Need for Speed Payback Review
Don't bet on this pony
Since the early 2000s, there’s been a new Need for Speed game every year. From arcade street racing to a couple of sim-focused spinoffs, the franchise kept on rolling and it wasn’t until the past few years that the series has decided to take a break. With the closure of EA Black Box and the franchise now solely with Ghost Games, their 2013 effort Need for Speed Rivals was a good outing, but the series obviously needed a way to bring back some excitement. Taking two years off, the team created 2015’s Need for Speed, and unfortunately squandered the name of the original game on a title that was quite underwhelming. Now, after another two years, the franchise returns once more with Need for Speed Payback, hoping to build on the 2015 release, and its customization, while correcting the shortcomings and bringing the narrative back to a more traditional experience. Sadly, third time is not the charm for Ghost Games, as Payback offers an unlikeable cast in an underwhelming story, all locked away behind a poorly balanced economy and an open world that’s not utilized very well.
Need for Speed Payback takes place in Fortune Valley, an open world setting that is inspired by Las Vegas and the surrounding area. Players take control of not one but three different characters - Tyler Morgan, Sean McAlister, and Jessica Miller. This trio of drivers are a Fast and Furious-inspired "crew" that do jobs for hire. Their latest gig, attempting to steal a supercar during a street race, goes awry as they are betrayed by the people who hired them, led by Lina Navarro. Tyler has no choice but to submit to the man who they tried to steal from, Marcus “The Gambler” Weir, as the two share a common goal of getting revenge against Navarro. After working for Weir for a while, an opportunity emerges for Tyler to begin racing again and take to the streets against The House, a criminal organization that Navarro works for and one that is attempting to control the entirety of Fortune Valley. Tyler quickly reassembles the crew back together, including the mechanic Ravindra Chaudhry, and they begin pulling off daring heists and upsetting the power structure of the racing world, all in the hopes of taking The House down.
The story in Payback is average at best, and aggressively bad at worst. The desire for revenge never really translates to the player, because the stakes seem just so cartoonishly low. You'll never come to care for the fates of these characters, as the dialog and writing are so poor and the game takes itself so seriously. It's hard to believe this isn't a genre parody. Even the last game's live-action footage worked better and felt less obnoxious than Tyler and his crew. Character motivations often make no sense and seem inflated, like their egos. They often make annoying and repetitive comments, like "c'mon, almost here!", "got to stay in first place", and "the night time is when I come alive". The three-character approach doesn't bring any sort of interesting narrative design as was in GTAV, it just mostly swaps you between different cars as the story dictates. All in all, this is a poorly told story filled with bland characters and annoying dialogue that takes itself way too seriously, and doesn't even manage to be entertaining in the "it's so bad, it's good" way.
The crew will be racing across the open world of Fortune Valley, which is one of the largest settings that the NFS franchise has ever showcased, and especially one where you're free to go off-road at any time. Icons litter the map, from story events to optional activities. You can visit the garage to perform upgrades and tune your cars, gas stations that apply quick repairs, tune up shops that sell upgrades, and car dealerships where you can purchase new rides. All of these act as fast travel points and do cost money (apart from garages, which you have to purchase to use), and while race events can't be fast travelled to like in NFS 2015, it's never too far of a drive from the nearest point. You'll want to fast travel because, while this virtual representation of Nevada is well realized, there's not a whole lot to do in it, nor are there any memorable locations. The only open world activities are stock standard challenges such as speed traps, jumps, and drift zones; and collection items such as smashable billboards and poker chips that pad your bank account.
Despite having an open world setting, the game rarely utilizes it for the structured events. The main campaign missions typically involve action-packed chases, though the most exciting moments happen in cutscenes with no player input. Getting away from the cops happens automatically as a scripted occurrence as long as you beat the timer, rather than actually losing them in your rearview mirror, because there's only one way you're allowed to go. It's no longer a case of driving across the open world, trying to escape the pursuit dynamically; instead you're basically racing against the clock in a linear set of checkpoints, and the cops/The House enforcers are just there to annoy. You're most often tasked with taking them out, which means slamming them into objects and reducing their health, until you get a cinematic crash camera shot of their wreckage (which can be turned off, if they get annoying). There's no real challenge in this, since your cars are apparently invincible and you only need to care about not being slowed down too much until the next checkpoint, rather than your cars' health. Heck, cops don’t even roam the open world – you need to start a pursuit manually, and then again it’s just a linear race to beat the clock, not to evade your pursuers in the open world. It's all a bit disappointing, and a full step back from NFS 2015.
Between story-focused missions, you'll be racing against some local Street Leagues that have their own theme and leaders, but these are traditional races and so again, you’re just following checkpoints and not really utilizing the open world setting. After 4-6 events, you take on the leader of the crew, and upon beating them, you sort of go your separate ways and agree that The House is bad for Fortune Valley. There's no time to really get to know these crews or their leaders beyond their sometimes outlandish styles and personas. The races themselves do offer quite a bit of variety thanks to the larger open world and its inherent environment mix. While crashing too hard will reset your position so you can try and keep going, missing a checkpoint just leaves you in limbo and needing to drive backwards, so it's actually worse than crashing. Regardless of which event you partake in, the game offers you a Vegas-style chance to make a bet to complete certain tasks, such as leading for certain time or smashing certain number of objects. The bets are typically in your favor, as you end up winning more cash than losing cash if you fail. It’s a fun distraction, as is the integrated Autolog challenge that prompts you to beat your friends’ results.
The cars at your disposal fall into several set categories - Drag, Drift, Off-road, Race, and Runner. Races are locked into a specific car type, so you aren't going to accidentally bring a drag car to an off-road event. There are some sensible differences between the types, with everything other than off-road cars struggling to make it through the deserted off-road plains. Plus, there are Derelict cars, which you have to find in the open world part by part via visual clues, and they offer some of the widest performance configuration ranges. The handling remains sort of awkward, with not much sense of speed and cars not really being much fun to drive. Drifting takes a while to get used to, and pulling a hand break to perform instant stops and U-turns doesn't really feel realistic, even within the confines of the game world. The camera likes to swing around wildly, though that can be adjusted.
Some cars qualify to compete in more than one category, and that's quite useful given the game’s broken economy. While NFS 2015 utilized a fairly standard way to get new parts and improve your car’s abilities, Payback goes all-in with the more Vegas style card system. While it certainly fits the game’s setting, the entire economy is completely unbalanced and geared towards lootboxes. The new system uses Speed Cards – there’s cards for ECU, Block, Turbo, Transmission and so forth. Each card features a performance level that boosts your overall stats in a specific area, and also a brand and a bonus property. Combining a few cards from the same brand together nets additional bonuses. So far, so standard. You acquire new performance cards from winning races, or they can be purchased at Part Shops. These shops have rotating stock every 30 minutes. Lastly, you can get new Speed Cards from the slot machine-like Targeted Roll system; to roll one new card you need to deposit three cards you don’t want anymore, specify the hardware component the card should have, and then the spin decides the manufacture, bonus, and quality of the card. With three cards required to make one new card from the roll, it’s yet another way to drain serious resources from the player. It feels a bit too much like a mobile game, slimmed down as NFS 2015 had over 20 categories of performance parts to upgrade.
But things run completely afoul when you realize that the cards cannot be swapped between different cars at all. That means for every car you own, you will need to grind for Speed Cards from scratch, and can’t just use those in your collection that you don’t need anymore. Each story mission has a recommended performance car level, and these requirements go up fairly quickly later in the game. That means you’ll often be going back and re-doing old races in hopes of getting better cards. The other way to get cards, from the Shop, is an expensive venture; and the Targeted Roll doesn’t always produce a good result. All of this, combined with the cost to fast travel, creates a money drain that will leave you near broke most of the time. You’ll have no money to buy new cars, nor would you want to, having to grind for even more Speed Cars for that new ride.
You do get a slight boost from the lootboxes called Shipments; you get one free at each level-up of your XP profile, and completing certain number of optional open world activities, but it’s not enough. They can be bought with real money too, for the premium stuff; anytime gameplay affecting cards are included in loot drops (Speed Cards and cash in this case), the system begins to feel like a ripoff. Oh, and another money sink is visual customization of your cars. Sure, you could create some nice looking rides, underglow neon and all, but it also costs money, and that’s after you’ve completed mundane gameplay milestones for the privilege of changing each section of the car.
Even if you’re well geared, the game features plenty of difficulty spikes due to rubberbanding AI that can beat you on a straightaway even if you have +100 level car over the recommended level. A major sore point in the last game, your opponents are once again not bound by the same rules as you are, and will perform incredible turns and accelerations whenever they see fit, and then slow down randomly to let you pass; they do also get stuck at times, which makes for some easy wins. Other difficulties arise when the game makes baffling design choices, like forcing you to do regular racing in a drag car. Drifting, a huge sore point in NFS 2015, has been improved for the better – you’re now trying to put up great scores, alone, and with no time limit. It allows for more enjoyable drifting than NFS 2015’s horror show of drift trains with AI.
As such, the campaign can grow overly long and repetitive, so you might decide to head online in the meantime. NFS 2015’s always-online requirement is no more, and instead replaced with a more traditional SpeedList system. Carrying on with the betting theme, players get to vote on next events, with the bottom placed racers getting a bigger vote; your votes also need to last you the entire SpeedList, so you have to consider saving them for later. You’ve got a multiplayer rank, you participate in ranked/unranked events, and you get more cash and XP. You also get some performance parts, if you’re lucky. But as with most arcade games, players are mostly focused on taking each other out, and the lag is notable at times. There’s also some technical glitches, like booting you out of a lobby for no reason after an event. You can’t free-roam online either, except while the game is waiting for more players to join and start an activity.
Payback is a decent looking game on the Frostbite engine, and the loading times are fast on the Xbox One X, played in 1080p. There’s now a proper day and night cycle, which is a welcome change after NFS 2015’s eternal night. The game features some nice vistas out in the open world; however, there is a notable amount of object pop-in, from bushes and windows to entire mountains. The audio is also weak, with a soundtrack being a generic mix of rap and some alt rock music that tends to repeat or not play at all, and the cars producing fairly anemic growls.
Need for Speed Payback substitutes the multiple issues of its predecessor with woes of its own. It has a decently large and well designed opened world, but it’s largely squandered with few engaging activities, and all races, even cop chases, take place in linear, walled-off segments. You’ll have to slog through the poor dialog and unlikable characters in the story because of the economy being unbalanced towards grinding Speed Cards to remain competitive. The online activities are a basic collection of races with little to differentiate it or make it enjoyable. The driving itself isn’t even that much fun. At this point, EA and Ghost Games are clearly at a cross roads – rebooting the franchise and adding more years to development is obviously not enough. Perhaps things will get better for the franchise, or perhaps they won’t – but for now, don’t gamble your time and money on this release.