There are bits and pieces from the many Need for Speed games within Need for Speed Unbound, and it does a fair job of balancing these elements.
In order for franchises to last decades, they typically have to reinvent themselves a few times. Need for Speed is no exception, even though in Need for Speed Unbound, the series takes inspiration from past titles. This is certainly not a bad thing, as there is a lot to be learned from the franchise's past.
Need for Speed Unbound returns to the street racing that characterized the series during the 2000s. It also features a focus on characters which is something that became more prevalent during the 2010s. The two elements are blended well, resulting in an addictive racing game.
Need for Speed During the 2000s
For most of its lifetime, the Need for Speed series has been about exhilarating races and evading the police. However, it has changed its setting quite a bit over time, giving each of the games a different feeling. Earlier Need for Speed titles feature tracks with some urban influence, but they also wind through the outskirts of cities, allowing gamers to enjoy the stunning scenery. This is seen, for instance, with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, which was released in 2002.
The 2000s is also the decade where Need for Speed, like many arcade racers of the time, delved into street racing. It was the perfect time to do so thanks to the level of popularity that Japanese imported cars and car customization had achieved in pop culture. This era of the franchise is best represented by Need for Speed Underground and its sequel which feature hip-hop soundtracks and the ability to customize cars to make them look as flashy as the player likes.
For most of the 2000s, the franchise stuck to this identity, arguably reaching its pinnacle with Need for Speed: Most Wanted. However, the formula eventually got stale. Furthermore, street racing lost the popularity it once enjoyed. Consequently, when Need for Speed: Carbon rolled around in 2006, many gamers saw this as the beginning of a decline in the series.
In many ways, Need for Speed Unbound is a return to form for the series. It embraces urban street racing once again, features intense police chases, and gives players the option to wildly customize vehicles. In many ways, it feels like Unbound was created for gamers who enjoyed this era.
Need for Speed in the 2010s
The 2010s were a weird time for the Need for Speed series. After the fall of the popularity of street racing, the franchise seemed to be searching for a new identity. Technically, this began in the late 2000s with titles like ProStreet that tackled legal street racing, but things have only gotten weirder from that point onward.
During the 2010s, the franchise looked toward the online world and attempted to make the most of it.
Hence, gamers got titles such as 2010's Need for Speed: World and 2015's Need for Speed which attempted to reboot the series. Neither of these titles was particularly well-received. The 2010s also saw the series look past just the cars, and pay attention to the racers as well. For example, in The Run, there are sections where players get out of their vehicles and engage in quick-time events, while 2019's Need for Speed Heat, gamers can select their own playable character from a catalog of presets.
Need for Speed Unbound also focuses on characters; it allows gamers to pick their own playable character and customize them with designer clothing. However, its single-player offering is still the main attraction, and it doesn't attempt to bill itself as an online multiplayer game as other titles in the decade did. With Unbound, it appears that Need for Speed has found an identity that suits it in the modern landscape. It takes the street racing of the 2000s and blends it with the focus on characters from the 2010s. The result is a concoction of fun arcade racing that reminds players that the franchise has not yet met its demise.