As Criterion’s first new arcade racer since Burnout Paradise, we had high hopes for Need for Speed Unbound. Unfortunately, it launched last December with little fanfare thanks to EA’s lack of marketing.
Its unique art style was refreshing, but the familiar gameplay made Unbound feel like a rehash of Need for Speed Heat with an anime-inspired coat of paint.
With player numbers plummeting, Unbound's first DLC update due to arrive this month can’t come soon enough. But is it too late for EA to save Need for Speed Unbound?
Player numbers are lower than Need for Speed Heat
For a game that launched in December, Unbound’s player numbers are alarmingly low. While console player numbers and sales figures aren't available, the Steam player count paints a bleak picture.
According to Steam Charts, Unbound peaked at 14,053 players in December 2022 during the launch period. Compare that to Need for Speed Heat's all-time peak of 86,196 players.
A likely reason for this is that Heat was heavily discounted before Unbound’s launch, giving it a significant player spike.
It’s not unusual for player numbers to fall after the initial launch period. Even player counts for popular racing titles like Forza Horizon 5 decline over time. It’s worth noting too that Unbound is also available on Origin for PC, and the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S will likely have more players.
Even so, the Steam player count speaks volumes when you compare Unbound and Heat over the last month. In the last 30 days, Unbound had an average of 989 active players per day – a steep drop from 2,489 average daily players in January 2023.
For comparison, Heat had 1,793 daily players in the last 30 days on average. The fact a four-year-old NFS game has nearly double the number of active players than Unbound is not a good sign.
Online multiplayer is broken and barebones
The numbers don’t lie: Unbound is slowly dying on Steam. There’s a simple reason for this: the online multiplayer is broken and barebones.
In the era of live services, online multiplayer keeps you engaged after finishing a single-player campaign. In Unbound, online multiplayer progression is separate from the single-player, meaning you have to start from scratch.
Garage cars earned in the single-player campaign don't transfer to multiplayer, forcing you to grind for cash again. Event payouts are frustratingly low, making it a tedious slog to progress.
Combine this with a lack of game modes and a paltry number of events that mean you’ll repeat races in the same session, and there simply isn’t enough meat in the online multiplayer to keep you hooked.
Bewilderingly, there are still no cop chases in Unbound's online multiplayer. Not only would running from the cops make online sessions more exciting and unpredictable, but they would also help you earn money fast.
While you can have fun exploring Lakeshore City with friends online, you can’t free roam at night. Driving with friends in the daytime doesn’t give the same gritty underground vibe as illegal night-time races.
Add to this the fact that online parties are limited to only four players instead of eight in Heat, and Unbound’s online multiplayer feels barebones and frankly unfinished.
This leaves you with the feeling that Unbound was rushed out in December to cash in on Christmas sales – a strategy that backfired judging from Unbound’s poor start in the UK game charts.
To make matters worse, online races are fundamentally broken. A well-known tuning exploit lets you enter the Ferrari 488 Pista in B-Class races and destroy the competition. Over three months on, this glitch still hasn’t been removed in a patch update.
Can the March update save Need for Speed Unbound?
Despite its issues, there’s still hope that EA can save Need for Speed Unbound. Following the underwhelming January patch, the first DLC update is due to arrive in March, over three months after launch.
Back in January when players were expecting the first update, EA said it will share more details about Unbound’s DLC plans sometime in March.
By then though, most players will have likely moved on from Unbound. March’s update will need to be substantial to entice returning players and attract new ones.
Since most cars in Unbound are recycled from Heat, we're hoping the update will add new cars never seen in NFS before. Crucially, cop chases, a better variety of game modes and events, and larger payouts would give the multiplayer a much-needed overhaul.
We're not getting our hopes up, though. Need for Speed doesn't have a great track record when it comes to post-launch support - Heat was swiftly abandoned, with two DLC cars added a few months after launch as a token gesture. Let's hope EA proves us wrong and give Unbound the support it deserves.
With Forza Motorsport and Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown delayed, it's an unusually quiet time for new racing game releases. And with The Crew Motorfest unlikely to arrive until later this year, NFS Unbound is currently the only open-world arcade racer you can play on all platforms.
If there’s a good time for Unbound to make a miraculous recovery, it’s now.