Need for Speed Unbound is the latest in the popular NFS arcade racing series developed by Criterion and published by EA. It pares the scale of its city and scope of its story down from previous iterations in an attempt to refocus on the racing and car customization — which is a welcome adjustment because the premise is embarrassingly stale.

The story neither hits the tongue-in-cheek vibe of early Fast and Furious plots nor does it dive seriously into the many social and dramatic themes it teases out. Committing in either direction might have done wonders for a cast of characters that are well designed but sadly amount to two-dimensional tropes. Rapper A$AP Rocky is woefully underutilized as the host of a single racing event and a small midgame cameo as himself. His authentic delivery and persona is a welcome break from the try-hard streetwise dialog from the other characters but is very short-lived.

The racing itself is thrilling and loads of fun as you attempt to build up your funds and stable of cars in preparation for “The Grand,” a major street racing event. Over the course of three in-game weeks, you’ll enter events gated by buy-in amounts or car class levels and will need to place well enough to take home cash in order to meet ever rising requirements. The heat mechanic from the last game makes a return here and splits each day between morning and night. During the day race events don’t garner as much police attention and don’t reward as much money, but heat level carries over into the night and acts as a multiplier for all your earnings if you can make it back to a safe house before the cops find and take you in.

Cars handle incredibly well, and you’ll feel a noticeable difference between old beaters and supercars. A vehicle’s handling can be further customized in your garage, and its performance is upgraded in a mostly linear fashion that raises a numerical value attached to its class letter. So even within the same class, you’re not gonna beat a higher-rated vehicle in a battle of straight-up speed.

There’s a wealth of options for visual customization and almost nothing is gated behind purchases like with performance, which allows you to get your cars looking how you want straight away.

The graffiti art-inspired effects called tags accentuate your racing and come as equipable packages that you can turn on or off but can’t mix and match, which is disappointing, but they otherwise add a ton of style to big moments like boosting and catching air. The anime-inspired character models fit incredibly well with the over-the-top tuner car culture aesthetic, but Unbound overall won’t impress graphically next to the likes of the latest Forza or Grid release.

I was also underwhelmed by the soundtrack that was curated by A$AP Rocky; aside from a few fitting and likable tracks, many were either forgettable or felt like annoying noise. Speaking of annoyances, Unbound doesn’t feel incredibly polished. I’d frequently get dropped frames during hectic moments like intense car chases and heavy rain. There were also occasional visual glitches that would heavily obstruct my vision mid race, but these were pretty rare.

The online mode’s gameplay loop works exactly as it does in single-player, only you’ll share the city with 15 other racers. Your character and cars from single-player don’t transfer to online at all however, which is a bummer, but getting into races was fast and lag-free.

Need for Speed Unbound is a return to form for the long-running series but manages to hold tight to its past stumbles as well. While its art style shift and tag effects lend it a fresh style and energy to draw players into its excellent racing gameplay, the out-of-touch storyline works equally as hard to push players back out, but it’s an easy recommendation for any fan of the franchise. The game is out now for $69.99 on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X | S.

Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for Need for Speed Unbound.

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