After a year-long delay we finally have a new NFS game, but will it live up to expectations? It's time to find out in our Need for Speed Unbound review.
Criterion has taken the franchise reins from Ghost Games after the solid Need for Speed Heat in 2019. Originally planned for 2021, Unbound was pushed back a year to allow Criterion to help with Battlefield 2042.
So has the longer wait made NFS Unbound all the sweeter?
A vibrant world
Let's start with the location. While the map itself is similar to NFS Heat's one with its city, rural area, and big highways, Lakeshore City is a welcoming environment that is full of life.
It is a huge step up from Heat's Palm City. It feels more alive thanks to traffic, pedestrians, and its multi-level nature.
From underground highways to bridge jumps and overhead railways, there is far more to Lakeshore City than expected.
Then there is the soundtrack. While not to everyone's taste, it fits with the overall vibe of Unbound, which is personified by the splashing art style.
As expected, the anime effects and presentation are hugely impactful. It brings a degree of separation from recent NFS titles and offers a wholly unique experience to racing fans. We were excited by its debut in trailers, but it really fits into the street-racing genre and lifts the whole game.
Same same but different
NFS Heat was an enjoyable game, with its Florida setting, day/night cycle, and neon feel. Unbound lifts this and dumps it into Chicago.
The palm trees are replaced by a multi-level city and the neon is replaced by animations, but outside of that the game really does feel like a Heat clone.
While the art style pops and is refreshing to the eye, it is really the biggest difference between Unbound and Heat.
Everything else is, as feared, pretty similar. From the floaty physics to the graphics and the gameplay, it all follows the same path as Heat.
A tired formula
Need for Speed Unbound's story starts with a pretty long prologue, setting up your journey, support network, and antagonist.
It also sets up the car that you need to go up against and win at the end. Without giving away any spoilers it's not a thrilling story or even an interesting one.
The early betrayal sets you on a path of redemption up the ranks of Lakeshore City.
Early races get a little repetitive, but as you grind out the dollars and the wins more cars and parts open up for you.
It's a recipe that NFS fans know well, but for some it will be frustrating. There isn't much gameplay-wise that is separate from Heat.
Takeovers offer a bit of a change-up from the races, but the circuits you race around and Takeover locations have very little variety to them.
During all of that you have to battle with Unbound's unique handling.
Need for Speed has always been more about the car culture, collecting, and tuning than it has been about racing, and that has never been more evident than in Unbound.
Cars feel remarkably heavy at slow speeds, and yet floaty and disconnected from the road when actually get momentum.
Then there is the drifting. Drift entry mechanics are another thing returning from Heat, and they are just as frustrating for anyone that wants to treat Unbound like a real racing game.
Even when turning the entry mechanic off it will still sometimes get you, especially if you are trying to power out of a late apex turn.
While Need for Speed is clearly trying to appeal to a younger crowd rather than those that were playing it 20 years ago, the inability to just drive normally and experience the game.
As you play you will get used to the handling, but if you like to jump between games rather than focus on one it will be frustrating for you.
Need for Speed Unbound doesn't break the mould or advance the franchise in any meaningful way.
Gameplay in the story can get painfully repetitive, with the same handful of track layouts being used day after night after day as you grind for cash to compete in the Lakeshore Grand and win your car back.
Grand old franchises can get stuck in their way when it comes to new games, and it feels like that has happened with Unbound. While the flashy art style offers something new and the customisation and tuning options remain superb, the franchise needed a breath of fresh air and Unbound does not provide that.
Need for Speed Unbound takes a well-trodden path and while there is a section of NFS fans that will enjoy taking the journey, there are plenty of others that will bemoan the missed opportunity.
The open world feels surprisingly constrictive, as you spend your time going from your garage to a meetup spot and from the end of a race back to the same meetup spot to start another one.
It's a frustrating gameplay loop that doesn't make the best use of the open-world concept.
If you loved Heat, you'll love Unbound. If not, then maybe this one is best left for the sales.