S14 Silvia - Need for Speed Unbound

The long-running "Need for Speed" racing series has been a lot of things over the years. Just about the only thing it hasn’t been is consistent — with aesthetics, driving physics, and vehicle types often changing from one entry to the next. The series went through quite a slump in the last generation, but I found 2019’s "NFS: Heat" to be the best entry we’ve seen in years. Naturally, I hoped that its 2022 successor, "Unbound," could keep up the momentum. Let’s see how well it accomplishes that goal.

Criterion Games and Electronic Arts released "Need for Speed Unbound" to Xbox Series S, Series X, Playstation 5, and PC on December 2. To test the game, EA provided me with a review code of the full game a few days before the retail date. All images shown were taken on the Xbox Series X and converted from HDR.

In this review, you’ll see plenty of comparisons to "Heat" because "Unbound" inherits many features from its predecessor. Both are built in EA’s bespoke Frostbite physics engine. Since 2019, the engine has seen a significant tune-up to take advantage of newer hardware. The result is a game that runs at 60 frames per second on all consoles while showing off numerous particle effects and graphical filters.

What’s New in Unbound?

S14 Silvia - Need for Speed Unbound

The most prominent thing I noticed while watching the "Need for Speed" pre-release trailer was the new and highly stylized art direction. It’s a needed departure from the photo-realism of basically every other racing game on the market. As you perform drifts and jumps in the game, graffiti-like art springs from your car and swirls around the screen. Suffer a collision, and the frame is instead taken over by ‘glitch’ effects and VHS static. It’s very "in your face," but manages not to distract from seeing what’s happening on the road.

The graffiti driver effects can also be customized by the player. However, customization really only boils down to color. The actual art stays the same, which is disappointing. The selected effect is also applied to every vehicle in your garage at once, which prevents color coordination for specific cars. The new art style extends to character models, who have a cel-shaded comic book look. They look a little bit silly when placed into the semi-realistic environments of "Unbound," but the change is still welcome.

Driving Mechanics

Mazda RX-7 - Need for Speed Unbound

Although "Unbound" was developed by the former "Burnout" team, Criterion Games, its handling doesn’t feel like "Burnout." The physics system appears to be mostly unchanged from "Heat," which you might see as a positive. The handling in "NFS" feels very satisfying, without being as forgiving as something like "Forza Horizon." You can enter corners at ridiculous speeds, but spin-outs are very possible if you push your luck too hard.

A rudimentary tuning system also returns from "Heat" which lets the player adjust how much over- or understeer they get in turns. You can also activate traction control, which is off by default. I recommend experimenting with these sliders in order to get the most satisfying driving experience.

There are a few other subtle mechanics at play. At a race’s start, you can feather the throttle to hit a green RPM band just below redline, and prevent wheelspin off the line. You also have two distinct options when it comes to nitrous boosts. There’s the typical blue nitrous gauge, which fills up while doing stunts and allows for a sustained burst of speed. What’s new is the golden gauge that fills while drafting, drifting, or jumping.

Quickly tap the boost button to spend it, and you get an instant boost that ends quickly. This can be used to "cancel" drifts mid-corner and come into the straightaway much faster. It also imbues your car with a moment of invincibility, which is great for shunting opponents off the road.

Graphics and Performance

Ford Mustang - Need for Speed Unbound

"Heat" was not exactly a graphical powerhouse on release, but "Unbound" gets a whole new coat of paint, outputting up to 4K resolution with HDR lighting. Countless lens flares and water effects dance across the camera’s virtual lens. As a result, last-gen support has been dropped entirely, but those of us who invested in current hardware get to enjoy all the benefits.

From a fidelity standpoint, "Unbound" is one of the best-looking games you can buy right now, and on Series X, I can confirm that it holds a steady 60 FPS with stutters few and far between. If you’ve been waiting on a game to really show off the power of the new consoles, this is it.

According to EA’s press material, the game runs stable 4K 60 on both Series X and PS5. Some titles require a locked 30 FPS mode in order to put out 4K. Criterion has not had to make that concession.

For Series S, however, the resolution had to be downgraded to 1280p in order to maintain the same level of performance. On PC, they recommend a system with at least 16 Gigabytes of RAM and a GPU with 8 GB of video memory.

Car and Character Customization

Land Rover Defender - Need for Speed Unbound

For a while now, NFS has boasted the most amount of options when it comes to car customization, and some of that extends to your player avatar as well. Nearly every vehicle comes with multiple body kit options, which is great for making the car feel like it’s truly yours. Nearly every body part can be replaced, like hoods, headlights, bumpers, fenders, mirrors, and spoilers.

On some cars, panels can even be removed entirely, which is great for giving your ride a punkish attitude. Throughout every vehicle, EA claims that over 10,000 custom components can be seen and installed.

Vinyl liveries can also be made from scratch, or the artistically challenged can download other users’ work online. Wheel alignment and exhaust notes can even be adjusted to make sure that your ride is unique from any other Honda or Nissan you encounter in the game. Then there are the aforementioned driving effects, which allow you to choose what color of exaggerated tire smoke the car produces.

When it comes to player customization, you also get numerous hair and face options. However, these can’t be adjusted much, so you’ll probably encounter someone in the game world with the exact same face as yours. More exciting are the clothing options, which include real brands like Puma, Vans, and Champion. Your options are limitless as long as you like sweatpants and kicks. Players get two distinct custom avatars: one for story mode, and one for online. That’s nice if you want to experiment, but they should’ve included an option to import your single-player character over as well.

Lakeshore City

Need for Speed Unbound

While "Heat" took place in a coastal Miami-like city, "Unbound" moves to Lakeshore, an obvious proxy for Chicago. The downtown area of the map looks gorgeous, especially at night. Lit skyscrapers make up your horizon, and painted lanterns add characteristic flavor to the Chinatown area.

Occasionally, you’ll catch a beautiful sunset over Lakeshore’s harbor. It all blends perfectly with the Frostbite engine’s advanced lighting, and the presentation is wonderful. Forested areas, rock quarries, and driveable rain gutters add some more variety to the city’s outskirts.

In a gameplay context, the Lakeshore map isn’t very large, and this isn’t necessarily a problem. For instance, Criterion’s own "Burnout Paradise" crams a ton of action into its Paradise City map which would be considered tiny nowadays. However, Lakeshore doesn’t live up to that standard. Despite being small, it lacks variance in gameplay, and fairly recent titles like "The Crew 2" manage to outclass it in both map size and density.

There’s very little verticality while driving. I would’ve liked to see some under-construction skyscrapers that allow the player to drive up and through them, plus more opportunities for jumps. The rain gutter areas are some of the only places it felt like the designers really got creative. The environment in Unbound is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, but the gameplay underneath is actually quite bland and by the numbers. It’s like cutting into an expensive multi-tiered cake only to realize that the batter underneath is dry and unflavored.

Story Mode

Need for Speed Unbound

Like many NFS titles before it, "Unbound" backdrops its single-player mode with a paper-thin plot and forgettable cast of characters. Some may complain about them, but these features are practically a series staple going back 20 years. One particular thing about this title’s dialogue and presentation is that EA desperately wants to appeal to Gen Z Hypebeasts. There’s a lot of, "Bruh that car is fire! I saw it on insta." The vibe is actively hostile to anyone over the age of 30.

As far as gameplay goes, the single-player mode inherits "Heat’s" day and night cycle, but with its own tweaks. The clock follows a rigid calendar system in which you must accrue enough cars and money to enter the big grand prix race at the end of the game. Each in-game week is further broken up into 12-hour cycles which allow you to race both day and night.

Races, drift, and stunt events all usually require a money wager to enter. This incentivizes you to finish first, but the AI drivers are no slouch in "Unbound." You also get a limited number of race restarts per cycle, but this number can be increased by playing on easy difficulty.

The wagering system and limited restarts keep the stakes high. Throw police intervention into the mix, and story mode can be downright stressful. Every race completed fills your ‘heat’ meter and motivates the cops to track you down and take your illicit cash. On low heat levels, they can be escaped by driving fast in a straight line, but higher levels create an oppressive threat.

Heat System and Money

S14 Silvia - Need for Speed

New police vehicles get introduced, each with strengths and weaknesses. For instance, SUVs are slow, but hard to wreck and can follow you off-road. Corvette interceptors are fast but easy to push around. The helicopter stays tight on your tail but can be lost in tunnels and thick tree cover. At level 5, modified Ford Raptors and stealth cruisers come after you that basically throw any weaknesses out the window.

Even after you escape the law, patrols will be searching until you can reach your safehouse and advance to the next day. At higher heat, avoiding these patrols can be quite frustrating, and you might start multiple chases just trying to get home. It doesn’t help that cop cars will occasionally spawn right on top of you.

This heat system limits the number of events you can practically complete in one day, and it makes money difficult to come by in the early game. You’ll be grinding for hours before you can even purchase a second car, and that may put players off from story mode. It also disincentivizes spending precious money on those cool cosmetic upgrades.

Games like "Forza Horizon 5" have you swimming in cars and cash from minute one, which makes progression unsatisfying. On the flip side, "Unbound" can be too grind-y. It doesn’t help that you often have to repeat the same events to earn money and face the same challenges in hour 20 that you did in hour one. A compelling game needs to dangle that shiny carrot in front of you while doling out new experiences along the way.

Online Multiplayer amd Car Selection

Need for Speed Unbound

In contrast to story mode, multiplayer in "NFS Unbound" offers up a much more casual racing experience. You can enter events with other players without having to wager money, and there are no cops at all to worry about. You also rake in money much faster. The catch is that none of this progress carries over to single player. Each mode is its own walled garden, although some of the cars won during story events will also be available online.

It is somewhat frustrating to build a really cool car online, and then have no way to use it offline. It would also be interesting to be able to join a multiplayer lobby with cops enabled. Then these lobbies could give higher payouts and unique upgrades with the risk of losing money after getting busted. Perhaps that is something that Criterion plans on adding in a future update.

"Need for Speed Unbound" contains 143 unique vehicles, most of them carried over from "Heat." This pales in comparison to the over 500 cars featured in "Horizon 5," but I’d argue that the customization options give NFS more character and variety. I’d rather have fewer cars that can be seasoned to my unique tastes than more cars that all tend to look and drive the same.

However, Forza beats NFS when it comes to photo mode. "Unbound’s" snapshot feature is functional but quite lackluster. The only adjustments are zoom, depth of field, contrast, and saturation, while other games offer environmental motion blur and creative filters. You also have no exposure control, which makes taking night shots a pain.

The Soundtrack

A$AP Rocky  - Need for Speed Unbound

All the zoomer-isms of the story mode extend to the game’s music selection. It’s all very modern hip-hop and electronica, with tracks from Run The Jewels, Playboi Carti, Diplo, and Charlie XCX. Plus a smattering of other names you may recognize if you have a Soundcloud account. My surprise favorite of the list is a girly pop cover of Pixies "Where is My Mind?" while "Ice Cream" by Anna Lunoe is a contender for the worst song I’ve heard all year. Give it a listen if you don’t believe me.

Most prominently featured on the soundtrack is rapper A$AP Rocky. He even shows up randomly throughout the story mode as himself to give the player pep talks, and his custom Mercedes 190E can be purchased for an exorbitant amount of money. While previous entries had them, no custom soundtrack options are available.

You can cycle through songs during free roam, but for some reason cannot do that within a race. This is extra annoying when "Ice Cream" comes on and you have no ability to skip it. Apart from licensed music, the game also uses an electronic score by French composer Brodinski.

Wheel Support and Conclusion

Mitsubishi Eclipse - Need for Speed Unbound

Lastly, I want to mention the issue of racing wheel compatibility. EA says that "Unbound" works with all the popular options from Logitech, Thrustmaster, and Fanatec. I was ready to take them at their word since "Heat" worked fine with wheel controllers. Yet, I plugged in my Thrustmaster TMX and I immediately found a problem. The wheel was technically working but had no proper force feedback. The game also failed to recognize the reverse gear input on my manual shifter.

After some reset attempts, the problems persisted, and online impressions back up my experience. From what I can tell, wheel compatibility is currently broken across the board. If you read my review of "Dakar: Desert Rally," you’ll see that I had a similar experience with that game. "Dakar" has since been patched to have proper force feedback, and I hope we see a fix from Criterion very soon.

The developers have made an arcade racer here that reaches incredible heights of technical polish and presentation. However, the repetitiveness of its gameplay and slow progress in the story keep it from being a truly great title. Wheel support is also lacking. Still, if you want to see the level of quality that these newer gaming systems can really put out, it may be worth your time.

"Need for Speed Unbound" is available for $69.99 on Xbox Live, PSN, or in stores on both consoles. On the PC, it can be downloaded from Steam, Epic Games Store, or Electronic Arts’ own launcher. EA Play and Game Pass subscribers can also try the game for free with a ten-hour time limit on play.