Best Need for Speed Games, All 23 Ranked

Which Need for Speed Game Makes the Podium?

Need for Speed Unbound has brought the series back into the spotlight after Ghost Games’ three games starting with much lambasted Need for Speed 2015, but where does it fit amongst the rest of the series? Here’s our ranking of the 23 best Need for Speed games.

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23. Need for Speed: Undercover

undercover key art
Image Source: EA Blockbox

Undercover tried to focus on the battle between cops and racers, adding huge highway networks to an already large map. However, it was one of the most boring games in the series, with most of the events being uninspired and the world being empty. On top of that, it suffered from horrible tech issues at launch that made it unplayable for a lot of people.

22. Need for Speed Payback

nfs payback image art
Image Source: EA Ghost Games

Payback was generally fun to play, with one of the most varied maps the series had seen in a long time, but it was let down by a few crucial things.

The first letdown was the story, which tried and failed to be an action-packed, Fast and Furious style action flick. The worst aspect though, was the awful use of microtransactions.

If you wanted to upgrade your car at a good rate, you’d have to spend real-world money, and in-game upgrades were left entirely down to luck, pushing you towards spending your real-world money. These two main issues made Payback an absolute chore to play.

21. Need for Speed: Nitro

nfs nitro game title art
Image Source: EA Montreal

Nitro was a Nintendo exclusive, coming to the Wii and DS only and being aimed at the younger racing game fan. The actual action was quite good, but it severely lacked the amount of content that earlier games in the series had. More tracks and cars were needed to make it worth switching platforms for.

20. Need for Speed (2015)

need for speed 2015 image art
Image Source: Ghost Games

Ghost Games’ 2015 reboot of the series was another entry in which the bad outweighed the good. It feels good to play and the night-only setting was beautiful, but it was held back by an online-only requirement, boring events, a horribly cheesy live-action story, and some frustrating bugs. There were some positives that were taken forward, but it’s an entry best forgotten now.

19. Need for Speed: The Run

the run need for speed image art
Image Source: EA Black Box

The Run was quite the change for the series, opting for a linear story approach to the campaign rather than an open world. You would take part in individual races across the US and a story played between each event.

The idea simply didn’t work as well as hoped, the story was overly serious, and the racing mechanics seemed to take a step backward from previous entries, which was especially annoying when it was the focus more than ever before. Since The Run, Need for Speed has gone back to being all about open-world racing.

18. Need for Speed: ProStreet

nfs prostreet image
Image Source: EA Blackbox

ProStreet wasn’t a bad game. It continued the trend of focusing on street racing, but it lost the insanity and over-the-top fun of earlier games in the series. It was fine, just one of the more boring entries.

17. Need for Speed: Carbon

nfs carbon box art
Image Source: EA Blackbox

Carbon suffered from the fate of coming after Most Wanted. The intense cop chases were gone, but Carbon was still a great street racer with a lot of style. It didn’t match what came before it, and with NFS seeing annual iterations at the time, it struggled to keep up the pace.

16. Need for Speed 2

nfs 2 box art image
Image Source: EA

Most reviews of the second game in the series cited the same issues. Graphics, both in terms of the settings and cars, and the frame rate were poor in comparison to the first game and other competition. The actual racing was still enjoyed by most, but it was a disappointing follow-up.

15. Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed

nfs porsche unleashed image
Image Source: EA Vancouver via Lutris

Porsche Unleashed, which focuses on just the cars of the legendary German company, received a wider variety of reviews than any other game in the Need for Speed series.

Some praised the new structure, which was more like mini-games to show off each of Porsche’s cars, than a cohesive campaign, but others found it shallow and frustrating.

14. Need for Speed Heat

need for speed heat gameplay image
Image Source: EA Ghost Games via Twinfinite

The new game in the series is certainly a step forward after Payback and the 2015 reboot. Palm City is a bit dull and the cops could do with some balancing, but the focus on the Day vs. Night structure and well-designed events make Heat the most enjoyable Need for Speed in about five years.

13. Need for Speed: Shift

nfs shift gameplay
Image Source: EA

Shift was the Need for Speed series’ first attempt at a track racing game. It was far from the more simulation style of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but it was a fun mix of Need for Speed style and more streamlined action.

Of course, a lot of people missed the cops, dramatic crashes, and street racing of the usual NFS games, which put a lot of people off Shift, but it was an admirable effort and helped keep the usual formula fresh.

12. Need for Speed: High Stakes

nfs high stakes cover art
Image Source: EA

The fourth Need for Speed game, High Stakes released in 1999 and was a soft reboot. While the police chases were fun, the graphics were improved, and the new career mode was well designed, it couldn’t compete with the likes of Gran Turismo 2, which released a few months later.

11. Shift 2: Unleashed

need for speed shift 2 image key art
Image Source: EA Blackbox

Need for Speed’s second and final foray into the track racing world wasn’t much of an improvement on the first Shift game, but it still provided a good alternative to the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. It was still quite arcadey, making it easy to pick up for racing novices, yet it still required more thought than the series’ street racing siblings.

10. Need for Speed Rivals

need for speed rivals Ferrari Koenigsegg
Image Source: EA Blackbox

Rivals was the first Need for Speed game on current-gen consoles and combined the weapons-focused cop chases of Hot Pursuit with the varied open world of the two Most Wanted games.

The map was the most varied the series had seen, the drifting mechanics were a lot of fun, and the variety of weapons added an extra layer of tactics to the racing. The only issue was the cops were a little overpowered, particularly later in the game.

9. The Need for Speed

The need for speed original
Image Source: EA via Top Gear

The first game in the series started well, so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen more than 20 NFS titles since. The graphics were praised at the time, the arcade-style gameplay was a lot of fun, and the tracks were really well-designed. It introduced aspects that became synonymous with the series in the years to follow.

8. Need for Speed Unbound

Need for Speed Unbound Will Feature Real Clothing Brands Thanks to New Partnerships
Image Source: EA Criterion

The most recent entry on the list, NFS Unbound is a refreshing change of pace for the series. The most noticeable aspect of Unbound is the unique over-the-top art style. Doing burnouts and drifts leaves behind a plume of stylized cell-shaded smoke, which of course, is customizable. I just love the new cell-shaded look in Unbound.

There are a lot of improvements under the hood in Unbound as well, so it’s not just all smoke and mirrors. The grip versus drift simplification of recent entries gets left behind in the rear-view mirror as Unbound ups the complexity and difficulty of its handling model. You can now corner vehicles in between grip and drift depending on traction control settings and vehicle drivetrain.

Speaking of difficulty, Need for Speed Unbound is easily one of the most challenging games in the entire series. The strict calendar system forces day-to-day event management and greatly punishes getting busted by cops. There’s a legitimate challenge to be had here that’s really fun to overcome, but players who don’t like calendar deadlines in games may be turned off by this.

Earning money to buy vehicles also got more difficult due to the high cost of cars and the harsh penalty for getting busted and losing one-time events. It takes quite a long time to earn the high-end cars in Need for Speed Unbound, but I find it an absolutely refreshing change of pace from games that give cars out like candy such as Forza Horizon. You really have to earn your vehicles in Need for Speed Unbound, but boy is it rewarding when you finally do.

Criterion’s return to the series is likely to be hotly debated among NFS fans, but I for one enjoy the breath of fresh air Need for Speed Unbound provides.

7. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

need for speed most wanted remake bmw chase
Image Source: Criterion Games

After 2005’s game of the same name, 2012’s Most Wanted had a lot to live up to. It didn’t quite have the personality that the predecessor did, and the consistent multiplayer integration was hit-and-miss, but it had a lot of fun events. The driving felt the best it had for a while, and the city looked great.

6. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit

need for speed 3 hot pursuit logo
Image Source: EA

The third game in the series introduced the Hot Pursuit name, putting focus on the cop chases more than ever before. Not only were the races exciting and fast-paced, but Hot Pursuit overhauled the graphics, making it the best-looking game in the series at that point in time. This wasn’t the last we’d see of the subtitle either.

5. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

need for speed hot pursuit remastered
Image Source: Criterion Games

The Hot Pursuit sub-series then got a reboot of its own in 2010, focusing on speed and cop chases more than ever before. With spikes, EMPs, and other weapons at the disposal of both teams, racing through the mountains at 250mph was more exciting than ever before. Sometimes, the all-out action overshadowed the actual racing, however.

4. Need for Speed: Underground

need for speed underground cover art
Image Source: EA

Due to the popularity of the second game, the first Underground doesn’t get the credit it deserves. However, racing through the neon-drenched streets was great and was the beginning of an aesthetic that NFS embraced for years. The tracks weren’t always the best, but it combined fun racing, beautiful visuals, and cop chases in the best of the early Need for Speed games.

3. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2

nfs hot pursuit 2 key art
Image Source: EA

Hot Pursuit 2 was the first time that the series brought together fun daytime racing, a beautiful and varied map, and fast-paced cop chases into one package. Other NFS titles have had the aesthetics, but few have also boasted great racing mechanics that were easy to pick up but didn’t feel overly arcadey.

2. Need for Speed: Underground 2

need for speed underground 2 key art
Image Source: EA

Every time a new Need for Speed comes around, everyone shouts about wanting it to recapture what made Underground 2 special, and some even want a remake. Other NFS games have harked back to neon-drenched street racing, but few have been quite the same when it comes to personality mixing with drift-focused racing.

1. Need for Speed: Most Wanted

need for speed most wanted bmw
Image Source: EA Black Box

Most Wanted had everything you’d want from a high-octane racing game. A varied open world, exciting cop chases, a fun progression system, split-screen multiplayer, and great visuals.

While Underground 2 is the nostalgic choice for many, the first Most Wanted has become the NFS title that every new entry is compared to. Some of the earlier titles had the personality, such as Underground, while the likes of Hot Pursuit 2 had the open-world racing. Most Wanted was the first to have both.

That’s it for our list of best Need for Speed games. What entry is your favorite? Do you like Criterion’s return with Need for Speed Unbound? Let us know and check back for all things gaming-related here on Twinfinite.

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Image of Matthew Carmosino
Matthew Carmosino
Matthew Carmosino is a freelance writer for Twinfinite. He started gaming in the mid-90s where his love for SquareSoft RPGs like Chrono Trigger changed him forever. Matthew has been working in the game industry for two years covering everything from story-rich RPGs to puzzle-platformers. Listening to piano music on a rainy day is his idea of a really good time, which probably explains his unnatural tolerance for level-grinding.