When I was a kid, Need for Speed was the king of racing titles. Others often came at the throne, but none were ever able to match the unique stylings that Need for Speed brought to the table. Compared to NFS, Ridge Racer always felt like a relic that never knew how to develop features to keep up, while Gran Turismo was far too focused on being a simulator to hook the casual players.
As the years continued, so did the NFS franchise – from a pure racer to a cop runner, to an underground street hustler, being far enough ahead of the curve that the original Fast and Furious movie felt like it should have bore EA’s flagship racer’s name. Unfortunately, much like the movies, perhaps the franchise has overstayed its welcome. Find out in our Need for Speed Unbound review!
Need for Speed Unbound
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5 (Reviewed)
Release Date: December 2, 2022
Players: 1 (up to 16 in an Online session, 8 player races online)
Price: $69.99 USD
As a franchise, Need for Speed has nothing left to prove. The franchise has reinvented itself numerous times throughout it’s nearly 30 year run.
While it’s had a great run, visual changes are a great first step but they aren’t enough to differentiate the latest entry, Need for Speed Unbound, from Need for Speed Heat or several of its previous iterations.
In fact, I’d argue that this game feels like a mashup of the past few games thrown together as a “best of” title, compiling the features of every release since Rivals.
Need For Speed Unbound unfortunately doesn’t do anything special that makes it stand out or memorable outside of the new visual elements.
It’s extremely impressive to see a seamless integration with real life looking car visuals and environments. The graffiti inspired cel-shaded flair pieces make for a dazzling display of quick flash tags, heavily cartoony thick outlined smoke from burnouts, and anime-inspired wings that jut out from the vehicles to give an appearance of flying while making long jumps.
The effects are very urban themed, combining comic book stylings, spray paint vibrance and graffiti art with the scribblings you’d find in a scratch pad or the inside of a high school textbook book binding. I can’t say enough to praise this aesthetic, as it pops nicely and makes Need for Speed Unbound immediately visually recognizable and calls attention to it in a sea of hyper-realistic racers. Unfortunately, that’s where the memory ends.
The soundtrack is almost always the best part of Need for Speed. I can’t hear songs like Grant Mohrman’s incredible remix of “Styles of Beyond – Superstars” without thinking of the original Need for Speed: Most Wanted or “The Crystal Method – Born Too Slow” without thinking of Need for Speed: Underground.
While it’s no secret that the highlight of Unbound‘s soundtrack is everything that has A$AP Rocky on it (Babushka Boi is a bop and any song with Run the Jewels and Black Thought on it is guaranteed to be incredible by default) due to his inclusion in the game and the obvious “Palace” branding, the rest of the soundtrack is pretty lackluster and mostly forgettable.
That’s not to say there aren’t some decent tracks on the soundtrack, but I’m not entirely sure who this soundtrack selection is aimed at. “Botany – She Will Be” is a pretty cool ambient beat, while “ODZ – TAPPAT DET HELT” is weird as hell but is a sleeper banger. Sadly, songs like “Lous and The Yakuza – Je ne sais pas” sounds like French people making a bad parody of what popular poppy hip-hop sounds like.
Meanwhile, half of the songs have weird censorship points while songs with female vocals such as “Shygirl – SLIME” seem to be mostly unaltered. There’s quite a few times where these women say “they wanna fuck me cause I’m a star” and I go look up the song and they were always artists I’ve never heard of.
And last but not least, there’s a cover that should probably be illegal in most countries depending on your musical taste. Unfortunately, none of these songs are given any real chance to shine because the characters can’t shut the fuck up while driving. This makes a majority of the soundtrack blur into the background making for some unremarkable bass thumps behind a litany of awful quips and super loud car noises.
But hey, at least there’s no Machine Gun Kelly, so that’s a major improvement over NFS Heat. That was the game that made me aware of EA scrapping the “EA Trax” options and not letting me remove songs that are utter shit in order to hear the decent few more often.
The characters are not only unlikeable but they are unbearable to listen to. It’s like they asked a room full of 15 year olds to write dialogue based on what they think people from various age groups would sound like. In fact, I was shocked that no one said “Your drivin’ be bussin’, on God, for real real, no cap” like a literal living meme.
I know that during one of the side missions where you essentially play as an Uber driver and someone jumped out telling me they were going for Boba tea, the urge to back up and run them over 73 times like a hooker in GTA was overwhelming.
What about the actual driving though? Certainly they got that part right, didn’t they? Nope, it’s still questionable at best.
Just like in NFS Heat, nitrous is mostly useless and the AI rarely makes mistakes. On harder difficulties if you don’t hit literally every turn and drift perfectly, you’ll never catch up with the racer in first. In fact, while I fully admit that I’m trash at these games, I struggled to get above 3rd most of the time even if my car was at the maximum end of the class rating.
I dunno, maybe I’m just too old but I never could get my car quite tuned the way I wanted it and it always felt slightly off. I’d launch myself into a drift only to either have to force an abrupt end or go spinning out of control, even when equipped with drift spec upgrades.
The maps are full of these goofy gold bear things with boxing gloves to smash, billboards, and graffiti art to collect (you couldn’t use this styling without including graffiti itself in the game somehow, right?) but it ultimately feels kinda soulless. Just a map full of busy work and not much inspiration to go explore it.
Online is populated for now, but if you can’t jump into a S+ tier race, people will leave the game a few minutes after joining it, which means you’re basically still playing offline and since there’s separate progression for the story.
It’s like having to do everything twice and that’s not a good thing when the game isn’t really all that fun in the first place. What’s really crazy is that if you try to join a race without owning a required level vehicle, the game will give you a loaner for the race.
It just doesn’t tell you that it does this or that it’s an option, so I rarely saw a race with more than three or four players because people simply ignored the invite. It’s great that that’ll allow you the option to play no matter what even though you likely won’t win, but not telling the player that it’s an option is a braindead oversight by the dev team.
I ultimately found myself wondering if Need for Speed is just in a tricky spot right now or if Forza Horizon has simply eaten it’s lunch money so many times that it now feels like a former premium brand that’s now sold alongside generics.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a challenger do this – Uncharted did it to Tomb Raider (before Tomb Raider eventually did it right back to them.) Need for Speed: The Run sucked, but at least it tried to do something different.
The rebooted Need for Speed, Payback, Heat, and now Unbound all feel like countless B-versions of Fast and the Furious movies that starred the third string characters. I can’t even decide who this game is actually for.
It’s aimed at the younger generation I guess, but that’s not who’s been playing Need for Speed for 30 years and even if the driving were better the soundtrack is full of generic female singers and rappers that no one knows or wants to listen to in lieu of tracks that are recognizable or even make sense to be there.
There are artists I’ve heard of, but a majority of these people? Are these TikTok musicians or some shit? Charli XCX is one of the most notable names on this soundtrack (saying something here, isn’t it?), yet the song they chose is mediocre as hell. Why wouldn’t you use this new track she did with Tiësto?
I don’t get it. Who was this made for? During the pre-release review period I saw billboards with the fully updated LGBTQIA+ flag and a rainbow colored WE ARE UNITED billboard, but they’ve seemingly removed the pure flag billboard since then. The thing is, this game is full of urban stylings.
For lack of a better way to say it, this game is almost alarmingly stating “no white people pls” (as even the one “rock” song has been EDM styled and sang differently) there’s plenty of things you could attribute to Latin, black, Asian, and Native American cultures. While acceptance of gay culture has grown in those communities, there will undoubtedly be people who buy this game, see forced displays inclusion and immediately go trade it back in for credit at Gamestop.
EA, this ain’t how you move units. This series need to take a cue from the unique styling of the visuals and either needs to revamp the feeling of playing NFS in the next one, or someone needs to put this damn thing down behind the barn like Old Yeller and let Criterion get back to making Burnout games (which is really what we all want anyway.)
Need for Speed Unbound was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a copy provided by EA. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Need for Speed Unbound is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S.