Here's How Need For Speed Unbound's Radical Art Style Came to Be

The "living graffiti" animations make more sense when the controller's in your hand, the game's creative director told Jalopnik.

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Screenshot of a race in Need For Speed Unbound
Image: Electronic Arts

Need For Speed Unbound fully releases Friday, and it’s got quite a lot riding on its shoulders. It’s the first NFS since 2019's polarizing Heat; the first developed by arcade racing mavens Criterion since the franchise fell back to the team after the dissolution of Ghost Games in 2020; and the first on current-gen platforms. It’s an exciting moment. While we at Jalopnik have only just begun to get to grips with the street racer today — and will have our own impressions live later in the week — we did have the privilege of briefly chatting with the game’s creative director, Kieran Crimmings, about how Unbound came to be.

Right off the bat, he’s not going to blame you if you’re not smitten with the art style from gameplay footage alone. Trite as it may sound, the idea for what Criterion calls “living graffiti” — the visual flourishes shooting off cars during drifting, boosting and so on — were generated from gameplay development, Crimmings says, and you’re going to have to play the game to understand why the team has become so enamored with the idea.

“We had a bunch of graffiti that we were thinking about putting in the world and stuff like that. We were working with Jc Rivera and some of our artists and had their work on the wall, and at the same time we were rebuilding the physics system and the handling system on top of that with the current gen consoles in mind. So you know we had a lot more power with those consoles, we wanted to completely remake that.”

Credit: Electronic Arts via YouTube

Some of the new gameplay mechanics, like Unbound’s burst nitrous system, weren’t as intuitive as they could be. Criterion trialed repurposing the art as a visual aid, which completely transformed the kinesthetics of the experience, Crimmings told Jalopnik.

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“We were finding it quite hard to feedback state changes to people. Like, when exactly do you enter the drift, when exactly are you doing a perfect drift, when exactly are you drafting? All that kind of stuff. And it was a bit of a brain wave — it [was] like ‘well, what if we just used some of this graffiti?’ I think we had one shot — these amazing graffiti lines — and it was like, well that could literally just be coming off the back of the car and letting me know that I’m at top speed, for instance.

“We tried it, we put it in a prototype, it felt amazing. So, soon as we put it in a prototype it was like ‘oh — we’ve got to run with this!’ And, don’t get me wrong — we had to then do a bunch of art experiments to be like ‘are we really going to do this?’ But, as soon as we did, they looked fantastic. It felt like something new and fresh and interesting.”

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Seeing those flourishes and feeling how they respond physically while the controller’s in your hand are two different experiences.

Screenshot of a race in NFS Unbound between a Mercedes sedan and new Porsche 911
Image: Electronic Arts
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“I can’t judge people for judging the video because the game’s not out and they can’t play it yet, so fair enough. But I would say everyone who has judged the video, please play it, and see how that system works. It really, really works. It’s really kind of a fantastically, viscerally rewarding adaptation of the boost mechanic, tied in with some visual explosions and I think players are going to love it once they play it.”

Crimmings led Unbound having started on Need For Speed with Criterion’s first work in the series: 2010's Hot Pursuit reboot. Inspiration from NFS’ long history across car cultures and eras was at the forefront of Unbound’s development.

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“If I think about old Need For Speed games, particularly Need For Speed [2015] reboot, maybe Need For Speed Heat, the original Most Wanted, Underground series, they all at their core were based around illicit street racing, being in a gang of underground street racers that weren’t meant to be racing but were, and there was a risk and reward that was kind of implied there in that fantasy as well where people go out and bet big on their races and maybe lose it all, or maybe don’t.

Race betting screen in NFS Unbound
Betting on your results in races is a key part of NFS Unbound’s risk/reward gameplay loop.
Image: Electronic Arts
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“For us that’s always been a really exciting space and I think Heat kind of put us back on that track in a way that really made sense and really resonated with the audience. So that big goal from the start of it was ‘alright — how can we make a version of that fantasy, and a version of that fantasy that not only delivers really well on that risk-and-reward system (which hopefully you’ll pick up on in the campaign structure) but also has those vibes, and also feels modern.’”

You can find out for yourself this week. While NFS Unbound is available to everyone on December 2, it’s out Tuesday in early access for those who preordered the special Palace Edition. EA Play subscribers can also try the game for up to 10 hours. If you’re curious, I recommend tuning into Jalopnik’s Twitch stream Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern, over at twitch.tv/jalopnikdotcom, where you’ll get our unfiltered, live, initial opinions on the game. I’m looking forward to it.