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A scene from Need for Speed Unbound at the beginning of a “meetup” or a race event. Three characters pose with their cars, one spreading his arms wide to issue the challenge.

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Need for Speed Unbound is the first great NFS game in years

A slower burn through progression means spending more time with your favorite ride

Image: Criterion Games/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The stakes and the racing action in Need for Speed Unbound may be familiar, but the game is a breath of fresh air for racing fans — and for a 25-year-old series that badly needed it.

What surprises me the most about Need for Speed Unbound, however, is a subtle adjustment to the game’s economy and progression that allows me to do something I’ve always wanted to do with this franchise: spend real time with one car, building it up and blinging it out, without the fear of missing out on the flashier cars that are constantly unlocking (or are available at triflingly cheap costs in an in-world dealership).

Moreover, I feel like I’m actually racing, rather than trying to engineer a cinematic first-place finish in every event just to get to the next one. The basic gameplay loop of Need for Speed Unbound is much the same as 2019’s Need for Speed Heat, whose day-night cycle had players racing in sanctioned events in daylight, but increasing their “rep” — and drawing cop attention — with activities at night. As such, you never lost cash, just rep.

But in Unbound, the climb to the top of a cash pile is going to go much more slowly. Nighttime racing pays off in cash only, all of which you can lose after a race if the police chase and catch you. There’s no “rep” to unlock certain high-value cars and customizations; Unbound runs a straight cash economy, and its best-paying races have buy-ins. This means progression is going to be much steeper (this is especially true if you’re going to spend money on the game’s new customization options). The cash buy-in to the core events represents its own risk-versus-reward question (though you’re usually only losing money if you finish last, or close to it). However, there are usually at least two meetups with a no-cash buy-in, even if the payouts will be smaller.

A person with a bullhorn stands on the hood of a street racing car over a dockside area where another car zooms past. Image: Criterion Games/Electronic Arts

The grind inside doing “free” races is apparent, but I actually appreciated their availability because they’re a much safer alternative to picking a fight with the cops in Need for Speed Unbound’s open world of Lakeshore (think Chicago). The cops can be pretty formidable, particularly in numbers and definitely on the surface streets, where breaking the line of sight is nigh impossible no matter how hard you make a squared turn or an emergency brake U-turn.

Fortunately, a minimap gives you a generous notice of the cops’ locations, so you can cut down side streets before they spot you, or back off if you’re trailing them on the freeway. If you’re spotted, the cooldown to a full chase is very short; you have to be blowing past them full-throttle most of the time. Knowing a route back to the freeway, with a lot of nitrous built up from shenanigans getting there, is key to survival against the Man, and in keeping your cash. And when you have a five-figure amount on your dashboard, you get very desperate about keeping it, which inevitably brings in reinforcements and makes the chase even more demanding.

What you do with that cash seems a lot more natural and less driven by the repeating dopamine hit of unlocking as much as you can. Coming back to the garage after a particularly strong haul very early in the game, the first big-ticket option wasn’t my next car — it was a very nice tuner package for the one I was currently driving.

It’s kind of ironic, because I was, in fact, hoping to save my cash to get into a different car and start knocking down more races; the 1988 Lamborghini I selected at the character creation stage was a role-playing choice, really. After half a dozen events, I found myself wanting something more like the 1969 Dodge Charger — muscle and drift — for the point-to-point races out in the suburbs that feature a lot of switchbacks and corner-cutting.

One street racer, seen from the passenger side of another, points her finger to issue a race challenge. The racers are cel-shaded characters while the cars are photorealistic. Image: Criterion Games/Electronic Arts

If you regret your first car choice, though, Need for Speed Unbound’s story path is going to ease that worry quickly. It becomes apparent that a malcontent friend at the garage where you work has their own ideas; they take off with your car, and Unbound’s narrative unfolds along the usual, rote arcs of interpersonal revenge, with a major street-racing event as the story mode’s overall goal.

Even there, a less-is-more approach from Criterion helps Unbound’s pacing, and therefore its long-term enjoyment. In the past, the franchise has emphasized beating everyone, in every event, usually because of a heavy-handed story that tries too hard to imitate an action movie. Past Need for Speeds (especially 2017’s Payback) had me constantly swapping vehicle types to finish first because it so often dictated advancement to the next event. In Need for Speed Unbound, I might be grinding for the buy-in to the next big race, but it’s actually manageable, even without a win.

That’s a good thing, because after having my A+ starter car taken from me, I got mowed down by the AI field. A lot. Unbound’s more flexible post-race results mean I can build a connection to a select few vehicles based on more criteria than “first-place potential.” It’s also worth noting that there is no rewind feature (same as Heat) and only a limited number of restarts per event. So I really did have to ask myself if that fourth-place finish really was worth rectifying (or if the ugly head-on collision with a minivan really did merit a do-over).

All of this is meant to emphasize that there is very enjoyable gameplay under Need for Speed Unbound’s hood, and it isn’t just the “anime Need for Speed” that players may have seen in the game’s meager publicity before launch. It’s true that Unbound’s unorthodox visual style does the most to distinguish the game from past entries, but I was surprised that something I was prepared to resent ended up a solid, supplementary design choice, as opposed to being the point of the whole game.

Close up rearview shot of a racing car highlight the stylish graffiti and lighting effects that are part of Need for Speed Unbound Image: Criterion Games/Electronic Arts

The cars and the racing world are all photorealistically presented, but the drivers are anime-style characters. And every stunt they execute arrives with street-art emphasis, whether that’s neon-colored highlights on the rims, go-fast lines popping off the hood, or a pair of graffiti-style wings when you launch off an overpass. There are signature burnout animations, wheel effects, and a post-race victory pose for your driver (I especially appreciated seeing them, in their customized outfits, through the windshield in a close-up at the end of an event). I thought all this stuff would interfere with the visual information that racing games have to present to drive both fast and cool — but it doesn’t.

That’s not to say that the handling is any more intuitive than in past Need for Speed games. There’s still a lot of oversteer, a really heavy turn-in that makes drifting, in most cars, look like a kart racer rather than something slick. Also: Hit the nitrous anywhere other than a straight, and all that steering disappears.

The handling is a lot twitchier than Forza Horizon 4, for example, and with a heavy emphasis on pedal-to-the-metal velocity and nitro boosts, you’re going to be smashing up a lot of property. It’s jarring as hell to see pedestrians diving out of the way, but they always make it, and I admit that seeing people on sidewalks in daytime makes a city like Lakeshore a lot more lifelike.

A yellow Lotus Exige is pursued by two police cars, with blue lights flashing, in Need for Speed Unbound Image: Criterion Games/Electronic Arts

For such a venerable name in racing video games (Aaron Paul starred in a 2014 movie about this franchise, remember?), Need for Speed really hit the skids over the past half-decade. Unbound is a relief as much as a delight — it shows there still is a lot of fun to be had in the open-world racer format, if a studio is willing to think about some of the smaller things differently, rather than try to revolutionize the whole shebang.

Heat, a solid game that built up a dedicated audience, probably didn’t get the fairest shake in public opinion after it launched three years ago. Electronic Arts reorganized its action-racing development in response. Unbound arrives with the same lack of glamour, the same diminished cachet, but it is so much more fun, and so much more worth my time racing and running from the law, that the game feels like racing’s comeback player of the year.

Need for Speed Unbound launched on Nov. 29 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.