Since its inception nearly three decades ago, Need for Speed’s best entries have combined style and substance to produce thrilling homages to the street racing scene. Need for Speed Unbound feels like the ultimate realization of that philosophy, creating one of the franchise’s best in years.
Sliding into the driver seat of the nearly 150 cars in Need for Speed Unbound feels terrific. Blasting down a straightaway in a McLaren delivers a remarkable sense of speed but nailing a corner drift in a Mitsubishi feels just as good. Actions like drifting and drafting fill your boost gauge, creating a satisfying rhythm in the moment-to-moment racing as you flow from one move to the next.
Distinct visual effects permeate nearly every moment of Need for Speed Unbound, making it one of the most stylish racing games I’ve played. Though the city and vehicles maintain their photorealistic looks from past games, the characters are cel-shaded cartoons. These two contrasting styles sound like they should clash, but they work in tandem to create a refreshing amalgamation. Unbound further leans into stylization by adding street-art-inspired flourishes to the car as you drift, boost, and jump off ramps. I appreciated the neon-colored smoke during a tight corner, but the tag that pops up when your boost is full sometimes blocked my view during critical points in the race.
As you take to the open streets of the fictional city of Lakeshore, you have a bevy of events from which to choose. You can take part in linear races, lap-based circuits, head-to-head contests, and drifting events – not to mention the various collectibles and challenges scattered throughout the city. These each present exciting challenges, but my favorite event is Takeover, which puts you in a tight course and rewards you for drifting, boosting, hitting ramps, and smashing targets.
Need for Speed Unbound’s single-player story centers on a betrayal and subsequent rise up of the city’s underground racing scene. While the overarching story is easy to ignore, the constant chatter between the characters accentuates their grating personalities. Rivals repeat hackneyed lines throughout each race, while open-world exploration is often interrupted by calls from your annoying manager or radio segments featuring ham-fisted politician caricatures. After my first few hours, I turned down the dialogue in the menu.
However, I actively enjoyed hearing from Rydell, the owner of the garage and father figure to your created character, as his conversations deliver some truly earnest moments despite this game’s brash style.