Need For Speed Unbound delivers everything fans of the series will want, with a cool new art style too. But due to some woeful voice acting and a lack of spectacle, it fails to deliver on the aesthetic it hoped to achieve.
Before launch, Need For Speed Unbound had me seriously confused, and a bit worried if I’m being honest. Here’s a game that’s highly-anticipated by racing game fans, promises a distinctive new art style, and focuses on a youthful, street-fashion culture – this all sounds like a recipe for success if you ask me. Yet it was shrouded in secrecy for a long time, received a short and sweet marketing run, and there were little to no pre-release review codes for the media. Those are some big red flags that often signal a rushed and unpolished Christmas cash-grab. However, that isn’t the case at all, making its lack of pre-release marketing all the more bizarre.
Need for Speed Unbound has surprised me by offering up some decent, technically-sound gameplay that will certainly earn it a spot on our best Xbox racing games and best PS5 racing games lists. However, it’s not without some disappointing flaws and oversights.
Let’s start with that cool new aesthetic that Unbound is running with. I personally love the art style – the comic book character models and vehicle effects contrast surprisingly well with the more realistic-looking cars and overworld.
It also gets off to a good start when it comes to portraying that hip, fashion-focused feel as well. There’s a deep, inclusive character creator giving you access to plenty of branded gear to deck your racer out in. The promise of cameos from rapper A$AP Rocky – a clever choice as ambassador and pretty much the anchor of what little marketing there was for this game – also fills you with hope. The soundtrack too is extremely well curated to match the aesthetic.
However, the illusion of a hip new racing game is pretty much shattered as soon as your character opens their mouth. This is a prime example of a script that was not written for the voice actors that ended up performing it. While some characters somewhat fit the aesthetic and are well-voiced, the same can’t be said for the protagonist, whose cringy delivery – particularly if your character has the masculine voice option – very quickly wears thin.
Despite an early story twist that gets your attention, Need For Speed Unbound is also a bit of a slow burner. Due to most early events offering pitiful cash rewards, buying a better car or upgrading your sluggish ride takes an age. Seeing as the Need For Speed Unbound car list is fairly large and contains a lot of cars at the entry tier, this is quite disappointing, although this does start to ease up about halfway through your playthrough.
Once you actually gain access to better cars, and the races become a bit more challenging, Need For Speed Unbound starts to come into its own. Encounters with the police also get a lot spicier, and level five pursuits are certainly the most challenging and enjoyable part of Unbound. With the legitimate risk of losing whatever cash you earned during that day (usually a session of around two to five events), they really do get you locked in – more so than the races.
As the story continues, you are pushed into more corners of the open world of Lakeshore. While it is well constructed and stuffed full of collectibles and mini-events like stunt jumps and drift zones, I do find it very odd that developer Criterion Games went for such a generic, safe reimagining of Chicago. Forza Horizon 5 sets its action in a vibrant and diverse recreation of Mexico that perfectly compliments it, yet for a game presenting itself as hip and edgy, Lakeshore does literally nothing for Unbound’s aesthetic.
This also the case during the game’s big finale. As you reach the end of the story, you are faced with the ultimate street racing challenge of the Lakeshore Grand – a four-part event that requires you to drive a car from each of the four quality tiers.
I really like this concept – it meant that the Mercedes A45 AMG I’d acquired and tuned up with my scraped-together earnings earlier on could have one final race, and assembling your line-up of four vehicles gave me a weird pang of Pokémon nostalgia. As you do with any Pokémon team, you grow attached to your cars, especially when you put the time in to modify them.
However, despite being the climax of the game, winning the Lakeshore Grand has as much fanfare as doing a donut in a supermarket car park. Aside from getting a massive wad of cash and a cutscene, there is absolutely no spectacle to the event itself, or much of a celebration for winning it.
It’s a shame that this final moment, and the general vibe of the game, falls flat, because in terms of actual gameplay this is a properly fun racing game.
Whether you’re drifting or tightly gripping your way around corners, things feel satisfying, and the boost and nitrous mechanic can be used fairly tactically. Races and chases feel like trademark Need For Speed, and history dictates that’s largely a good thing. While I’ve only dabbled in a few online PvP races (which, like most racing games, were somewhat ruined by people t-boning you at any given opportunity), this solid gameplay puts Unbound in good stead for a lot of post-launch enjoyment against others.
Need For Speed Unbound also looks great on the PS5 – even if that open world is a bit vanilla. To my absolute surprise, given the red flags I mentioned earlier, performance was pretty flawless. I only experienced one major frame drop which came during the first event of the Grand, and a few collision-related bugs.
Unbound offers everything you want in a Need For Speed game, but it is let down by its overall aesthetic, which, if executed properly, would have made it stand out from the rest of the series and its rivals.
In short, if you love Need For Speed, you’ll have a great time with this game – it’s just a shame that it buckles under the weight of trying to raise the bar.