Need for Speed Unbound Review: Unbound but not truly unleashed

The latest entry into EA’s arcade racing franchise is an exciting high-octane racer that feels familiar yet very fresh.

by Jeremy Cheong

Electronic Arts’ (EA) Need for Speed franchise hasn’t had the best track record over the course of the last decade. This is because the franchise has been passed around like a lukewarm potato from one developer to the next with each overhauling the game with different twists. The only constant was the fact that the franchise was always an arcade racer, but even then Slightly Mad Studios turned it into more of a simulator targeted at hardcore racing fans with Need for Speed: Shift (2009) and Shift 2: Unleashed (2011).

While I have always been a fan of the franchise, I gave many of the games prior to 2019’s Need for Speed Heat a miss, even then I only bought the game in 2021 during a Steam sale. It is safe to say I enjoyed the game very much as I’ve spent over 100 hours playing it. So when EA announced Need for Speed Unbound, I hoped they would improve upon what was introduced in Need for Speed Heat but was wary at the same time because the development of Unbound was now with Criterion and not Ghost Games.

Welcome to a new playground!

However, after spending about 30 hours playing Need for Speed Unbound, all my preconceived negativity has been chucked out the window as I have been having a great time modifying and racing some of the most sought-after performance cars and escaping from nigh-impossible police pursuits.

Read on to find out more about my sentiments about Need for Speed Unbound.

Plot in need of a supercharger

As always, let us begin with the plot. The 25th instalment of the franchise takes place in the Chicago-inspired, Lakeshore City. You play as an orphan who is taken in by mechanic shop owner turned mentor, Rydell. After rebuilding a junker together with your friend Yaz, you both then set out to make a name for yourself in the illegal racing scene. Things start out well for both of you but after a few disagreements with Rydell, Yaz starts having plans of her own, which doesn’t end very well for both you and Rydell. Fast forward two years later, by a stroke of luck, you are then given a chance to get your revenge against Yaz.

As you can see, your character has gone through quite a lot in life including a fight with a fashion magazine.

So far so very B-grade Fast and Furious imitator but then again, no one really plays a Need for Speed game for the story. It is serviceable albeit predictable to get you progressing through the single-player campaign. The dialogue between the characters however is well written and the voice acting was actually quite well done. Be prepared for plenty of cringeworthy moments though especially when the game tries to be “woke” and hamfistedly shoves real-world issues such as corruption and poverty down your throat.

EA and Criterion games have even brought American rapper A$AP Rocky into the game as himself. While his role is considered relatively minor, there is still a point in the game where you get to “chill” with him and this part of the game feels like a pseudo-interview for the rap star. The worst thing about this is, you can’t even skip it and it just feels very unnecessary as it adds nothing to the lore or plot of the game.

Familiar and new gameplay mechanics

While the plot is a bit meh, Need for Speed Unbound truly shines when it comes to gameplay as Criterion didn’t go for a full-on overhaul of what Ghost Games had set up with Need for Speed Heat. If you played Heat, Unbound will feel very familiar save for the new mechanics that were added in.

One of the major differences between Heat and Unbound is how Criterion has weaved part of the plot into the main flow of the game. To get your revenge on Yaz, you have to work towards earning enough money and cars to take part in an event known as “The Grand.” Of course, it isn’t as simple as you will first have to qualify for it. The single-player campaign is essentially set throughout an entire week where you take part in races from Sunday to Friday to earn enough cash for the buy-in for the qualifiers on Saturday. Each day is also split up into day and night sessions with a multitude of races for each session.

Cops will make your life a lot harder when things start to…heat up.

Similar to Heat, races in the daytime aren’t as lucrative but also won’t net you as much “heat” with the cops, whereas nighttime races will give you bigger payouts or even a free car but you will gain more “heat”. More heat equals tougher cops who will make it harder for you to return to a safe house to bank in your winnings and if you get busted, you lose the cash you have earned. While I do like this mechanic being carried over from Heat, I don’t like how cops still magically appear around you. This gets extremely frustrating when you are just about to escape a pursuit and is more apparent if you use the map marker that shows you the fastest route to another event or safehouse.

The sense of progression in Unbound is also a much-welcomed change. After the prologue, you have to start at the very bottom, meaning you start with a low-end car. Seeing as you won’t have the cash to spend on performance upgrades, cars in this class are slow and in the early game, you might not even finish a race at the top of the podium. There is a slight grind at this point of this game but personally, I found it quite refreshing. Although, the game does make the grind a little bit forgiving because if you don’t have enough cash to enter the qualifier by Saturday, you get a chance to play Friday’s races one more time to earn the cash needed.

Speaking of cash, much like in real-life, you do have to learn to spend it wisely because not only is it used to upgrade the performance of your car and looks but you also need it to upgrade your garage to gain access to higher-tier parts and also most races require you to buy-in to the race. If you are confident enough, you can also place bets with other races to earn just a little bit more cash on the side.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nope! It’s just a vandal in a souped up car.

Other than races, there are also a few other ways you can earn cash. These come in the form of car deliveries, which require you to either deliver a car in a set amount of time or deliver it in mint condition while the cops are on your tail. The open world is also filled with smaller events such as Speed Traps, Speed Zones, Drift Zones and Long Jumps, all of which should be familiar if you played Need for Speed Heat. There are also collectables such as Graffiti art to find and billboards and bear figurines to smash. Collectables won’t give you as much cash but will unlock cosmetics for your cars and even free cars.

Unlike previous games where all you have to do is max out your car’s performance, races in Unbound are limited to car classes. So you can’t take a Class A+ car into a Class B race and if you have a car that you have grown accustomed to, you will have to carefully pick and choose the upgrades so it isn’t over- or underpowered. Personally, I think this is also a very nice touch as it adds a bit of strategising to the game.

A majority of the 30 hours I spent in the game was trying not to make an ugly car.

Criterion has also added and updated the driving mechanics for Unbound. Firstly, there is the new Perfect Start system where at the start of the race, you have to press the accelerator to get the RPM needle into the perfect zone so your car doesn’t stall or wheelspin, giving you a speed advantage right off the line. Secondly, there is also a new Burst NOS that is separate from the normal NOS. You gain Burst NOS by doing things such as drafting, drifting, going airborne and executing grip turns. While it does build up easily, it isn’t permanent and lasts only a few seconds so you should use it every chance you are able to.

Last but not least is the new cornering system. In Need for Speed Heat, most racers would rely on drifting to get around corners quickly and in style. In Unbound, however, some cars are better at a new cornering mechanic known as Grip Turning, so you will have to rely on following racing lines to get the best out of these cars. Grip Turning definitely adds a fresh new way to play the game especially. You will need to learn how to rely on these new mechanics because the rubberbanding for the opponent can get quite unfair and there isn’t a rewind button and you have a limited amount of restarts for each day.

Just a hint of that new car smell

It is hard to deny that there is a lot I like about Need for Speed Unbound but there are still a few things that I find lacking. To start off, the catalogue of cars you can own in the game is minuscule compared to games like Gran Turismo 7 or even Forza Horizon 5. With that said, the list of cars isn’t bad but it is essentially the same list as the one in Need for Speed Heat, with a few new cars removed or thrown into the mix (Heat had 127 cars, Unbound has 143).

As for race types and events, the lack of drag races and proper off-road races is also a bit disappointing especially the former as that is very much part of street racing culture. As for the latter, there are races that have an off-road section but it would have been nice for full off-road races especially since you do have access to pick-up trucks and even off-road bodykits and performance upgrades. Hopefully, these will be added via a free update or DLC.

Eat your heart out Initial D, Need for Speed has out “anime-d” you.

In terms of graphics, Need for Speed Unbound is a gorgeous game. I played it on the PC with Medium graphics settings and it still looks incredibly good with great performance. I did notice some texture pop-in and minor issues with texture streaming but that shouldn’t be a problem if you have a higher-end graphics card compared to my NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Super. If you are concerned about the cel-shaded/anime-ish driving effects, they don’t really detract from the game, in fact, I think it makes the game stand out a lot more as a very unique visual aesthetic to the game. It is really quite cool to see and you won’t get bored of it as there are multiple styles you can choose from.

To drive home this review, Need for Speed Unbound is a lot of fun especially if you were already a fan of the gameplay loop and mechanics of Need for Speed Heat. Sure, I still find certain aspects of the game lacking but the new additions and upgrades Criterion added to the formula make it a really fun ride. If Criterion continues in this direction, the franchise might once again become the king of the arcade racer.


  • Satisfying sense of progression
  • Gorgeous graphics combined with cool cel-shaded effects
  • Car performance modifications require strategic thinking
  • Plenty of side activities and collectables to find outside of races
  • New delivery and takeover events are fun and different


  • Rival AI rubberbanding can get quite ridiculous
  • Police have a tendency to appear out of thin air
  • Car list seems to be a rehash from Need for Speed Heat
  • Online mode seems to be an afterthought
  • Lacking events such as drag and off-road races
  • 7.5/10
    Need for Speed Unbound - 7.5/10

Need for Speed Unbound

Graphics ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐
Plot ✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐☐☐
Gameplay ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐
Addictiveness ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐

Need for Speed Unbound is a return to form for the franchise as Criterion has taken a lot of what fans loved about Need for Speed Heat, improved upon it and added new mechanics, effects and events to keep the game feeling fresh.

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