Need For Speed Unbound innovates by almost becoming a roguelite

Need for Speed Unbound, a tricked out ride
(Image credit: EA)

Need for Speed Unbound’s flamboyant effects and cel-shaded characters immediately set it apart from the last few years of stagnance. Left behind are the bland, uninspired design of entries like Heat, having been traded up for what looks like a confident return to the days of Underground and Most Wanted.

Unbound isn’t all flash, though. What Criterion has achieved here is the triumph of developing the most compelling Need for Speed entry since 2010’s Hot Pursuit. But beyond that, it’s also the most innovative racing game to release in years. Sorry, Gran Turismo 7.

Back on the streets

Need for Speed Unbound driver in anime style posing with car

(Image credit: EA)

Need for Speed Unbound feels like a successor to the Underground games, which I still feel are among the best in the series. You put on the driving gloves of an up-and-coming street racer, operating out of a mom-and-pop style garage.

However, after a deal goes wrong, the garage is robbed of all its vehicles. Two years later, we rejoin our custom character at absolute rock bottom, barely coping by operating their own taxi service. 

Of course, that's until a cash injection from a suspicious benefactor affords us just enough in the bank to buy a B-class car – and this is where the training wheels come off.

You can freely roam the city of Lakeshore and join street races to earn cash, though most of your rivals have better cars. Much better cars.

I utterly love Need for Speed Unbound’s approach to challenge. I felt up against it in those early races, relieved to scrape over the finish line in fourth place – a solid five seconds behind the guy in third. 

Even when you’ve earned enough cash to transform your B-class jalopy into something above stock, you’ll struggle to win every race you enter. And that’s such a refreshing change from games like Forza Horizon 5, where success and rewards are almost nauseatingly constant. Unbound also doesn’t feature a rewind system, and with limited race restarts, crashes can be very costly, especially when cash is on the line.

Unbound’s NPC racers give it the beans even on the normal difficulty setting. On the hardest, they’re ruthless, pulling out all the stops and heightening their aggression to keep you firmly down the pack.

Risky business

Need for Speed Unbound driving effects preview

(Image credit: EA)

Tough races are one thing, but Need for Speed Unbound difficulty spreads into numerous risk vs. reward systems.

The cash you win in races isn’t automatically banked; it’s on hand until you return to a safe house. Doing so progresses the time of day, which changes the available races and events. You’re encouraged to make the most of a time slot, entering more races while your winnings are still unsafely stored on your person.

The more race events you complete, the more your Heat will build up, and this is where the cops come into play. Heat represents how much you’re on the cops’ radar. Level 1 Heat is pretty tame, with only basic squad cars to worry you. A little zesty, but nothing you can't handle.

At a full gauge of 5, you essentially become the most wanted racer in the city, with a comical, almost Blues Brothers amount of cops on your tail. Those petty squad cars are replaced with high-speed interceptors and chunky SUVs. All the while, you’ll be ducking and weaving through tunnels and under bridges to avoid the Sauron-like gaze of choppers above.

5-star chases seriously amp up the heat, but they can also last a terrifying amount of time. That's because even after you've averted their gaze, the cops will still be looking for you for a set amount of time. And if they catch sight of you again, reset the clock. It sounds tedious, but the constant risk of having something to lose makes the process refreshingly thrilling.

Need for Speed Unbound, A$AP posing with mercedes on neon background

(Image credit: EA)

Each day’s split into day and night. And your Heat only resets after turning in for the night. So you’ve got a balancing act to maintain. If you go into the evening with too much Heat the cops will be a constant pain to be sneaked past, forever on your trail. And, while completing races generates cash, it also brings more Heat, making the cops incredibly aggressive. 

Do you turn into the safehouse early to guarantee your cash is safe, or rack up as much as possible regardless of the increasing danger? This element of the game gives Need for Speed Unbound almost a roguelite feeling. Permanently losing that cash can have nasty ramifications on your playthrough, too, potentially stopping you from buying a crucial new car part or getting into the big race at the end of each week.

Need for Speed Unbound successfully sets itself apart from most contemporary racing games simply by attempting something different. Unbound isn’t always about being the best. But when it is, you have to earn it. Its exhilarating street races, matched with its risk/reward balancing act, make it one of the best racing games in years. Seriously, don’t sleep on Unbound.

Rhys Wood
Hardware Editor

Rhys is TRG's Hardware Editor, and has been part of the TechRadar team for more than two years. Particularly passionate about high-quality third-party controllers and headsets, as well as the latest and greatest in fight sticks and VR, Rhys strives to provide easy-to-read, informative coverage on gaming hardware of all kinds. As for the games themselves, Rhys is especially keen on fighting and racing games, as well as soulslikes and RPGs.