Earlier this year, after rumors began to surface that a new Need for Speed game with an animated art style was in development, I was skeptical of the direction in which the series was seemingly headed. Perhaps publisher Electronic Arts shared that skepticism, based on the fact that Need for Speed Unbound was announced on October 6th and released less than two months later on December 2nd – a brief marketing cycle for a AAA video game from an established franchise. If EA and developer Criterion were indeed concerned, I have no earthly idea as to why, because Need for Speed Unbound is an absolute gem of a racer.
When booting up Unbound initially, the first thing that will stand out to you is the abundance of style that is coursing through the veins of the game. I would describe Unbound as being at the cultural intersection of street racing, street art, and hip-hop music. It all meshes superbly, from the soundtrack to the clothing to the cel-shaded characters. It really is “a vibe”, as they say.
So that art style I was so worried about? Yeah, I was dead wrong about that. We make it a point not to go on too much about graphics here at Gaming Nexus, but with Need for Speed Unbound, it is certainly warranted. The combination of cel-shaded character models with photo-realistic vehicles and environments is strikingly gorgeous. The cars themselves are amongst the best, if not the best looking cars I’ve seen in a video game to-date, and the amount of detail is impressive. The first time I took my car for a drive in the rain, I could not stop snapping pictures in the game’s photo mode.
There is another aspect that really feeds the vibe of Unbound and that is the excellent licensed soundtrack. I spent a lot of time doing the “head bob” while racing through the city of Lakeshore. You know the head bob I’m talking about – we’ve all done it. The soundtrack features a nice collection of hip-hop, rock, and EDM tracks that keeps with the cultural influences of the game.
Unbound revolves around a single-player story mode, which puts you in the shoes of an up-and-coming street racer who suffers betrayal at the hands of someone close to you. You lose your prized ride in the round of things, and set out to make a name for yourself and reclaim your car by winning the final race event – The Lakeshore Grand. The narrative elements are where Unbound shows the chinks in the armor, as the story is mostly forgettable, and the voice acting is average at best. Story beats are delivered over the course of four in-game weeks, with each week culminating in a Saturday qualifier race that you must win to advance to the next week. Winning the qualifier awards a large amount of cash, as well as a custom vehicle. Each week the cash buy-in and required tier of car to get into the qualifier gets higher, so you’ll spend the days leading up to a qualifier completing races to earn the necessary cash and tier of car. It’s all setup in a way that doesn’t require you to win every race, which is a welcome design choice. At the end of the fourth week is the granddaddy of all the qualifiers – The Grand. Overall, the story isn’t all that compelling, but it does enough to push the action forward and outline character motivations. I would have liked the characters to be a little more fleshed out, as well as some more panache in the voice acting, but then again, this is a racing game first and foremost.
Thankfully then, the racing itself is of the highest quality for an arcade racer. Racing through the streets of Lakeshore, hitting a perfectly timed drift around a hairpin turn, and watching the stylized smoke effects shoot out from my car never got old. There is a real sense of speed too. Driving 200 MPH through the downtown area while trying not to obliterate oncoming traffic made my hands sweat every time. When you do wreck (and you will wreck) it is quite impressive thanks to the spectacular albeit brief crash cams, which have Criterion’s Burnout DNA all over them. Along those lines, Unbound also features some of the best implementation of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller haptic feedback and adaptive triggers that I’ve yet to experience. I could tell that Criterion put a lot of effort into making each vehicle feel fun to drive. Every gear shift is felt in the right trigger, and even that is different for each vehicle, which also differs depending on how you have a car tuned. In terms of haptic feedback, I felt the impact of every individual traffic cone I ran over (which was a lot) and it impressed me every time.
I’ve touched on it, but customization is fairly robust in Unbound. The game includes more than 100 stock vehicles to unlock, from classic trucks to hypercars, with each one driving, shifting, handling, and sounding different. From there, you can tailor your ride as you see fit. Cosmetically, you can get pretty far in the weeds by mixing and matching parts from various pre-made body kits, from front hoods to brake calipers. If you are the less creative type (like me) there is also a library of custom vehicle skins created and uploaded by the community, and from what I saw, there are some talented car designers out there. On the performance side of things, you can upgrade engine parts to go faster, fine tune your downforce, swap out tires depending on if you want to corner in turns or drift through them, or even throw on an electronic component that lets you reduce how quickly the cops can call in reinforcements.
Ah yes, and that brings us to the law enforcement of Lakeshore. I’m not quite sure if they’d prefer to arrest you or leave you in a pile of scrap metal, as they seem to live and breathe to arrest you. It’s their life’s work – their Sistine Chapel, if you will. Like other titles in the NFS series, Unbound features a “heat” system, which ranges from zero to five stars. At zero stars, you’re just out for a nice Sunday drive – not a care in the world. But at four stars and up – in my experience – you’re running for your life if you get spotted by the cops. I played on the standard “challenging” difficulty, and it is tuned appropriately, in my opinion. You’ll gain heat after almost every race you complete, as well as cash, which can only be banked at safe houses scattered across the map. It is a neat system that will have you deciding each day and night if you’ve earned enough, or if you want to risk all of your gains for one more race and one more big payout. More often than not, I retreated to the nearest safe house with a fat wad of cash as fast as possible. Luckily your heat resets at the end of each day, which makes things much more manageable. Even so, the Lakeshore police had the pleasure of busting me on a handful of occasions and confiscated all of my hard earned money. It definitely stings when that happens, but remember that it was your choice and driving skills that got you locked up.
If you need a break from the grind to reach The Grand, there is a wealth of side activities and collectibles scattered around Lakeshore that you can engage with as well. Takeover Events, in particular, are a highlight. These are score-chasing events around an obstacle course where you smash objects, perform long drifts, and ramp jumps to achieve a high score. I also enjoyed High Heat Deliveries, where you pick-up and deliver a custom vehicle while trying to avoid those pesky Lakeshore cops. If you’re into collectibles, those are here too, including breakable billboards, destructible inflatable bears (yes), and street art. There is plenty to do in Lakeshore.
The multiplayer mode, Lakeshore Online, operates essentially the same as story mode, only you are placed in a server with 15 other players. The big issue with the online mode is that matchmaking is limited to these 16 player servers, meaning that you can only get into races with those other players on your server. The issue is compounded by you needing to be driving the same tier of car as your competitors to be able to race against them. Because of this, I had issues getting paired up with the limited pool of players and was never able to get into an event with more than four people total. I even tried at the highest S+ vehicle tier, thinking that most people online had probably hit that tier by now, and that didn’t seem to help things. It’s a shame that there is not a more open matchmaking system in place, as I could see myself popping in for a few online races pretty often. As things stand, Lakeshore Online is the dud that never goes off in that awesome $70 firework bundle you buy for the Fourth of July.
As a total package, Need for Speed Unbound is one of the best games I’ve played in 2022, and it’s one of the best entries in the Need for Speed series. It lands all of the big punches with full force: the driving, the stunning cars, the art style, and the head-bobbing soundtrack. Despite the story elements and online functionality not reaching their full potential, Unbound is still an exceptional racing title that fans of the genre should not skip.
One of the best games I’ve played all year, and one of the best entries in the Need for Speed series. The driving is sublime, the cars are gorgeous, the art style is striking, and the soundtrack is exceptional. Despite falling short in a couple of facets, Unbound is a must-play racer.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! I'm Jason, the resident noob here at Gaming Nexus. When not working my day job, I moonlight as a husband to a human and a father to two canines. Of course, I am also an avid gamer and general nerd. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours.
My first video game system was the NES and I never looked back. I currently play on PS5, PS VR2, and PS Vita, although I've dabbled in Xbox Game Pass on PC in the past. I co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast with a lifelong friend/family member called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @TheDualSensePod, or check out my YouTube channel.