Need For Speed: Payback, among other problems, has the misfortune of coming out at the wrong time. The previous game in the series, the horrendous online-only Need For Speed, came out in 2015 leaving the once annual series with another time gap for EA to retool the ageing beast into something playable and reignite gamers' interests.
For racing fans having just come off of Forza Motorsport 7, Project Cars 2, GT Sport and still probably playing Forza Horizon 3, Payback already had a major uphill battle to fight. And that’s before we even begin to look at all the other amazing recent releases that have broken our wallets. Couple that with some really poor critic and user reviews, along with some questionable design decisions, and EA’s latest offering in this twenty year old plus series is practically dead in the starting block.
Payback takes place in Fortune Valley, a Vegas wannabe and follows the story of Tyler, Mac and Jess, a heist crew looking to get some vengeance on The House, a cartel running the Valley’s underground scene. The story is trying its damned best to be a beefed up Fast & Furious and while it does provide the requisite bombastic action set piece thrills (we’ll get to that later), it fails to provide any true depth or quality to the story or its characters. Filled with idiot logic, decisions and ridiculously bad dialogue that had my eyes doing barrel rolls, it's bad b-grade movie fodder that’s swiftly inching towards C-grade.
That would be fine if the game followed the rules of heist movies by providing protagonists we could get behind. Massive egos, brain dead leadership, sociopaths... and that’s just from our three leads, made it impossible for me to get behind their story which is basically them trying to rip someone off and getting ripped off in the process thus beginning their quest for revenge. At least they don’t spend the majority of the campaign fist bumping it up.
This potatohead is made of meat. . .
The icing on the cinematic cake is voice acting that, at times, feels like an awkward teen going to their first hip party and practicing their lines in front of a bathroom mirror coupled with facial animation that’s taken a major step backwards into the uncanny valley depths. It’s like EA sent out a memo that Andromeda wasn’t to happen again. From over expressive to practically none at all.
You do all of this in a pseudo open world environment with the game following a chapter-like story setup. You’ll perform a series of events, beat a group of racers to get their backing and then have the chapter bookended by a bombastic sequence, those we saw in the trailers, and repeat the process before heading into the game’s final stretch.
Despite using the trailers to promote an open world heist game, Payback is anything but. You do have to run heists, outrun cops, drag race and drive from location to location, but each of the game's events have been turned into a race in some form. Whether you’re picking up a VIP, being a getaway driver or just driving a car to a location, it’s in a race format from checkpoint to checkpoint with a timer ticking down on specific events.
The bulk of those events are massively scripted as well. Goons and cops will just stop chasing you after you hit a specific checkpoint, which makes no sense whatsoever. And the action seen in the trailers? Heavily scripted as well. You’ll race to a truck to board it to steal a car only to have the action taken from your hands when you reach the truck to watch a cinematic of the cool stuff happening before it's back in your hands and you have to drive in the other direction. Need to perform a massive jump in an event? Cinematic. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with false advertising. And that’s before I even question why a truck carrying a two million dollar racing car would also be carrying explosive barrels and can outpace a supercar tearing up the roads at 250kmph or more. . .
The open world is there for you to drive from race to race, collect items, smash billboards, run speedtraps, perform speed runs or just get a high drifting score. Its main purpose, it seems, is to get you to grips with your car before an event.
Cars now have their own racing level determining the difficulty of an event. There’s a live tuning system by which you can adjust sliders at anytime to alter the cars on how they handle. Leveling up your car happens at the end of a race via Speed Cards, the all-new idiotic leveling system that is basically a random loot dropper. You get to choose from three randomised cards which can be for any car part that will affect your stats positively or negatively. That’s right car enthusiasts, your cars performance is based on stats like an RPG and you choose which cards to equip based on how they affect those stats.
Since the cards are random, you can just as easily get cards worse than the ones you currently have equipped. When they are high level, they only seem to drop at one or two more levels higher than your currently equipped card. Levelling your car then requires you to grind through already completed races for the chance at a better card. Cards can be sold, sent to your garage or turned in for your chance to spend three of them on a Vegas slot machine roll at a chance of getting a higher, randomised card, which can also turn out to be a lower, useless card.
If rerunning races isn’t your thing, you can use your earned ingame currency to visit a tune-up shop to purchase specific Speed Cards. The tune-up shops are constantly “restocking” cards every couple of minutes. What this means is that they have randomly generated cards as well sitting in stock, so yet again, it’s entirely possible to visit a shop only to find nothing of use. Alternatively you can just use that cash to purchase a higher level car and cruise the roads to get used to it.
It’s a painful system because, well, this isn’t a loot based RPG. It’s a racing game that’s taken one of the core tenants of car customisation and turned it into a simple bar sheet. I’m no car fundi, but even I know that’s not what people are looking for. Even worse, it artificially lengthens an already long game. I’ve clocked over twenty hours on this and that’s without having to replay too many races or re-race for better cards.
Visual car customisation has a nice level of depth but is also locked out to you from another design decision lifted from action RPG’s. Before you can customise a car part, you have to unlock that section of your car by performing certain actions ingame. Yet again, this is a racer. Where killing twenty Orcs in Shadow of War unlocked a deadly fire effect on your Morgul blade, and thus made sense in that world, here performing three 2-star jumps will open up your hood to customisation with nary a single perk.
Sure a lot of that will happen naturally through gameplay, but the first thing most people will do is try to trick out their ride before taking it to the streets. Once you can customise it, you still have to buy the requisite kit or part for the car. That’s a lot of pointless work just to change a rim that you still have to spend cash on.
And then we have the fancy visual customisation, which is where the loot crates come in. Coloured nitrous, underglow and custom horn parts can only be acquired from loot crates. Basic loot crates are gained from logging in everyday, levelling up your rep and reaching points in the story. They contain three items: a customisation part, money and usually a random card. Premium crates that you have to spend real world cash on only contain two more items in the crate: three wild cards and an extra part, which is a complete waste of money just to get an extra part and random cards. I was more than halfway through the campaign before I even realised I had crates waiting to be opened which, at least, makes this system less invasive than some recent ones and, unless you really want to customise, not something you have to waste an ounce of money on at all.
Payback feels like a checklist of gaming systems trending in 2017. Like Ghost took a look at what was happening in many games, not just racers, decided they wanted to be Forza Horizon, and then choose to go in the opposite direction.
There’s a lot here not to like right off the bat which means that many people aren’t going to give this game any kind of chance. And that’s sad because beneath the dumb design decisions lays the groundwork for a really solid racer.
Initially I was pretty sure that I’d be groaning through the bulk of this game, but after a certain amount of time, and after accepting the decisions Ghost had made, something strange began to happen. I actually started to enjoy myself. Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome talking, but damn if the game didn’t get better and turn into a fun experience.
Those escapes from the cops became aggressive white-knuckle survival runs on the higher difficulties and making it through that final checkpoint exuded a sense of relief, which is what I’m sure Ghost was aiming for. Drifting, which is my favourite discipline in any racing game, is wonderfully handled here. It may seem tough at first, but once you’ve gotten to grips with your car and realised that using your nitrous during a drift does more than just lock in your multipliers, you can achieve some fantastic slides worthy of the best racing movies. Pulling off a near perfect S-curve drift is zen.
One of my favourite moments was when I took my souped up drifting car from the Observatory in the canyons to the city, a drive of more than 20km’s, down curved roads and steep inclines using only my handbrake to drift around bends and slide through traffic without taking my finger off the accelerator. A glorious, exhilarating near perfect run of high-speed and skill.
And you will need skill. Later races demand it as the tracks get longer, the tarmac tighter and the speeds nearly ludicrous for those roads that are as much dirt as they are tar. One wrong, ill-timed move can cost you an entire race.
I’m glad to say, outside of those magically spawning cops, the horrendous rubberbanding A.I. off the past seems mostly to have disappeared during actual races. Also the car you choose at the beginning of each discipline can also be carried all the way through to the end. Did I forget to mention that you don’t have to be online at all to play the game? The only reason to go online is to collect those crates, play the multiplayer or compete against the best set times per event by other players.
The games engine is solid and while Fortune City is kind of bland, the surrounding forest, desert and canyon environments are quite gorgeous, despite the occasional texture and object pop-in, and a treat to race through. The canyon areas with their curved highways are a definite favourite.
Finally there’s the games multiplayer which is fairly standard. Car handling is the same as in the campaign and the game drops you into an open world hub to race around while you wait for the event to start. Racing is made up of five events and you can only have two of your cars to choose from during the events. Grab a group of friends and you can begin your own party events or wait to be mixed into a random set. The biggest problem at the time of writing is that the matchmaking system is broken. It’s not uncommon to get dropped into the middle of events or even, right at the last match. There’s also no check to match cars of a certain level together as I discovered when I dropped into an event que with my Lvl 180 car to find myself up against opponents with Lvl 320 cars. Suffice to say I may as well have been moving through treacle.
Need For Speed: Payback is a far better racing game than I was expecting. It’s certainly a far better game than what the franchise has been turning out the last couple of years. It's a shame that the recent EA hate, and a slow start to the game itself, have practically killed it.
Get past some of the poor design ideas, which feels more like an EA intervention than anything else, and there’s a really solid, fun arcade racing game here that’s highly enjoyable. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what an arcade racer is supposed to be, fun?
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