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Need for Speed Unbound review: compelling hook elevates stylish racer

Three cars race in Need for Speed Unbound.
Need for Speed Unbound
MSRP $70.00
“Need for Speed Unbound proves that having a distinct style and cool premise does a lot to elevate a game.”
  • Lots of style
  • Strong narrative hook
  • Exhilarating arcade-type driving
  • Tough but rewarding
  • Unfunny writing
  • Lacks variety
  • Constant cop chases

Thinking I was being funny when customizing my first car in Need for Speed Unbound, I gave the refurbished Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary (1988) car a license plate that said “DTrends.” That joke quickly turned into embarrassment when that car was stolen from me at the end of the game’s prologue.

This surprisingly strong narrative hook kicked off Need for Speed Unbound, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise despite its series’ recent struggles and a muted marketing campaign. The racer eventually hits its limits due to sometimes cringe-inducing writing and repetitive objects, but the ride there packs in a lot of fun.

Need for Speed Unbound is surprisingly challenging, making each race important and engaging, and it has a lot of style. During this gap between Gran Turismo 7 and next spring’s Forza Motorsport, this open-world racer refuels a series that has been running on fumes.

Dude, where’s my car

The main motivation of Need for Speed Unbound is getting your first car back after your foster care sibling, Jasmine, surprisingly betrays you. After a two-year time jump, Need for Speed Unbound follows the player as they earn money and build up credibility in Lakeshore City’s underground racing scene so they can eventually challenge Jasmine in a series of races called The Grand to take the car back.

The desire to earn back a car I made and felt an attachment to in the prologue made me stick around to the end.

It’s a clever narrative hook that builds upon the many systems that make up Need for Speed Unbound. Like its predecessors, this installment features an incredibly detailed customization system that allows players to adjust minor details and add small, personal touches to every vehicle they own. Even the player character is customizable with poses and unique branded clothing this time around. These personal customizations make it all the more frustrating (in a good way) when the car is taken away.

Players are motivated throughout the four-week day and night cycle as they race to make enough money to participate in each Qualifier and The Grand. I found myself actively wanting to do a lot of racing and car deliveries to earn money while avoiding cops when I had high Heat so I didn’t lose it all. The desire to earn back a car I made and felt an attachment to in the prologue made me stick around to the end. Introducing a strong reason to race helps Need for Speed Unbound succeed where most racing game stories often fail.

Three racers pose before a race in Need for Speed Unbound.

Unfortunately, Need for Speed Unbound drops the ball when it comes to writing. While the story has a strong start and wants to deal with heavy subjects like over-policing, Unbound’s script is more concerned with making its character spout modern meme-based humor or generic lines than thematic or emotional depth. Typically, capping off or easing tension from a dramatic moment with a joke doesn’t bother me, but almost none of Need for Speed Unbound’s jokes landed with me, and pretty much every line of dialogue is a joke. Fortunately, the strong premise works so well conceptually that I could deal with groan-inducing writing.

Lakeshore drive

The story is only a small part of the racing game experience; presentation, world design, and gameplay all take precedence. Need for Speed Unbound excels in the presentation department because it isn’t afraid to be stylish. One of its most immediately noticeable aspects is its use of cel shading. Characters are vibrantly illustrated and vehicles spout cartoonish effects when they pull off a drift or nitro boost. Racing games can all blend together in the genre’s push for realism, so Need for Speed Unbound stands out by going for a Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse aesthetic approach that reflects the irreverence and in-your-face nature of street racing culture.

The game’s creators also chose an excellent setting for that in Lakeshore City, which is heavily inspired by Chicago — a city with a history of street racing and bureaucracy that people want to rebel against. Being from Chicago, I appreciated the references to my hometown and was not frustrated by any inaccuracies for the sake of map design because it’s an original city. Instead, I was entertained seeing how Need for Speed Unbound interpreted iconic locations like Navy Pier and transportation infrastructure like The L into compelling track design.

Need for Speed Unbound racers leave cartoonish effects behind their cars.

Although its open world doesn’t feature as much variation as something like Mexico in Forza Horizon 5, notable landmarks and well-thought-out road placements ensure that players will eventually memorize the map layout. Lakeshore City captures the essence of Chicago while still being a fun place to drive around in one of the many cars included in Need for Speed Unbound’s lineup. While you don’t need to accrue more than four cars for the main story, there are over 140 vehicles to purchase, so everyone should be able to find something they like in the lineup. Thankfully, racing those cars is also as satisfying as looking at and customizing them.

Every race matters

Racing games tend to play pretty similarly to each other, and Need for Speed Unbound doesn’t rethink the basics. Its handling model is a bit more weighty than the likes of something like Forza Horizon 5, but it features arcade elements like drifting and boosting, encouraging players to go off-road when they can, smash things, and take out the cops that will notice them during street races. Need for Speed Unbound can be unforgiving when it wants to be.

nce you’ve explored the whole map and done most of the races at least once, repeating them five or 10 times isn’t nearly as fun.

There’s no rewind button, only two to 10 restarts a day, depending on the difficulty. Mess up a drift or run into another vehicle when in the lane of oncoming traffic, and you probably won’t be getting first in a race. Racers do usually earn a bit of money no matter what place they come in, so it isn’t always about winning every race in Need for Speed Unbound. Sometimes the difficulty frustrated me, but I could always upgrade my car’s parts or try another event if one race gave me a lot of trouble.

Outside of standard races, Need for Speed Unbound features Drift Events, which ask players to rack up the most points by drifting, and Takedown, a mode hosted by Rapper A$AP Rocky. Takedown acts as an evolved version of Drift Events, sprinkling in lots of destructible objects and accounting for jumps to help players accrue even more points. These initially add some variety to the experience, but Need for Speed Unbound gets repetitive toward the end of its runtime even with those added objectives.

Most races are linear and don’t go off-road, so it lacks the race variety of a game like Forza Horizon 5. Once you’ve explored the whole map and done most of the races at least once, repeating them five or 10 times isn’t nearly as fun. Alert the cops during the race, and you’ll have to outrun them after the race too. While that’s initially exciting, when a cop chase initiates and prevents you from immediately going to the next money-earning objective for the 50th time, this system feels more like an unavoidable post-race chore.

Fun offline and online

Need for Speed Unbound by no means reinvents the steering wheel or defies the repetitious nature of the genre. Still, it’ll give you a good time alone or online.

Three cars race in Need for Speed Unbound.

While its single-player campaign will keep you occupied for a while, up to 16 players can populate the map in Lakeshore Online. This multiplayer mode lets you interact and race with players in the open world. The controls and physics that make for a satisfying single-player racer also work in multiplayer. However, this mode lacks features like a day-night cycle, cops, and Takedown events, so it’s mainly for those who want to race other people.

Need for Speed Unbound is not trying to be an ultrarealistic simulator or even a super comprehensive open-world online racing game experience. It wants to be a stylish, tough, and rewarding ode to street racing culture. While it’s not the best in its genre due to some weak writing and eventual repetition, Need for Speed Unbound is a surprisingly entertaining racer in a year that hasn’t seen much racing game excitement since Gran Turismo 7.

Now, I need to explain to my boss why our Digital Trends car was stolen.

Need for Speed Unbound was reviewed on an Xbox Series X.

Editors' Recommendations

Tomas Franzese
Gaming Staff Writer
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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