Windows Central Verdict
Criterion has managed to create a vibrant, beautiful, high octane Need for Speed entry that dares to breathe new life into a franchise that desperately needed it.
Gorgeous art style
Fast paced gameplay
Caters to a variety of playstyles
Plenty to do in the open world
Open world challenges feel ripped straight out of Forza Horizon
Narrative arc is cliche
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Welcome to our Need For Speed Unbound review for Xbox and Windows PC! Few franchises have struggled to find their identity in quite the same way that Need for Speed has. The series has been passed around a plethora of studios since its original release in 1994, with Ghost Games having had the most time in the saddle as the lead development studio.
Even after four major Need for Speed releases, Ghost Games never really managed to guide the franchise to its full potential, and ultimately, they couldn’t be saved from being downgraded to a support studio by EA. When Need for Speed Unbound was unceremoniously leaked and confirmed, however, everybody took note that Criterion Games — the studio responsible for NFS classics like Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit as well as the Burnout series — were the ones behind the wheel of the franchise once more.
|Genre||Sports and racing|
|Players||Single player campaign, Online multiplayer 2-16|
|Release date||Dec. 2, 2022|
|Platforms||Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 5, PC|
|Xbox/PC Game Pass?||10 hour trial for Ultimate subscribers/EA Play|
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
While most would argue that bouncing Need for Speed between so many studios has led to the series feeling disjointed and without an identity, I’d like to offer the possibility that each title in the series has a unique personality and dares to take creative risks that are often not possible in the realm of AAA development. Anybody who has played Need for Speed can definitively tell you that the series is an arcade racer, but when it comes to storytelling formula, visual design, or gameplay nuances the type of response you get can vary depending on which games from the franchise the person answering have played. Criterion Games takes this opportunity for creative expression and cranks it to 11 for Need for Speed Unbound.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by EA. The company did not see the contents of this review before publishing.
Need for Speed: Unbound — Story and gameplay
Need for Speed: Unbound’s single player campaign begins in the customization menu. Players are given the opportunity to create a character to their liking. Unbound never outright asks players to name their character, nor do they require that you pick pronouns or determine a specific gender for your avatar. They do, however, give the player ample freedom by not limiting clothing, hairstyles or facial features like beards or make up to any one gender or the other. That said, they could benefit from more hair styles, as the majority are short or shaved in some way, and the only ‘curly’ hair option is an afro. After creating a character, the player is given their choice of three classic cars for which to cruise around the city of Lakeshore.
This is Need for Speed, though, so we’re not actually cruising around all casually. Naturally, it doesn’t take long before players find themselves being pulled into the world of illegal street races. By day the player has the opportunity to peruse Lakeshore City, taking on races against a variety of colorful characters. These daytime races can draw the ire of the local police force, however, and the player will quickly generate heat. The day can be ended at the player’s leisure by visiting a safe house, but then the clock shifts to nighttime racing which brings along with it higher risks and higher rewards. Both the police and NPC racers will have your character square in their crosshairs, and they will stop at nothing to try to take your money.
Following the end of the prologue, a turn of events leaves the player in a position to restart their racing career from scratch. The finely tuned vintage racing machine you start the game with is no longer yours and instead you must take to the streets of Lakeshore City in a glorified jalopy working as a personal driver in order to make cash for the mechanic’s shop you call home. After picking up a customer who is looking to invest into a street racer, the player finds themselves with just enough cash to buy a low-end stock car and just seven days to qualify for The Big Race.
It’s all a bit par for the course for a racing game narrative, but it does manage to hit its beats and keep the player engaged enough for them to learn their way around the open world. If anything, the writing could be criticized for being a bit cringeworthy, but even still it manages to give us humorous throwaway lines like “Wait — what happens if you feed ice cream to a possum?” so we’re willing to turn a blind eye to the subpar moments.
Need for Speed: Unbound is an arcade racer through and through, and it’s clear that Criterion wanted to lean into making Lakeshore City feel more like a playground worth exploring. They’ve opted to add in billboards that can be smashed, weird giant bear statues that you can collect, and designated Street Art collectible scenes throughout the city. There’s high speed ramps for some delightful moments of being airborne, and speed traps and — you know what, it all feels very reminiscent of Forza Horizon. It’s odd to see a game that clearly embraces its creative streak so much effectively “borrowing” so many game play mechanics from its competitor.
Racing with fast, well-tuned cars that are capable of stable drifting feels incredible but Unbound does coast into troubling territory when it forces players to scoot around in stock vehicles. They’re slow, contentious, difficult to maneuver, and zap any will to win right out of you. Compounded with the mechanic that there are a limited number of race restarts (and some races that just don’t let you restart no matter what) per night, there comes a point where you just have to accept that defeat is inevitable. Despite your best efforts, there are more than a few races you are just not going to win, even if you are on story difficulty.
Need for Speed: Unbound — Visuals and audio
If you read my initial statement that Criterion cranks Unbound’s creativity to 11 and then made it to where I said the story is “par for the course”, you’re probably wondering how those two statements can work together to describe the same game. The answer is Unbound’s wildly creative art style that blends the realistic scenery of cars cruising around a metropolitan city with the illustrated and cel-shaded style of the character models. This kind of visual creativity is not something we typically see in long running franchises. Any other franchise that had the pedigree that Need for Speed has would’ve played it safe a long time ago, forcing the series into a formula of safe decisions. Criterion Games dared to take the road less traveled, however, and Unbound benefits greatly from a unique visual style that sets it apart from its peers.
Need for Speed: Unbound’s soundtrack is headlined by A$AP Rocky and features a combination of tracks from hip hop and pop artists from all around the globe. The album is essentially a love letter to the current era of hip hop culture and some of the recording artists even have cameos in the game as NPCs. One important thing to note, however, is that there are no options for DMCA safe music in the settings, so if you are planning to stream Need for Speed: Unbound you’ll need to take the proper precautions on your own. This was a surprising oversight, given how much attention had been put into other audio aspects of the game. Even the sound of your car’s exhaust can be customized, if you so choose.
Need for Speed: Unbound — Should you play it?
All of the shiny visual novelties cannot and will not change that its core, Need for Speed: Unbound is your classic arcade racer. And that’s fine, really. What it can and does change, however, is how enjoyable your time spent in the world of Lakeshore City can be. The little visual flairs feel like they’re hyping you up when you pull off a great drift or pick up exceptional speed thanks to emptying out your nitrous tank. They even manage to poke a little fun at you when you (inevitably) crash violently.
It’s fair to say that many of the elements that make up Need for Speed: Unbound outside of the art style could not hold up on their own without feeling tired or rehashed but combined together they stand out to create something that feels unique and exciting. In some ways, the art style is a visual representation of everything else going on with this game. It’s both familiar and expected, but unusual and exceptional juxtaposed together and the end result keeps pulling you back for more. Need for Speed: Unbound may have an uphill battle if it wants to be considered one of the best racing games on Xbox, but that doesn't change the fact that it's certainly a contender for one of the best Need for Speed titles.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and EA Play subscribers who want to take Need for Speed: Unbound for a test drive can do so for free with a ten-hour trial available on both Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S consoles as well as PC.
Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.