The first thing that jumps out when starting Need for Speed Unbound is its vibrant art style. At a time when most other racing games are striving for photorealism, EA's latest distinguishes itself from the rest of the grid by adopting a stylized mix between reality and comic books. While its cars land on the side of realism, the characters behind the wheel are cel-shaded and its open world falls somewhere in between the two aesthetics. Vivid graffiti-style flourishes also pop up when you activate nitrous or fly off a ramp, and drifting kicks up colorful tire smoke that looks hand-drawn, with all of these effects punctuating the action with a unique sense of style.
There aren't any modern racing games that look quite like it, yet the rest of Unbound feels like a continuation of 2019's Need for Speed Heat. From the distinction between day and night races to the cat-and-mouse chase that occurs when you have to outrun the cops and make it to a safe house in order to bank your money. Unbound doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel, but what's here maintains the series' recent quality, even if there are some wrong turns along the way.
As is now customary in Need for Speed games, Unbound features a rather forgettable story about getting back at a former friend who stole your ride. There's little point in delving into details because, ultimately, it's inconsequential. Cutscenes are sprinkled in every now and then, but for the most part, the story is just sort of there, happening in the background as you drive around the city, so at least it's unobtrusive. There's some fun incidental dialogue every now and then, including one mission where you're traveling with a "weeb racer" who spends the whole journey telling you about the history of anime and how it definitely isn't a cartoon. Rapper A$AP Rocky also makes an appearance (because why not?) and it feels like he was given a microphone and free rein to say whatever came to mind. It's a moment that stands out in a game that's filled to the brim with ancillary dialogue. Aside from this, the story is relatively easy to ignore, but it does succeed in giving impetus to the game's structure.
Unbound takes place across four in-game weeks. At the end of each week, there's a series of qualifying races that eventually lead to a grand finale where your aim is to exact revenge by winning the whole thing. There's a buy-in for each qualifier, so you'll spend the days leading up to each one taking part in various races and events in order to earn enough money to enter and upgrade your car along the way. Aside from racking up stacks of cash, each of these events also catches the attention of the local police force. If you're busted by the cops before making it back to a safe house, you lose all of your winnings and must move on to the next day, adding tension to each run-in with the law.
Need for Speed Heat adopted a similar structure, but while that game featured legal street races throughout the day and illegal street races at night, Unbound takes the illicit route 24/7. This means there's no respite from the police's attention, and any money you make during sunlight hours needs to be banked at a safe house before you can transition to the evening's races. Your heat level carries over, too, and only resets once you're done for the night, so it's up to you how much police presence you want to accumulate throughout the day before the sun disappears over the horizon. Night events tend to feature significantly higher payouts, but they often require a particular level of heat or a sizeable buy-in if you want to participate. You can still earn money taking on smaller events, but the increased risk of the larger events comes with big cash prizes. You're forced to weigh up your options when deciding what to do on a day-to-day basis.
These decisions are more impactful during the early game when the cars you're driving aren't quite up to snuff. Unbound is surprisingly challenging in its first few hours, and I appreciate how hard it makes you work to achieve victory. You're competing against drivers that are simply faster than you, racing in souped-up cars that your initial junker can't keep up with. You begin by butting heads with those at the back of the pack, but you can place a bet at the start of each race that you'll finish above a certain driver, giving you the chance to earn some extra cash while setting a target to beat even if you're not competing for first place. Eventually, as the money starts flowing in and you're able to afford more vehicle upgrades, you can see the gap close as you start achieving higher finishes and picking up victories. You're made to work your way up and the end result is a palpable and satisfying sense of progression.
Unbound's driving model is also flexible enough to allow for a couple of different racing styles. Each car's handling falls into one of three categories: drift, grip, and neutral (which sits in the middle of the other two.) If you love careening around corners sideways, a car that emphasizes drifting will make life easier. On the other hand, if you prefer slowing down and hitting the apex of each corner, a grippy car is advantageous. Whichever style you choose rewards you with a chunk of nitrous for pulling these cornering techniques off successfully, which makes both viable. No matter which car you choose, however, they're all afflicted with a severe case of understeer. This makes it feel like you're trying to steer a bus around the city, but I found that you can alleviate the issue somewhat by going into each vehicle's handling settings and moving the slider for steering sensitivity to "high." It's not an ideal solution but does make the handling feel more responsive and precise.
Like other arcade racers of its ilk, Unbound is built around accumulating NOS by performing different actions such as drafting behind other racers, driving into oncoming traffic, and getting airborne. You have a standardized nitrous meter that can be consumed in one go for a lengthy speed boost, but Unbound also introduces another type called Burst Nitrous. As the name implies, this lets you activate a short burst that operates off of its own charge system. Drifting, for instance, will fill up this separate meter, letting you explode out of a corner with a rapid surge of speed. It's a fun new addition that gives you more opportunities to take advantage of nitrous while also incentivizing risky driving.
The only downside is that the AI doesn't always play fair. Other drivers have a tendency to match your pace whenever you deploy nitrous, whether they themselves are boosting or not, which dilutes the delight that activating NOS should invoke. The leading AI car will sometimes zoom ahead as well, finishing the race more than 30 seconds faster than everyone else. This happens seemingly at random and feels like reverse rubber banding, giving you no chance of catching up.
Other frustrations revolve around the police, particularly early on. You have little recourse when it comes to fighting back, so police chases can last for a good long while when your car's not the fastest. This ramps up the tension even further and the pervasive feeling that you're severely outmatched isn't a negative, but it's disheartening when you finally evade capture only to enter another protracted chase when a police car spawns in front of you. Undercover cops feel particularly cheap as well, since they don't appear on your radar. Even later on, when escaping becomes much easier, Unbound floods the streets with additional cops which makes getting from race to race a tedious affair.
Some of these issues were also present in Need for Speed Heat, doubling down on the notion that Unbound is a lateral move rather than one that pushes the series forward. It's no worse nor better than its predecessor, making for another exciting arcade racer that's still held back by a few annoyances. It's another positive outcome following the low point that was Need for Speed Payback, but Unbound is unlikely to emerge from the shadows of the genre's most popular games.