It has been almost three full years since the last release in the Need for Speed series. The previous release, Need for Speed Heat, came in 2019 by Ghost Games. It was not hated or anything but ultimately didn’t quite live up to the hype. With that in mind, while Criterion helped with that game, Need for Speed Unbound is the first time it has been back in control since 2013’s
Speaking of Criterion, the last Need for Speed to have their fingerprints all over it was 2013’s Need for Speed Rivals. While that was a solid game, 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted was one of my favorites in the series, along with 2010’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, also a Criterion game. In other words, I think the way Criterion develops games fits nicely with the Need for Speed series.
Need For Speed Unbound Review
I have now had Need for Speed Unbound churning away in my PS5 for over a week, going way beyond what the game offers superficially and seeing what the title provides from all vantage points. Does Criterion deliver again with Need for Speed Unbound? Let’s talk about it.
What I Like
The story mode offers a seamless experience that takes you down a familiar path if you have played any number of the Need for Speed titles since 1994. Without giving any of the story details away, you are a character who lets the love of street racing envelop their life and permeate every aspect of it.
Things take a turn for the worse, and the main character is forced to find a way to make things right, all while eluding the law. The acting is admirable enough, although the story moves a bit too fast at times and feels a bit thin overall, which I will talk a more about later.
As with most titles in the NFS library, the story is flexible and allows the player to accomplish the objectives at any time while pursuing peripheral goals and challenges. The story in Need for Speed Unbound offers a lot of fun, thrills, and excitement, and for those offline players who are concerned, quite a bit of longevity.
As I often mention with racing titles, depth is typically an issue, especially for those who favor offline options. At first glance with Need for Speed Unbound that might also seem like an issue. Thankfully, as you progress with the title, you realize how the story mode acts as a portal for upgrades and options and the online portion is additive from there.
Criterion did a masterful job of creating one massive ecosystem to play and race in. After devoting hours to the game and making the story’s second act, I finally unlocked the ability to upgrade my car and its attributes. Usually, this delay would create a sense of frustration, and it has in many games before because it’s usually done this way to create a false sense of depth. However, here it felt much more natural.
As with most NFS titles, the game offers story mode, online options, speed traps, police escapes, massive hidden jumps, weekly challenges, and more, all wrapped into a beautiful package that has the potential to keep players occupied for weeks at a time.
The Need for Speed series has primarily been about racing, escaping, and customizing your car. That doesn’t change with the newest iteration, but each title brings new choices and options for customizing your vehicle and character, and not all of them have been great through the years. Luckily, Need for Speed Unbound offers up an excellent experience in this area, both with its character and vehicle customization.
For starters, because of the graphical style, creating a doppelganger was never in the cards. This works though because I just focused on hair style, facial features, tattoos, and, more importantly, clothing choices.
The car upgrade and customization model used in NFS is utilized and implemented to add real depth to the game in a “grind mentality” type of way that required me to stay the course and keep pushing forward because there is no cheap path to upgrading your vehicle.
The developers and powers that be did an admirable job of landing top-flight and recognizable names in clothing and after-market car parts and accessories. All of this seamlessly meshes into the story and game in the background and provides real connectivity between our character and the game.
That Look And Feel
The developer’s decision to use a cel-shaded approach for the game’s design felt a bit odd and even off-putting at first to me. When compared to the authenticity of Lakeshore City, it felt like an odd combination of art styles because the characters in the game often come across as comic book characters. That said, the deeper I descended into the newest Criterion experience, the more it felt like the right choice and a genius move.
As I progressed, it became more apparent that these characters lived and raced in a comic-book world, and suddenly the character design felt perfect for the world that Criterion had constructed. Character designs aside, Criterion has also delivered on another front. Lakeshore City is alive and breathing, and my character and the story felt like they were integrated into the town’s fabric, not taking place despite it.
The story weaves you in and out of a city full of characters and ambiance and is done so well that even the buildings feel like they have a heartbeat.
Now, add to the equation that so much of Lakeshore City is destructible and can either help or hinder races — and your pursuit to escape the police — that the city takes on the role of enemy and ally throughout the storyline unfolding.
The graphical choices and execution found in NFS Unbound are so well done that it adds a different layer of depth to the overall experience. While a bold choice for Criterion, it was a choice that ultimately paid off.
What I Don’t Like
Police Interaction (Initially)
As I mentioned, I spent plenty of time in Lakeshore City (fictional Chicago) and loved almost every minute of it. Still, I have a word of caution for those expecting to see the cops aggressively and relentlessly chase you down. At the start of Need for Speed Unbound, the police will barely notice you, regardless of what shenanigans you are up to. Often, I found myself doing whatever I pleased, knowing that the escape was, at best, an elementary effort, and often there was no escape needed as I was rarely pursued.
This lack of recourse continued well into the story’s second act, and just when I was ready to believe the police of Lakeshore City had no interest in stopping any form of street racing, things took a turn for the better. I say no more, but the entire story is based on illegal street racing, and the outcome is predicated on the idea of stopping illegal street racing.
This delay of sorts is not a reason to skip Need for Speed Unbound, but I found it noticeable enough and weirdly odd that the police were so easy to elude on medium (default) difficulty for such a long stretch of the story.
Story Mode Content
I did list the story as something I enjoyed with NFS Unbound, which still rings true. That said, while I enjoyed how the story played out and its focus on racing, I struggled to find genuine reasons to engage with the characters or reasons to care about their place in the world of Need for Speed Unbound.
The story moved a bit too quickly and never gave me a real chance to appreciate the characters involved — other than myself and one other. Without giving away any details whatsoever, some of the characters presented in NFS Unbound are pretty intriguing, and I just wanted to learn more about them and have more interactions with them.
Those who want to get behind the wheel, race for money, customize their car, outrun the cops, and see spectacular crashes have no worries. The story mode will be perfect for you, and it lets you focus on exactly what you want, which is getting behind the wheel on the streets.
Criterion has delivered another outstanding experience with Need for Speed Unbound, and while it’s not shocking that Criterion has made a good game, it is nice to remember that they’re still capable of ripping off a banger, and the same goes for NFS now having another entry that’s worthy of the lineage. From the unique art style to the fantastic racing, Need for Speed Unbound is a racing game that feels authentic and sticky enough to stay relevant through the winter.
Related: Quick Tips to Get You Started in Need For Speed Unbound on PC Invasion