There’s no other racing game franchise as iconic as Need for Speed, and it’s not even close. Sure, the series has had its ups and downs, but it has managed to stay relevant even after its peak popularity during the sixth-generation consoles. With over 27 entries in the series, with a majority of those falling into the arcade racer category, it’s a bit of work to rank the best Need for Speed games, but we’ve done it anyway.
In our ranking, we’re accounting for what titles had the most impact and how many of these have managed to stand the test of time.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2005
- Release Date: November 11, 2005
- Platforms: PS2, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, Gamecube, PC
- Notable Features: Open world, aggressive cop chases
What’s not to love about Need for Speed: Most Wanted? the game has it all. From reckless cops to great car customization and responsive car mechanics to engaging game modes. Most Wanted is not just the best NFS game, but it is one of the best video games ever, period.
Even after all this time, the cop chases in Most Wanted are the best in the series. As you progress through the story, cops deploy advanced tactics to stop your illegal racing. The cops would have SUVs ramming into you head-on while helicopters chased you in the sky.
The story was engaging enough and is essentially a stand revenge plot. However, the real charm of the world comes from the rival blacklists, which served as bosses with their own customized cars and personalities. The graphics were groundbreaking then and surprisingly hold up well today, with a soundtrack full of rock classics.
Need for Speed: Underground 2
- Release Date: November 9, 2004
- Platforms: PS2, PC, Xbox, PSP, GameCube, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advanced
- Notable Features: Car parts and visual customization
Need for Speed: Underground 2 offered us the first open-world Need for Speed to play. We got to drive to events and activate them to start racing. Or, if you’re like me, you’d just cruise around the open world, drifting around corners and listening to an awesome soundtrack. If you are a fan of night races, Underground 2 had atmospheric nighttime races aplenty. The game also introduced SUVs to the roster. There are around 8 modes to choose from, but Outrun stands out. In Outrun, you need a 1000m lead on your rival racer to win.
The only reason the game isn’t number one is the lack of cops and an almost non-existent story. You are taking part in illegal races with no one to stop you, which takes away from the overall experience, even though cops had been introduced in previous entries at this point.
Need for Speed: Rivals
- Release Date: November 15, 2013
- Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Notable Features: Pursuit tech powerups, All-Drive System
It might be controversial to rank Need for Speed: Rivals this high, but the short game had fun plastered all over it. There were multiple gameplay elements that made Need for Speed: Rivals a thrilling ride, but the inclusion of weapons called “Pursuit Tech” made it stand out. Weapons like electromagnetic pulses, shock rams, spike strips, and stun mines can be used both by racers and cops.
The arcade-style racer had over-the-top cop pursuits that often became chaotic. The game improved upon the formula of Hot Pursuit and increased the action. It also introduced an All-Drive system, which uses data collected from players to form racing AI. The game also allowed you to play as a cop, taking down racers using shock waves, helicopters, and roadblocks.
This fun addition of what is essentially vehicular combat was quite innovative for the franchise but never really took off and was ultimately a one-off experience.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2010
- Release Date: November 16, 2010
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360
- Notable Features: Play as a cop, high-speed chases
The original Hot Pursuit came out back in 1998 and introduced a bunch of new mechanics that would later define where the series was headed in the future. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit allows you to play as a racer as well as a cop, with dedicated career modes for both. This reboot was developed by Criterion, the guys behind the excellent Burnout series (RIP). Criterion were already masters of arcade racing and tight handling, so naturally, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit had both in spade.
The new look and feel of the game surprised many and provided ample entertainment to thrill-seekers. It also holds the record of being the best-reviewed Need for Speed game of all time. Criterion understood what the original developers were trying to do and managed to modernize a lot of the mechanics present in the original 1998 release.
Need for Speed: Underground
- Release Date: November 17, 2003
- Platforms: PS2, PC, GameCube, Xbox
- Notable Features: Car tuning and customization, drifting mechanics
This is the game that introduced tuner culture to the need for speed franchise and became a blockbuster. Those were the days when The Fast and the Furious was all in rage, and EA struck when the iron was hot. It was the first game to introduce a storyline to the series and instantly became a hit among fans.
The game has a garage mode that allows players to customize their rides fully. It was also the first game that introduced drifting as a more involved feature. The longer you drifted around corners, the more points you gained. The feeling of accomplishment when you nailed that perfect corner while drifting was unmatched.
The driving mechanics of the game are responsive and easy to understand. These mechanics also reward mastery, drifting around a tight corner allows you to accelerate faster, and it’s always fun to tailspin your friends off the track.
Need for Speed: Unbound
- Release Date: November 29, 2022
- Platforms: PC, Xbox Series S|X, PS5
- Notable Feature: Great Visual Design, Excellent Boost System
The latest entry in the series, tackled by Criterion Games, is a return to form for many. Expanding on Heat, Unbound is a colorful title, packed to the brim with visual effects on display that somehow manage to blend the realistic and animated styles to create something wholly unique and exciting. It’s a current-gen title that performs very well and looks the part too.
It’s also a surprisingly challenging game in the initial hours, and you’re almost expected not to come out at the top in every race. The driving mechanics rely on you to make close calls and extend your nitrous, offering skilled players an advantage to dominate the track.
It packs a lot of the best mechanics the series is known for and provides a lot of customization options for players to personalize their vehicles and character. The story is the weakest link here, but that’s never really been a strength for these games anyway.
Need for Speed: Shift 2 – Unleashed
- Release Date: March 29, 2011
- Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
- Notable Feature: Simulation-type realistic racing and tracks
The Shift series was a shift from arcade handling, pun intended. The game focused on delivering a simulation-like experience to the franchise. There was a cockpit view and a helmet camera, the latter became a staple way to play the game. The helmet would move according to the real-world physics of the car, and it added to the realism.
While the game didn’t appeal to the general fans of the arcade-style Need for Speed, it is still considered one of the best NFS games that tried something new. Unfortunately, EA decided that the world of legal racing wasn’t profitable, and we haven’t seen another entry in this spinoff series.
It’s a shame because now EA owns Codemasters as well, which actually has a lot of experience with realistic, simulation-styled games, and the Need for Speed brand could actually attract a lot of players, with such a competent studio in the driver’s seat.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 2002
- Release Date: 2002
- Platforms: PC, PS2, GameCube, Xbox
- Notable Feature: Play as a cop, reckless gameplay
Hot Pursuit 2 was released just before Underground, and it’s considered one of the last games before tuner culture took over. The good guys versus the bad guys or cops against criminals was an exciting idea at that time. There were multiple new cop vehicles in the game, including a helicopter. It ran wonderfully on the PlayStation 2, though the PC port wasn’t in great shape. Won’t be a problem for modern PCs, though.
It was an exciting game that allowed you to be reckless on the road. The soundtrack also had plenty of gems in it, One Little Victory by Rush and Ordinary by The Buzzhorn? Yes, please. The cop versus racer gameplay won it the “Console Racing Game of the Year” award at the Interactive Achievement Awards. The visuals might be a bit dated, but it’s still a lovely time, especially if you can get a copy.
Need for Speed 2015
- Release Date: November 3, 2015
- Platforms: PS4, PC, Xbox One
- Notable Features: Beautiful graphics, race against famous racers
The reboot from 2015 took advantage of the new consoles on the block and offered stunning graphics. I was honestly blown away by how realistic the nighttime racing in the game looked. The driving was also fine-tuned and somewhat realistic compared to other arcade racers, even in the NFS series, but it was the story that took the game back to its roots.
Like some older games, the story mode cut scenes were shot using real actors. Unfortunately, the story was half-baked and basically served as a prop to the racing. However, the game allowed you to race famous real-world drivers. The biggest downside was the always-online requirement, and as someone with terrible Internet, I had trouble racing other players. It’s still a solid enough entry and made excellent use of EA’s Frostbite engine.
Need for Speed: Carbon
- Release Date: October 30, 2006
- Platforms: PC, PS2, GameCube, Xbox, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Macintosh
- Notable Feature: Canyon Duel mode, good teammate AI
Need for Speed: Carbon was one of the shortest Need for Speed games but introduced some unique new ideas to the franchise. One of which was “Canyon Duel”, a race mode where you have to stay close to the pack leader to accumulate points. The game also introduced team racing with a fairly decent teammate AI.
The graphics were impressive, especially the lighting at night (the game featured nighttime only). The game took advantage of PlayStation 3 and Wii as well as polished textures and detailed car models. One of the biggest shortcomings of Carbon was the exclusion of cops. While they were there, they weren’t an integral part of the gameplay.
Carbon’s sort of bridged the gap between Underground and Most Wanted, with its excellent visuals, paired with the drift scoring systems of Underground to create something for fans of both camps.
Need for Speed: Undercover
- Release Date: November 17, 2008
- Platforms: PS3, PC, PS2, Wii
- Notable Feature: Unique Story, Action-packed cop chases
Need for Speed: Undercover tried something new with the story, but unfortunately, it didn’t land well. Fans and critics both disliked the short campaign and voiced their displeasure online. One would think that the game that allowed you to be a cop would be interesting, but that wasn’t the case here.
Gameplay-wise, Undercover checked all the marks. It had great street racing mechanics, action-oriented police chases, a fairly well-designed open world, and a lot of cars. So if you’re after a good quality racing experience, Undercover has that covered.
It also looks a lot like 2005’s Most Wanted, and there’s an obvious attempt to replicate the visual style of EA’s most popular racing game release of that time.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2012
- Release Date: October 30, 2012
- Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, PS Vita, iOS, Wii U
- Notable Features: Blacklist of racers, Great open world
Fans of the original Most Wanted waited a long time for a sequel, and EA decided to reboot the series back from the ashes. The game had all the elements that made the first one a big hit, an open world, a blacklist to climb, and cops to lose. Unfortunately, the story failed to capture the magic of the original. While the original was a mysterious story of redemption, the reboot was corny and sometimes downright tacky.
Thankfully, the new open-world city was fun to drive around. With a healthy selection of cars and with the tight arcade-style handling of the cars, it was a blast to play. If this game weren’t a reboot of Most Wanted but a standalone release in the series, it would’ve certainly been received far better with different expectations in mind. Either way, Criterion did a commendable job, with some excellent visuals to boot.
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Need for Speed 2
- Release Date: March 31, 1997
- Platforms: PC, PlayStation
- Notable Features: Realistic driving, good selection of cars
The classic from 1997, Need for Speed 2, took the original game and made it better. It only saw release on PlayStation and PC, but it was an instant hit among racing enthusiasts. The knockout mode, which automatically knocked out the last racer in each lap, added another layer of tension to the races.
Pure racing fans were a little disappointed by the decrease in difficulty of the sequel, but that only made the game more accessible for young gamers. It had some beautiful levels with tons of visual variety, a fine selection of vehicles popular at the time, and some great sound effects that were a step above everything else on the market.
It was a treat and one of the most fun racing experiences you could have that managed to appeal to a variety of racing enthusiasts with its realistic vehicles paired with levels that were borderline fantastical in design.
Need for Speed Heat
Release Date: October 17, 2019
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Notable Features: Fun exploration, hardcore cop chases
The 24th game to release under the Need for Speed banner, Heat managed to gather a decent fan following. Ghost Games made a fun city to explore, with open-world challenges to take whenever you like. I especially loved the drift challenges sprinkled across the game. One of the biggest selling points of this game was the aggressive cops. Getting boxed in by 4 Chevrolet Corvettes after getting rammed head-on by a heavy SUV really makes you think about your in-game choices.
The day-night mechanic introduced in the game also refreshes the standard Need for Speed formula. During the day, you are doing legal circuit racing with no interference from cops. You earn cash for winning races during the day, which allows you to purchase cars and upgrades further. During the night, however, you’re taking part in illegal races and earning a reputation. The greater your reputation, the more parts/cars you’ll unlock.
The Need for Speed
Release Date: August 31, 1994
Platforms: PC, PS1
Notable Features: Closed-circuit racing, good controls
This is where it all started, the OG Need for Speed. The game blasted into the gaming scene and instantly became a fan favorite. It had closed-circuit racing, but EA managed to make it look wonderful (at that time).
It was a simple game that allowed you to race against AI racers. Sometimes good controls, simple yet well-designed tracks and serviceable graphics make for a good racing game. There isn’t much on offer in terms of content here, but hey, that was 1994, this was the peak racing experience back then.
These days you can pair a good steering wheel with Gran Tourismo on Playstation and have a realistic driving experience, how times have changed. The visuals are a bit dated, sure, but there’s a lot of smart technology to see here, especially with how limited the actual resources were.
Need for Speed: Shift
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Platforms: PC, PSP, PS3, Xbox 360
Notable Features: Simulation style racing, realistic car damage
The original Need for Speed: Shift was the hard-core simulation spin-off that didn’t take off too much. I’m not a huge fan of simulation racing, and back in the day lacked the patience to learn physics-based simulation racing. The Need for Speed: Shift did bring great-looking circuits.
There were also more than 60 supercars to play with. You also got to customize the looks of the cars as well as improve performance. Compared to what other juggernauts (Forza Motor Sports on Xbox and Gran Turismo on PlayStation) in the genre offered, Need for Speed: Shift’s offerings felt lackluster.
To put things into perspective, Forza Motorsport 3 was released less than a month after Shift had 400 cars from over 50 manufacturers. Despite it all, this was a bold shift for the series that paid off somewhat with its sequel but couldn’t do enough to leave a lasting impact.
Need for Speed: The Run
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Nintendo 3DS
Notable Features: Story-based gameplay, drive across the USA
Not a lot of people liked Need for Speed: The Run, however, it did bring something entirely new to the table. The game focused on the story and presented a linear experience. That’s right, you raced your way across the entire United States, from San Francisco to New York. To make matters worse, you were being chased by the mob as well as the cops.
The experience may not offer much to fans of regular racers, but it did bring beautiful locations and some action-packed set pieces. Unfortunately, as fun as it was, it was a short game that lacked any real replayability. It’s a shame because there was actual hype surrounding this one, and everyone was excited to see how a linear narrative would play out. This was also the first Need for Speed title on EA’s Frostbite Engine, which led to some excellent visuals for the time.
Need for Speed: World
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Notable Features: A huge map, skill point system
This one was only exclusive to PC and mixed classic NFS elements with MMO. The World did have a huge map that connected Palmont from Carbon and Rockport from Most Wanted. It wasn’t the best Need for Speed game, but it certainly captured a sizable audience. There were more than 100 cars for you to obtain and drive in Need for Speed: World.
There was also a new customization system that was done using skill points earned during races. This is one of those games that actually had some potential, but the execution was never up to par to keep it afloat for long. EA turned off the servers for the game, so it is completely unplayable these days.
Being a PC exclusive didn’t help either since a lot of Need for Speed fans were on the console, especially during the seventh and eighth consoles generation.
Need for Speed: V Rally 2
Release Date: 1999
Notable Features: Weather system, 4-player mode
If you were craving standard rally racing back in 1999, Need for Speed: V Rally 2 would be your fix. It featured polished gameplay and a variety of modes for you to race in. The best part was the weather system which further provided a sense of being in a rally race.
There is also a 4-player mode, if you have extra controllers, you’d be in for a great time with friends. There’s also a surprisingly good track editor, so you can race on the tracks you made. These days you can play Dakar Desert Rally to enjoy rally racing, we’ve come so far.
While this was a competent enough title on its own, there were several other rally racers with far better mechanics that this sadly didn’t do enough to stand out.
Need for Speed: High Stakes
Release Date: 1999
Platforms: PC, PlayStation
Notable Features: Knockout races, Pink slip system
Need for Speed: High Stakes bought exciting modes like Knockout and High Stakes. In Knockout the last racer is knocked out of the race each lap. The game also introduced racing for Pink Slips, a feature that made a big mark later with Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
On the PlayStation, you can race against your friend by inserting your own memory card on their console. The loser would also lose their car immediately after a race ended. This “high stakes” gameplay probably ruined a ton of friendships.
Compared to its predecessors, though, High Stakes sadly didn’t do enough to really reinvent the wheel, and was mostly a safe release.
Need for Speed Payback
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Notable Feature: Story based, good open world
Need for Speed Payback looked good on paper, it had a ton of different races, a great day-night system, and action-based gameplay. It also had an okay story to boot. However, the game also brought in loot boxes and microtransactions, turning the upgrade system into a joke. You spin a slot machine after winning a race, and that determines what upgrade you get. Of course, you can pay money to spin more and get even more parts for your cars.
There is some fun to be had with good drifting and open-world exploration, however, the end game can be brutal in terms of microtransactions. Need for Speed Payback? More like Need for Speed: Paymore. This wasn’t a great time for the franchise, and an entry like this with such poorly implemented monetization aspects only did worse for the series itself.
Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit 1998
Release Date: March 25, 1998
Platforms: PC, PS
Notable Feature: Play as a cop, split screen racing
The original Hot Pursuit allowed you to be the cop and the racer. The game introduced split-screen racing on consoles and had serviceable graphics. The game offered tight controls with a decent selection of cars. The formula of cops chasing racers was a unique one and made for some good quality couch console gaming.
If you love escaping from the cops in modern Need for Speed games, you can thank Hot Pursuit for them. The grandfather of slipping away from the cops generated a whole subgenre of arcade racing. Around 8 NFS games after Hot Pursuit featured cops or the ability to play as one. While the game itself had some neat ideas, it’s the sequel that managed to perfect those into a more refined experience.
Need for Speed: ProStreet
Release Date: October 31, 2007
Platforms: PC, PS2, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360
Notable Feature: Physics-based racing, realistic damage to cars
Need for Speed: ProStreet just wasn’t fun. It was an average simulation-type game, outclassed by other games in the genre by miles. I can respect them for trying something new in the franchise. It’s not easy to move from the usual staples of a franchise and experiment, but the game felt rushed to release. The game needed more baking time in the development oven. In 2022, you are spoilt for choice, F1 series alone is great for realistic racing.
The game introduced realistic damage to cars, which was a good addition for purists. However, if you wanted something Need for Speedy out of it, you were out of luck. The game also featured real-world tracks for you to drive in, a great feature for purists. Sadly, the game didn’t take off, and we never got a sequel that would’ve improved its gameplay.
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed
Release Date: February 29, 2000
Platforms: PC, PS
Notable Feature: A wide selection of Porsche cars
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed was a dream game for Porsche fans. The game only featured cars from one German manufacturer, starting from the 1950s to 2000. That did limit the scope of the game, but each car was incredibly well designed.
The game also allowed you to be a Porsche test driver. The only reason why this isn’t ranked higher is because of the Porsche-only restriction.
Need for Speed V-Rally
Release Date: 1999
Platforms: PC, PS
Notable Feature: A fleshed-out driving system
This isn’t actually a Need for Speed game and instead used the brand in North America to garner a following. While it wasn’t a true NFS, it was still a great rally racing game. A deep driving system with good graphics made it a must-have for rally fans at the time.
Physics-based handling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the game had solid mechanics mimicking the feel of driving off-road. The locations were also mapped well, allowing for a deeper sense of realism.
Need for Speed: No Limits
Release Date: September 30, 2015
Platforms: Android, iOS
Notable Feature: Simple gameplay loop, looks great
We can’t have lofty expectations from a title exclusive to mobile devices. However, Need for Speed: No Limits manages to be a good-looking game. That sums up everything good about the game. The rest? Well, it had short races, restricted control over the car, limited ways to race, and, yes, a ton of microtransactions.
It had decent gyro controls, rotating your phone to turn the car is always fun, and it further enhanced the gameplay. It could’ve been amazing, but the limitations of mobile gaming limited the scope of Need for Speed V: No Limits. This one simply didn’t do enough to keep players engaged and was only fun for the first few hours.
If you are into mobile gaming, Genshin Impact is a title you definitely shouldn’t miss. Plus, you’ll be able to play the game with your friends on various other platforms too!
Need for Speed: Nitro
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Platforms: Nintendo Wii, DS
Notable Feature: Arcade style racing
Need for Speed: Nitro was only released on Nintendo platforms, and they decided to go with super-arcade style. There wasn’t anything realistic about the game, and it affected the gameplay somewhat negatively. The selection of cars was limited, and the tracks even more so.
The story campaign was forgettable, I seriously can’t recall any detail except it was trying to be “super-hip and failing badly”. Nintendo racing fans at least have Mario Kart.
These were the best Need for Speed games ranked. I know we all have our favorites, I’ve had friends that hated Need for Speed: Most Wanted, we are no longer friends now, though.
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What is your favorite game in the series? Better yet, name your favorite song from the franchise, we would love a good nostalgia trip here.