A new Need for Speed will be arriving on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC this December, featuring the return of Criterion as the lead developer for the first time in close to a decade.
Titled Need for Speed Unbound, Criterion’s long-awaited return to the racing scene will utilize new-gen consoles and the Frostbite Engine to deliver 4K 60fps visuals in a free-roaming open world called Lakeshore. The physics will run at a high frame-rate as well, offering “more control and nuance to…the physical movement of the cars,” creative director Kieran Crimmins says.
A trailer released Thursday offered fans their first look at the newly-revamped art style, which is meant to reflect the franchise’s return to its street racing roots as well as the input of rapper A$AP Rocky, who will have his own mode in the new entry. Its emphasis on art and graffiti will extend to the gameplay, with Burst Nitrous boosts rewarded for stylish driving.
“Need for Speed is about trendsetting. Need for Speed is about breaking the mold. Need for Speed is about rebellion. It’s at the heart of that street racing fantasy, so we should be exploring new art styles and new visions and new ways the game can look, so that we can not only stand out from everything else, but also deliver innovation where we should be setting trends,” Crimmins says.
In development since at least 2020, Need for Speed Unbound checks off many of the items on fan wishlists from previous years. In addition to putting a firm focus on street racing, Need for Speed Unbound will include an offline single-player mode and cross-play (though not cross-progression). It will continue to put an emphasis on the cars themselves – meaning a cockpit view is out, but hood and bumper cameras are in.
But even if it looks very different from previous entries — and series stalwart Ghost Games is long gone — don’t call it a reboot.
“I think Need for Speed Heat was extraordinarily successful for us,” Criterion GM Matt Webster says. “So we are following up this game from a really, really successful Need for Speed Heat, and the games continue to reach tens of millions of players. So our view of this is where Need for Speed is going…this is us sort of encapsulating the fantasy and setting it up for a modern audience.”
A historic series going back to 1994, Need for Speed Unbound is the first entry to be developed primarily by Criterion since 2013. Known for classic racers like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the Guildford-based studio has lately served as support for releases such as Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront, with a particular emphasis on vehicle combat.
In the interim, Need for Speed has generally languished in the 70 overall range on Metacritic. Need for Speed Heat was well-received by fans, with our review calling it “easily the most impressive Need for Speed game in many years,” but that didn’t stop EA from shuttering Ghost Games and handing the keys back to Criterion. Despite that, Webster says the series is in “good health,” noting that it’s managed to stick around for close to 30 years.
In taking the reins back from Ghost Games, Criterion is keeping the focus squarely on the areas it considers to be the series’ strengths, but also expanding and reworking many aspects of the gameplay.
“If I was to boil everything up to what we trying to do here, we are trying to make the player feel like an illicit street racer, and make crazy bets like an illicit street racer, and feel the highs and lows and thrills of what it means to kind of embody that fantasy,” Crimmins says.
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It’s reflected in Need for Speed Unbound’s single-player, which will feature a “completely new campaign structure.”
“So when you go in a race, there’s a buy-in, which basically, you have to be able to play the race and then you can win that back with a reward if you do well or you can lose that money. So you have to make a choice in which race you want to do and what buy-ins you’re comfortable with,” Crimmins explains. “Every single race also gives you a little bit of heat. So if you do lots and lots of races in one session, your heat can build up and you’ll take a huge gamble on the money that you’re carrying around as well. So there’s a consequence there.”
It will also include what Criterion describes as an “immersive narrative” in which two friends are torn apart by a robbery at a family auto shop, leaving the player to try and reclaim a priceless car by winning the “ultimate street race.”
“[E]very single one of those characters, we’ve actually made them full characters this time,” Crimmins says. “They’ve got little story arcs, they’ve got personalities, they’ve got their own car customization and style and you can see them driving around.”
That element extends into side bets, which will allow players to target individual characters. “It’s like, ‘I am going to make sure I beat this character and I am going to make sure I beat this character,’ Crimmins says. “It’s not as big as the buy-in and the rewards of picking the event, but it is personal.”
Cops, of course, will be omnipresent in Need for Speed Unbound, but Criterion’s approach will be much more “tactical” this time around. Individual vehicles will have their own strengths and weaknesses, which players will be able to exploit during chases.
“You have to pick your strategy for the kind of cop that’s coming after you. And if you get really good, you can even get in a full high heat chase. And if you know all the strategies, you can totally still get away with it. But if you don’t, or you can’t execute the strategies, you will be taken down,” Crimmins says.
Cops have at times presented an interesting problem for the series. They are a necessary part of any Need for Speed game, but they can prove disruptive or intrusive if a player wants to complete a task or simply vibe. Need for Speed Unbound addresses this by giving players the chance to deliberately decide how much cop heat they take on – the mechanic that governs how aggressive the police will be at any given time. Criterion is also including a police scanner and a spotting mechanic, giving players additional options for avoiding police if they so desire.
Multiplayer, meanwhile, has been tuned to be “as low friction as possible.” When you go into the multiplayer mode you can drive around the world, meet up with friends, or just mess around. While there, “people will be pinging off race requests and playlist requests and you can seamlessly join any one of those events at any time,” Crimmins says.
The mode includes a banner system that will allow players to show off photos and achievements. Neither Criterion nor EA were ready to discuss whether Need for Speed Unbound would have a battle pass or any other type of monetization; however, EA did confirm that it will feature a series of “free content updates” after launch, including “new features, experiences, content drops, and more.” EA says it will reveal more details on post-launch content “soon.”
One way or another, Need for Speed Unbound will include plenty of ways to make your car your own, including fully customizable characters, body kits, and wraps, as well as tiered vehicles similar to Forza Horizon and tie-ins with “loads of really high-end prestige brands.” Gameplay customization will also include “thousands of thousands” of combinations for car tuning, as well as tiered vehicles similar to Forza Horizon. Crimmins wasn’t able to say how many cars will be in the new release, only that it will have “a lot.”
It’s all wrapped in what Crimmins claims is the “deepest driving system and the best handling” that Criterion has ever put in one of its racing games. It’s augmented by a brand-new physics system, which Webster calls a “super sophisticated physical simulation” that’s “comparable to other big driving sims.” The difference, Webster says, is that Need for Speed aims to be as accessible as possible via driver assist mechanics while maintaining a high skill ceiling.
“I think players are really going to feel the difference and be able to – across a broad range of vehicle types – feeling the difference between a nimble, small European car or a big American muscle car or a hyper car…And then when they get into more specifics of adjusting how that car handles by modifying it to suit their preferences. That shows you the level of breadth and depth that we’re able to uncover with that tech,” Webster says.
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But the element of Need for Speed Unbound that fans undoubtedly notice first will be its heavily-stylized art, which is a departure from the look and feel of previous entries – and the highly-realistic racing genre in general. A$AP Rocky will play a key role in the look and feel of Need for Speed Unbound, including releasing a brand-new track titled “Sh*ttin Me” that’s featured in the trailer. A$AP Rocky will also appear in-game as a leader in a dedicated mode called Takeover Scene, in which players work together to take over parts of Lakeshore.
According to Crimmins, the style grew out of a conversation about what the series is about – namely, “trendsetting” and “rebellion.” At the same time, Criterion wanted to find a way to provide interesting feedback when a player was driving well.
“Essentially, games are a playground where you do something cool and then you feel good about it, and that felt like something that we could experiment with,” Crimmins says. “But we were also looking at the graffiti at the same time…That would not only deliver something that felt very Need for Speed, very street style, very kind of urban, but also it would relay the mastery of your actions in a way that would be kind of not only beautiful, but also visceral and exciting to do. So that’s kind of where we ended up with it, and as soon as we started playing with it, it felt amazing.”
As for how Criterion came to work with A$AP Rocky, Crimmins says that the rapper’s brand fits well with the feeling the studio is trying to convey with Need for Speed Unbound.
“I mean A$AP’s kind of a trendsetter in both fashion and music, and he’s also a bit of a rebel, and that is kind of part of the Need for Speed vibe,” Crimmins says. “So it totally made sense to put him in the game and have a game mode that represented what he was about and also give a cool event for players to play as well.”
As befits a series that’s all about speed, Need for Speed Unbound is coming in hot. While this entry has been in development for at least three years, there will be less than two months between its reveal and its ultimate release. EA and Criterion currently have no plans for a demo or a closed beta, but fans won’t have to wait long to play the final release in any case.
And for Criterion, this is just the beginning.
“I think broadly we’ve got big ambitions and plans…with modern games these days, the launch day is just the start, and that’s no different for Need for Speed,” Webster says. “I think as a series it’s been a little bit underserved when you compare it to other genres or other live series, and we expect to be breathing life into the game over a period of time beyond launch. So that’ll be an exciting journey for us too.”
Need for Speed Unbound releases December 2 on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.