Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
I’m not sure if EA know exactly what they want to do with the Need for Speed franchise. It’s seen so many different iterations release over the last few years that have all done something different, so it’s been difficult for it to really have its own identity. It’s guaranteed that you’ll face off against the police at times and that you’ll also be driving some really fast cars, but as for everything else? You just never know.
Whilst the last entry in the franchise focused on a group of racers and featured real-life actors in actual filmed cinematics, the newest release Need for Speed Payback goes back to CGI and over-the-top action. It’s like ‘The Fast and the Furious’ the video-game – well, at least it tries to be anyway. Whilst Need for Speed Payback gets a lot of things right in its enjoyable action-focused, revenge-driven gameplay, it also misses the mark at times too.
Need for Speed Payback puts you in the shoes of Tyler, Mac, and Jess – a small group of drivers that take part in speedy heists and street races. After getting betrayed in a car-theft gone wrong, the three find themselves separated and doing work they don’t really enjoy, with Tyler in particular left in an awkward position after being blackmailed to work for the person he tried robbing. After six months though, an opportunity arises for the three to get revenge on the person that betrayed them, and maybe even take down a crime syndicate in the process.
So listen, don’t go into Need for Speed Payback expecting some kind of narrative masterpiece. The script is a bit sketchy, the characters are typical stereotypes, and the action a little predictable. It’s incredibly cheesy at times too and I’m sure you’ll lose count of the amount of times lead character Tyler will make you cringe…
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Whilst the developers may have tried to make the plot feel a little serious, if you instead play it with an open-mind you’ll actually see it as a bit of fun. It all feels a bit over-the-top and unbelievable (literally), but those who enjoy a silly narrative in a racer will find it’s provides a fairly entertaining little backdrop to all of the action that takes place on the roads. If you’re invested in the game based on the narrative alone though, you may want to give it a miss.
The missions in the game see you play as all three drivers across a variety of different events. Tyler deals with the races that demand outright pace, Mac handles off-road events, whilst Jess ensures that the law never catch up with you. Whilst each character has their own individual questlines to see out across races, the big story missions often see them work together and have the player switch between characters mid-race in action-packed cinematic transitions. It’s one of the elements of the game I appreciated the most and it’s during these missions where the game has its most epic moments – there’s no denying that Need for Speed Payback displays its ‘The Fast and the Furious’ inspirations like a badge of honour, and it’s in these missions where it really manages to nail the vibe of the flicks perfectly.
Of course, there are plenty of events that are based entirely around racing too, so it’s never just cinematic showdowns against your foes. Each race type is spread throughout the entirety of the game world and challenges you in different ways – it might be a case of simply winning a race, pulling off some slick drifts, hitting some sick jumps, or even just challenging a ‘roaming racer’. These events see you hitting different terrain with a variety of vehicles too, so they’re always well varied and entertaining to compete in. It definitely shows that Need for Speed Payback has a ‘traditional racing’ side to go along with its set-piece focused narrative missions.
What isn’t traditional though is that races aren’t necessarily won or lost based upon how good your car is, but rather how good your car’s ‘performance level’ is. In a similar vain to Destiny’s ‘light level’, each car you own in Need for Speed Payback is given a performance level that ranges from 100 to 399. You can improve its performance level by equipping it with ‘speed cards’ – the game’s equivalent to loot, or to be more precise, equipment. Each car you own has different parts in which you can equip a speed card, with it then seeing a boost to its stats in a specific way as well as to its overall performance level.
Every event in the game will have a recommended performance level that you’ll need to be at if you want to have any real chance of success. It isn’t something to take lightly either, because Need for Speed Payback can be a pretty unforgiving game. If you head into an event under-levelled, you’re going to find yourself quickly being left behind. In honesty, even matching the performance level isn’t always enough – there were a few occasions where I thought that my car was ready to win an event, only to suffer failure after failure after failure. Sometimes, it’s worth exceeding the recommended performance level, otherwise you might easily see a long race you were leading turn into a loss pretty quickly if you don’t stay sharp enough from start to end.
You can earn speed cards from winning events or by buying them from one of the many tune-up shops found scattered across the game world. However, the price of each speed card can be hefty, so just getting a handful for your car will cost you a fair amount of dough. This wouldn’t typically be a problem, except that cash can be pretty hard to come by – you’ll earn it from completing events, but with a limited amount of events available until you hit a speedbump as far as performance levels are concerned, you’ll quickly find that you might yourself faltering behind a little.
This is where the grind kicks in. You can compete in any event that you’ve already completed to earn extra cash, whilst there are minor objectives to find and complete throughout the game world too. Primarily though, you’re going to be sticking with previously completed races and tackling them again and again as you look to raise the cash to grab that speed card you’ve been desperately seeking. As mentioned, they aren’t cheap either, so you’ll have to spend a fair bit of time doing the same old events just to get the improvements required to hit the next one.
At least that was my experience with Need for Speed Payback anyway – since I completed the game, the developers have released a new update that increases the amount of cash you earn for completing events. This wasn’t something I was able to take full advantage of during gameplay since by the time it launched I was pretty much done with it, but it at least makes it easier for newcomers to the game to progress. I’m sure you’ll still have to replay some events in order to raise yourself some cash, but it won’t be as severe as early players such as myself have found it. It’ll make the experience a lot more streamlined and enjoyable, which is great because there really is a decent little racer to be found behind the grind-fest.
The racing of Need for Speed Payback is a lot of fun, with cars not only handling well but also genuinely feeling speedy. Whether you’re drifting through city streets, hitting some winding mountain roads, or smashing huge jumps whilst going off-road, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had and you’ll never feel out of control. It’s just satisfying, with the arcade-like nature of the game feeling balanced enough for newcomers to jump right in with no fuss, but also for driving veterans to hit those tougher challenges whilst still feeling tested.
Even customising your garage of cars is fun, albeit a little held back as far as the performance aspects go. As mentioned, you don’t tune your car’s performance, but rather just its appearance. This certainly isn’t a limited system though, with the player able to modify just about everything, be it the colour of the cars, the fancy lighting beneath it, or even the smoke that comes out of it. It really is a neat little system that allows you to touch up the most minor details of your cars. Everything is cosmetic though, so petrol-heads who love fine-tuning every single aspect of how their car performs will be a little disappointed – that’s reserved for the speed cards.
Fortune City offers a neat little setting for the racing thanks to its long winding roads and varied terrain, with every event you enter in the game utilising the locale in some clever ways to ensure races are action-packed and highly enjoyable. Unfortunately, for open-world roaming alone it felt a little unimaginative and bland. There aren’t any real impressive landmarks to explore, with the region mainly filled with roads, sand, and the occasional building. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some pretty sights to be seen and Need for Speed Payback is definitely an attractive game; I just wish that there was more to discover and extra unique landmarks to come across when simply exploring the region freely. It just felt a little empty at times.
Of course, I have to mention the ‘Loot Box’ situation with the game. There are plenty of options available to buy and, of course, they make the game a lot easier if you do – it certainly alleviates the grind and will give you a good selection of speed cards and cash from the get go. The fact you’ve got to grind to progress suggests that you’re encouraged to purchase them too, especially with how frustrating playing the same events can feel after a while later on in the game.
However, I never felt like I needed to purchase one and as long as most players are happy to stick the hours in, they shouldn’t either. The recent patch should do wonders in significantly dropping the time players have to spend grinding anyway, so that should go a long way in improving player’s experience with the game. Don’t get me wrong, the presence of Loot Boxes here is still a bit sketchy and it’s clear that they were intended to be part of the solution to the performance level hindrances players will face, but they’re far from compulsory to enjoy Need for Speed Payback.
Despite gaining a bit of a reputation for being a grind-fest, I actually had a good time with Need for Speed Payback. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t include Loot Boxes nor that it doesn’t almost encourage you to purchase them by having you grind through previous races in order to progress, but it also features slicking racing and some action-packed sequences that never stop being enjoyable. I managed to complete the game without having to resort to spending real-life cash and whilst I’ll openly admit that going through the same old events could get frustrating, the driving itself never did.
Need for Speed Payback has also had an update now that has increased the amount of cash and experience you earn from completing events, so EA have clearly listened a bit to earlier criticisms of the game. It’s not something I really got to benefit from after already ploughing some hours into the game before the update hit, but it’s something worth considering if you were on the fence about the game beforehand – the grind certainly won’t be as tough on newer players.
In all, I had a lot of fun with Need for Speed Payback. There’s no denying that it isn’t going to be the best racer you’re ever going to play, but it does some clever things and mixes enough unique ideas into its arcade-like racing to ensure that you’ll have plenty of fun speeding your way through Fortune City’s bustling roads.