Need for Speed Unbound Review - IGN (2024)

No other racing game released this year looks quite like Need for Speed Unbound, and that can be a difficult thing to achieve in such an established genre so steeped in convention. Criterion has gone all-in with wild, animated visual flair that often appears as though it’s been lifted from the pages of a comic book, even as the actual driving and split day/night structure of its races are immediately familiar to those of us who appreciated 2019’s Need for Speed Heat. The result is a uniquely styled racer that regularly looks quite fabulous in motion, though its grating story mode goes over like a banana in the tailpipe and the online mode simply feels stripped down and unfinished.

While Heat hardly revolutionised arcade racing, it was a pleasant surprise that put the teetering franchise back on track. For its efforts, developer Ghost Games was… disbanded, and the series drunk dialled its way back into the arms of former flame Criterion Games for Unbound, and it’s received a striking makeover. You can apply artistic embellishments, including smoke and illustrations, to cars like any other visual customisation part. There are a variety of different ones to choose from, although essentially they all seem fairly similar, with the key differences between them mostly limited to the colour of the smoke and the selection of graphics that get thrust from the sides of your car like wings, or flashed above the roof like a tiny, temporary hat. The effects you choose are globally applied to your whole garage, though, and it seems like an oversight that you can’t select bespoke effects for individual cars.

It’s flashy and eye-catching, and it’s very well executed.

It’s all very stylish in an Into the Spider-Verse, street art kind of way, and I do admire Criterion’s commitment to trialling something that sets Need for Speed apart from its peers. It’s flashy and eye-catching, and it’s very well executed. It doesn’t look like a superficial layer of effects pasted over the surface of the image; it definitely feels baked into the 3D world. Donuts, for instance, look particularly cool as the special animations hold up well even with a very kinetic camera.

However, the juxtaposition between Unbound’s cars (which continue to strive towards photorealism) and its cartoon characters and effects is a peculiar one. It isn’t jarring, especially considering that there have been some big improvements with the lighting since Heat and, at its best, Unbound looks like a highly stylised, interactive trailer. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a compromise, accidental or otherwise, that Unbound’s vehicles and world haven’t been given the same treatment – like a modern-day Auto Modellista, or 2020’s Inertial Drift. Would that have been controversial? Probably. Divisive? Certainly. But I think it would’ve looked better than this blended solution.

Performance Tooning

Beneath the snazzy effects, Unbound sticks more closely to Heat’s gameplay format than I’d expected. This isn’t exactly a bad thing – Heat was a very welcome course correction after Payback and I enjoyed it. That said, it does make Unbound feel like an evolution of Ghost’s work rather than something Criterion has really put its own stamp on, like it did with its acclaimed 2010 reboot of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and its take on Need for Speed: Most Wanted from 2012.

Unbound’s new Chicago-inspired Lakeshore map has some nice, grid-like streets and tunnels for its urban racing, but the city itself is actually a bit vanilla compared to Heat’s neon-bathed, Miami-like Palm City. Unbound’s countryside is also quite typical and unmemorable – which, to be fair, was also a criticism of Heat. It’s just freeways, backroads, and trees draped over some hills. There are a couple of nice mountainside segments with multiple switchbacks for drifting, but overall there’s nothing particularly interesting to look at outside the city.

In single-player, Unbound’s cops function similarly to Heat, although I think it’s a little easier to slip out their grasp this time around. Unbound seems a lot better at detecting if I’m accelerating into clear space so, unlike Heat, I’m yet to be arbitrarily busted simply because the cops are nearby my otherwise escaping car. This happened quite a lot in Heat, so I’m glad it appears to have been addressed.

The strictly arcade-style driving model is also inherited from Heat, which means cars can be tuned for grip, drift, or a balance between the two. I haven’t been able to figure out whether it’s my driving style or my handling slider set-up, but my attempts at grip tuning seem plagued with understeer. The drift handling is more reliable in my experience, and definitely my preference. The ability to choose between a classic brake-to-drift cornering style or an extra pump of the throttle to get sideways remains, too. Continuing to cater to both camps is very smart.

Like Heat, racing is divided into day and night events, but Unbound tweaks the formula slightly. While Heat alternates between sanctioned street racing during the day and illegal events during the evening, all of Unbound’s racing is verboten, 24 hours a day. Cop heat accumulated during the day carries over to the night too, so deciding how much police attention you want to take with you into the evening is an interesting juggling act. Higher-paying races require higher initial heat levels, but they also require higher buy-ins – so it’s actually possible to lose money if you perform poorly, especially since Unbound limits restarts. I’m not entirely sold on the gambling angle in general due to some highly questionable manoeuvres by the AI stacking the deck against me, but having more on the line does increase the tension in a mostly satisfying way.

To its credit, progression through Unbound isn’t built around winning every single race we come across.

To its credit, progression through Unbound isn’t built around winning every single race we come across, which means it can be consistently challenging without entirely stalling our progress. Building up the necessary cash to both craft a competitive car and afford the hefty buy-ins for the high-risk races can become a bit of a grind though, certainly early on.

There are three levels of difficulty, and Unbound can be a stiff test at times regardless of your selection. It does cross the line from tough to cheap on occasion, and there were times where an AI racer would blitz ahead so quickly that no amount of perfect driving and boosting could stop them gapping me.

Having opponents able to more-or-less speed match you the millisecond you trigger a nitrous boost is not a problem unique to Unbound – it’s a common gripe in a variety of arcade racers – but it is a snag that tends to leave the boost system feeling flaccid and ineffectual. What’s more annoying, however, are the occasions where I’d blast past a crashed opponent only for them to supernaturally respawn well ahead of me on track. It’s extremely frustrating to lose to a racer who clearly cheated to place ahead of you – especially when I’d wagered extra in-game cash on beating them and I’m out of restarts.

Even on the tamest setting, Unbound’s AI racers can be unexpectedly competitive at times. I was definitely a little surprised at how ruthless the so-called ‘Relaxed’ setting is watching my kids struggle to keep up; at least, I was whenever I wasn’t too busy wincing at the dialogue.

Okay Zoomer

Heat’s script wasn’t exactly in line to win itself an armful of Primetime Emmys, but it was a pleasing pivot away from the pish that was Payback. Unbound feels like a step down from that. The overall story itself is harmless enough, but its trite co*cktail of 2020s teenage angst and Tik Tok philosophising definitely pushed me to my tolerance limit. Personally, I suspect Lakeshore’s mayor is just tired of family minivans being speared off the road by 900-horsepower JDM missiles and innocent commuters being hosed off the hard shoulder, so it’s a little hard to empathise with the cast’s constant whining about their personal freedoms being repressed by traffic laws meant to curb wanton vehicular manslaughter.

Need for Speed Unbound Screenshots

To be fair, I don’t know that there’s an elegant way for a 28-year-old franchise like Need for Speed to truly speak to the full spectrum of its audience at once, but I should warn you that if you’re a veteran player from the mid-’90s I’d hesitate to suggest you’re going to feel very represented in Unbound. Certainly not by any of these young and slim Instagram influencer avatars, whose fashion aesthetic appears to be music festival drug dealer, football match drug dealer, or off-brand Weird Al Yankovic. The mechanical expression enabled by the deep car customisation that previous developer Ghost began reinjecting into the series in its 2015 Need for Speed reboot has universal appeal, and that’s all very much still here in Unbound, but there’s definitely a generational disconnect in terms of the characters and tone.

There’s definitely a generational disconnect in terms of the characters and tone.

There is a way to engage with Unbound without this story layer, as the cross-play enabled online multiplayer is a separate mode that does away with it and focuses purely on racing and upgrading your ride. Unfortunately, that’s not all it does away with, and online mode is missing quite a few features at launch – the biggest of which is cops. Equally unfortunately: when I say that online and single-player are ‘separate’, I mean entirely separate. Your single-player garage and progression isn’t shared online, so you need to build a new stable of cars. I have to admit that after 30-odd hours of working my way to the top of the story mode, the prospect of starting from scratch online really took the jam out of my donut.

Need for Speed Unbound Review - IGN (2024)


Is Need for Speed Unbound a success? ›

It is not worth any amount of money and should only be played if you have the EA play pro pass, since you get the game for free. However, if you do get the pass, you are better off playing other EA games that are actually half decent.

How many hours does it take to finish NFS Unbound? ›

When focusing on the main objectives, Need for Speed Unbound is about 22½ Hours in length. If you're a gamer that strives to see all aspects of the game, you are likely to spend around 51 Hours to obtain 100% completion.

Is NFS Unbound repetitive? ›

The gameplay in Need for Speed Unbound is solid, if somewhat repetitive. Whilst Need for Speed Unbound is far from the most difficult racing game I have ever played, it has a steeper learning curve than one may expect.

Why is NFS Unbound so good? ›

Need for Speed Unbound is as loud and braggadocious as previous series entries, but its new art style gives the game a unique flourish. The character models feature a cel-shaded, anime-esque look, while the realistic cars are adorned with eye-catching effects during big drifts and air time.

Is it hard to make money in NFS Unbound? ›

In order to make fast money in the game, you'll need to be strategic and use the game's mechanics to your advantage. Some tips for making money quickly in NFS Unbound include: - Completing race challenges. - Selling parts and cars that you don't need.

What happens if you get caught in NFS unbound? ›

Remember, if you get busted, whatever Bank they find in your pockets will be theirs to take. The cops aren't shy either, they'll be showing up on any occasion including mid-race, so look out, act smart, and you'll stay one wheel ahead.

Can you go back a day in NFS unbound? ›

In unbound, you cannot. If you go back to garage, day/night is over and you automatically lose out on all the events.

What city is NFS Unbound based on? ›

Need for Speed Unbound is a racing game set in a fictional city called Lakeshore City, which is based on Chicago. It features an open world environment and gameplay similar to that of previous entries in the series, being mainly focused around street racing.

Do tires matter in NFS unbound? ›

Different tires have different ratings and stats. They will affect how the car handles and its level of traction. Because of this, performance will also be affected by the type of tires installed on the car. Choosing the best tires for the situation and car will increase performance dramatically.

Does difficulty matter in NFS unbound? ›

Thankfully, Need For Speed Unbound is not one of these games, meaning players are able to unlock every Trophy and Achievement on any difficulty setting. Race rewards will remain the same too, so all players need to worry about is finding the difficulty setting that is right for them.

What is the max speed in NFS unbound? ›

I finally achieved this feat yesterday and to my surprise and disappointment, it's top speed really caps out at 245, not the 263 as displayed.

What is the best car in NFS Unbound? ›

As much as I tried my best not to mention any car twice, the Bugatti Sport is a car that deserves it. As I mentioned above, the car delivers an insane amount of speed, handling, and traction, and there is rarely a scenario found in NFS Unbound where the Sport isn't the best option.

Is drifting in NFS Unbound good? ›

Use drift to charge up your Burst Nitrous meter and blow away the competition with a rush of pace on the corner exit. Time it right and you'll be the fastest on the streets, hit it too early and you'll wish you never tried it.

Which NFS is worth playing? ›

Need for Speed: Underground 2

Sure, listening to the same songs playing over and over was frustrating, but the game has the most customization of any game in the series, and it's why it's considered the best Need For Speed game of all time.

How many people play Need for Speed Unbound? ›

Need for Speed Unbound
MonthAvg. PlayersPeak Players
Last 30 Days1,624.43,441
April 20241,421.73,580
March 20242,362.46,006
February 20241,723.33,924
14 more rows

What happened to NFS Unbound? ›

Following its December 2022 release, Need For Speed Unbound received a run of pretty regular content updates throughout 2023. Since then, though, things have been pretty quiet, with many assuming that the game had run its course in terms of new content.

Is Need for Speed Unbound pay to win? ›

Thankfully, Need for Speed Unbound's Palace Edition is not at all pay-to-win, which might delight potential buyers. Most of the content in the title is easily obtainable via grinding through either the multiplayer or single-player campaign.

Is Need for Speed 2015 worth it in 2023? ›

Absolutely. the handling is kinda odd but it favors drift over grip builds so keep that in mind. Personally it's my favorite of the Ghost era. it's a mix between all of my favorite NFS games, specifically UG1 and Carbon.


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