the day, the money will be secured for the night ahead but the Heat will carry on making the whole thing more challenging after the sun’s down. The Heat resets once a full day/night cycle is over. Visiting a hideout triggers the day/night cycle, which means you have to consciously decide if you want to carry on with another race and earn more cash but also run the risk of losing it to the cops or call it a day and hit the bed.
Level 1 cops are easy to deal with but as soon as you hit the level 5 Heat, there will be a chopper, a heavy, a speeder and an undercover cop car trying to turn your precious four-wheeler belly up. You’re always in need of more money because upgrades don’t come cheap. The races that offer big money also require you to purchase a buy-in to fit your growling V8 into the participant list. And hey, you only get four to five retries (in total for all races) during the day and the same number again at night.
You’re always looking out for cops once your Heat level is above three. Buy-in for big reward races tends to increase the stakes because if you don’t win, you can lose that money too. Additionally, you can even have a side bet with one racer from the list of racers. The money won feels hard-earned because you always run the risk of losing it to cops or losing your buy-in by not finishing in the top three. It’s this cat-and-mouse chase and money management that makes Need for Speed Unbound fun. It triggers the same impulses we get from gambling and so you’ll understand why Need for Speed Unbound is a wee bit addictive even if the cookie-cutter races are a bit grindy.
It’s a good racing formula but one that tends to get boring after the first 10 hours because the map gets stale quickly. There are not enough theatrics or engaging boss races like the NFS games of yore. Lakeshore City is drab and there’s no dynamic weather system like Dirt 5 or Forza Horizon 5 to make things engaging on the tarmac. The cartoon-themed smoke and effects are good and give Unbound a sense of identity among the many racing games but it’s down to personal preference and I do like the smoke and the speeding effects.
The cartoon effect on characters around the realistic-looking cars and environments puts more emphasis on them than the car. However, the characters are the least bit interesting in the game. The story is about a rivalry between two friends turned enemies and A$AP Rocky who was shown in the promo doesn’t have anything to do with the story nor does he get enough screen time or game value.
The story is boring but thankfully this is a game about cars and car tuning is fun. There are tiers to upgrading your car and each car can be modified as you like. Some races demand a drift car and others might need something that sticks your tires to the tarmac. All these require completely different tuning and modifiers to win so you will be using more than one car during your rodeo in the city. You can also collect some extra cash from lower-tier races without getting too much heat. So it’s good to have a completely upgraded car for all tiers.
Car handling is also very well done. It’s not as nuanced as simulators but there’s enough variety and variable in the handling and performance to make the cars feel different. Our Lotus Exige S shoots off the starting line like a Greyhound meanwhile the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX drifts around the bends like a lubed-up otter through a waterslide. We do think that most of the races are more favourable towards AWD cars with differential set to 5 to 15% drift. It gives you the perfect balance between drifting on slippery mud and having a sticky grip on straights. Drifting is actually more favourable in this game since that’s the fastest way to earn nitrous boosts.
Graphically it doesn’t feel next-gen. The graphical settings inside the game barely give you any control over your frame rates. It’s pretty and all but lacks the colourful spin that we've come to see from new-gen videogames. The sky scrapes and the concrete jungle is a bit too bleak.
Need for Speed Unbound feels like a step in the right direction. The moment-to-moment gameplay is truly worth the time and effort. Your car will stay with you until the very end and you can always win some more in the illegal street races. The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The game tries too hard to appeal to the Gen Z audience. Meanwhile, characters are always trying to convince others that street racing should be legal and often tend to villainise the authorities for not letting them zip through traffic in a dangerously modified car.
NFS Unbound has nailed the tension of winning races through a carefully tweaked risk and reward system. You might also enjoy the fun of customising your character with various branded clothing and accessories. As for the music, the choice to go with new-age rap music might not hit home with some millennials who have been with the series since the early 2000s. Albeit, I’ll take that Divine’s Punya Paap as a consolation and a hurrah for brown representation.
After a very long time NFS feels exciting with its gameplay because Unbound nails the racing tension