Electronic Arts’ arcade-style racing franchise has been around since 1994 and, while their latest release might be titled Need For Speed Payback, the creators probably would have liked to call it “comeback” instead. Except, it isn’t the triumphant return as many had hoped. Instead, we’re left with a lackluster cocktail mix that heavily borrows elements from Fast and Furious, Grand Theft Auto and Forza. Under the hood is a fun arcade racer that is brought down by a poor story, awfully bland characters, and frustrating in-game mechanics. That said, it really isn’t all bad news.
Ghost Games’ previous efforts, 2013’s Need for Speed: Rivals and 2015’s Need for Speed reboot, struggled to get the franchise back on the map. The annoying online-only structure and stiff opposition from rival racers, like Midnight Club, Forza and Project Cars, has left the franchise idling in the dust. In an attempt to regain pole position, EA combined all the good elements from previous games into Payback. We have the the customisations from the age-old Underground days (with absurd body kits and modifications), the epic cop chases from Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit, the street racing of No Limits, the drifting of Carbon and the story-based cinematics from The Run. Except, with so many ingredients, the dish tastes a little off. While the racing mechanics remain fun and interesting, the shell of the game feels rusty.
The action in Payback takes place in a vacant open-world called Fortune City (with beautiful Frostbite-rendered scenery), loosely based on Las Vegas and its desert. The main character is Tyler Morgan, an aspiring street-racer who becomes indebted to a casino-owner. Of course, Morgan assembles a crew of racers (each with different strengths) to take on the baddies race-by-race for “payback”.
As expected, the cliché-packing script and the big set pieces feel like reformulations of events you’ve seen in blockbuster movies before. On top of this, Tyler and his crew (drifter Mac and getaway driver Jess) are rather forgettable characters. Worse than that, they are terminally dull and annoying at times. The interactions between them (and there is plenty of chatter throughout the game) is downright awful. This makes the narrative in the cutscenes feel like a B-movie knock-off of the recent Fast movies – except, with Vin Diesel missing, it just comes across as cheesy.
Need For Speed Payback tries its outright best to be fun. Racing, for example, is not about accurate handling. Instead, it’s focused on massive nitrous bursts (lots of nitrous!), deliberate accidents and huge drifts. That’s it. Vehicle damage is purely cosmetic too. Even a hard head-on collision or crash won’t cause you to falter too much. You can basically do whatever you have to do to finish first. That’s all that matters.
Perhaps, that’s a deterrent for serious racer fans hoping for a simulation or an authentic experience. However, for the average armchair racer who is simply trying to show off fancy cars and look good doing it, it does the job. It’s fun, fast, and there’s plenty to keep you entertained.
My biggest gripe with the actual gameplay is the lack of police chases. Getting the fuzz to chase you isn’t as simple as before. Here, you basically need to be doing something majorly illegal or be involved in a heist in order to get their attention. That’s such a pity considering that these chases presented the most fun in previous games. It was also an angle that separated the franchise from other racers out there.
Sadly, that’s not the only downer. A lot of the fun is spoilt by the way progression works in the game. For example, mods are rewarded in a lucky dip style. You get three cards to choose from, the revealing one will be your modding prize. This results in a lack of interest in actually customising the vehicles. As long as you’re winning races, you probably won’t be visiting the garage too often.
Then there is also the issue of obtaining new vehicles. Unless you’re willing to spend hours playing Payback, you better get used to driving the same vehicles over and over again. It’s only during the special missions that you’ll get to speed off in a high-end Lamborghini or Ferrari. In short, you’ll need to race a lot or cough up real money in order to unlock the vehicles you really want to drive.
Ultimately, Need For Speed Payback is all about thrills. It makes speeding through the streets, dodging traffic, racing up mountains or offroad with great-looking cars a really fun experience. For some, that’s all that matters. It’s certainly not the disaster most critics are making it out to be. That said, it does feel like a missed opportunity.