What would a Need for Speed game be without fast cars? Screenshots of "Need for Speed" courtesy of Conner Dejecacion

“Need for Speed” (NFS) is a game series near and dear to my heart. The original “NFS: Most Wanted,” released back in 2005, is my favorite video game of all time, and I have fond memories of evading cops and racing edgy twenty-somethings in a tricked-out Toyota Supra for hours throughout my elementary school years. Unfortunately, successive entries in the series failed to recapture its former glory, scoring mostly middling reviews outside of a few bright spots. For years it’s seemed its competitors, “Forza” and “Gran Turismo,” would leave it in the dust. So, I was skeptical, as many were, of “Need For Speed: Unbound,” released with little fanfare at the beginning of December 2022. Could it succeed where so many had failed? Could it reclaim NFS’s place at the top of the street racing game podium? Luckily, it does. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing a “Need for Speed” game in fifteen years.

“NFS: Unbound” is a bold experiment that largely succeeds in putting the series back on course thanks to its slick new art style and smart gameplay choices that reward players for risking it all despite potentially crashing and burning — an apt gamble that highlights just how much was at stake for NFS’s reputation in the gaming community.

Set in a fictionalized version of nearby Chicago called Lakeshore City, “Unbound” puts at odds youthful glee with cutthroat competition. Players embody an ambitious garage employee-turned-racer competing to win The Grand, an illegal tournament with millions of dollars at stake. For the protagonist, though, winning The Grand means more than money: they also get a chance to reclaim their stolen car after a betrayal by a friend leaves them penniless and humiliated.

The overarching story of “Unbound” isn’t much to write home about, but its found-family narrative is light without feeling too saccharine. Its attempt at political satire – as two candidates vie for mayor in the fictional city, poking fun at the current climate – is less successful, but some of the radio conversations between the two bumbling politicians were funny enough to elicit a chuckle or two, even if the message doesn’t have much bite.

(Don't) try this at home. Screenshot by Conner Dejecacion

Far more successful is “Unbound’s” celebration of diversity and self-expression. While the hundred-odd cars featured in the game are deliberately blank canvases for players to customize to their hearts’ desire, player avatars — long a neglected element of the series — are impressively customizable as well. Additionally, “Unbound” features characters from cultures around the world and puts Black characters front and center where previous entries in the series did not. Furthermore, the game’s soundtrack makes the controversial choice to focus entirely on hip-hop and rap tracks instead of a potentially crowd-pleasing variety, featuring artists like A$AP Rocky and Eurovision 2022 winner Kalush Orchestra. While I’m not ordinarily a fan of these genres, they fit “Unbound’s” spirit really well, and I found myself occasionally singing along as I cruised down the highway at a cool 200 miles per hour, leaving my competitors in the dust.

A$AP Rocky makes appearances in the game as a rival racer and is featured prominently in the game's soundtrack.

Perhaps the most important element that puts “Unbound” ahead of the pack is its unique visual style. Taking cues from anime and the critically acclaimed animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, “Unbound” drops all pretensions of aesthetic realism and embraces a bold new look. Cars are still rendered in impressive, factory-spec detail, but characters are animated in the new style, and certain driving techniques like drifting and boosting trigger a slick effect that momentarily transforms the game with a pop of animated spectacle. This new style adds a ton of character to the game and I reveled in every opportunity to make animated smoke and sparks fly. I hope it's not a one-off and that NFS embraces this new direction, integrating this flair into its core personality.

A large part of "Unbound's" gameplay revolves around earning cash in risky head-to-head races.

“Unbound” makes other smart choices to elevate its core gameplay, such as limiting restarts and integrating a betting system to encourage risk-taking. A common complaint of modern racing games is that players gain access to Ferraris and Lamborghinis too quickly — “Unbound” remedies this by sticking you in a shitty second-hand junker and telling you to go from there, a sentiment I appreciated even as my awful starter car, a Ford Crown Victoria (famous as the patrol car of choice for police departments across America), struggled at the onset of the game. The progression feels more natural and more gratifying: I audibly let out a sigh of relief when I could finally afford to turn in my Ford for a much nimbler Porsche - not least because I’d finally be able to contend with Lakeshore PD and their terrifying array of police cars.

Catch me if you can.

Speaking of which, “Unbound’s” police chases — staples of the franchise — are much improved from previous games. Cops are aggressive, and tangling with them is an exciting, if dangerous, endeavor. While the game’s police chases can’t replicate the daring pursuits in the original 2005 “Most Wanted,” they come close to recapturing the blood-pumping thrill of escaping by the skin of one’s teeth and the rubber of one’s tires.

The game blends hyper-detailed cars and environments with stylish characters and effects.

“NFS: Unbound” is a stylish return to form. Combining a confident visual style with neat gameplay twists, the game offers a triumphant celebration of street racing and youth culture. Now I just have to do a few donuts in my mom’s Honda Accord, and I’ll be fully immersed.

Thumbnail screenshot by Conner Dejecacion