2017 was all set to be a year to remember for Electronic Arts. The publisher was bringing back a number of beloved franchises over the course of the year, with releases such as Star Wars: Battlefront II alongside staple sports launches such as FIFA 18, UFC 3, and Madden NFL 18. However, the end result was far from what EA would have been hoping for, with the publisher's games remembered far more for disappointments and controversy than for quality.
Although Star Wars: Battlefront II has been getting the headlines, thanks to a loot box business model that had such a poor reception that it tanked EA's stock value, it's not the only disastrous release that EA has had on its hands this year. Instead, that honor also goes to the latest game in the Need For Speed franchise: Need For Speed: Payback.
The Need For Speed series has a long and acclaimed history in the video game medium. The original game's 3DO launch in 1994, and particularly the subsequent releases for MS-DOS and other come consoles in the following years, offered up a refreshing and thrilling racing experience for players, marrying together great street racing with the thrill of escaping from the authorities. EA had struck gold.
From then on, Need For Speed solidified its place as one of the most important racing game series, particularly through the first few titles developed by EA Black Box. Games such as Hot Pursuit 2 and the Need For Speed: Underground duo were hugely influential in the PS2 era, earning positive reviews and armies of fans. However, a few missteps along the way and an awkward always online 2015 reboot left a lot resting on Need For Speed: Payback.
Unfortunately, the game was also marred by a bizarre design choice that stifled the game's potential. Rather than an always online requirement, however, Need For Speed: Payback's progression system was not just irritating, but instead entirely broke the way that the game functioned.
Quite simply, Need For Speed: Payback's level up system is more akin to a freemium game than what would be expected of a top tier title from a major publisher. Although Need For Speed: Payback is chock full of content, a lot of it is fenced off from the player unless they have built their garage up to a respectable level to compete with rival drivers. Getting this level up system going fluidly, however, is easier said than done.
This is because Need For Speed: Payback's progression is effectively built around loot boxes. Players are left either spending real world cash, clocking hours into the game to get an entirely new car, or completing an arduous grind to unlock Speed Cards from events, which then randomly upgrade an aspect of the player's car. It's tedious and completely takes autonomy out of the player's hands, which leads to an extremely frustrating experience overall.
It's not the only time that a Need For Speed game has tried a model that tempts players into spending money to save time. Mobile game Need For Speed: No Limits timegated races for 'refueling' for instance, in a move that was roundly criticized at the time of its release in 2015. However, Payback's position as a full retail release - and the expectations that came with it - resulted in a game-ruining mechanic that proved hugely unpopular.
At the end of the day, Payback's loot box model effectively allows (and tempts) players to skip over gameplay in order to progress through the game. At its core, Payback is suggesting that the grind of unlocking these Speed Cards the legitimate way is pointless and - even worse - boring. In order to have fun, users are meant to avoid playing large portions of the game.
EA and developer Ghost Games introduced an update that increased the amount of experience players received for completing events, but by that point the damage had already been done. Even with the changes to make the game less of a chore to complete, Payback's place in 2017 had already been given: a failed attempt to implement a potentially dangerous additional business model into the industry.
The most frustrating thing is that, hidden deep down, Payback is a solid racing game that addressed at least some of the issues from its 2015 predecessor. However, the game's flaws are impossible to overlook, and a racing game should never be anything other than an adrenaline-filled thrill to play. What's worse, Payback may have been the death knell of the Need For Speed franchise as a whole.
Up next for Need For Speed is a free-to-play MMO called Need For Speed: Edge, but it's far from a franchise-defining moment, instead sitting closer to other EA free-to-play spin-offs such as FIFA World. On top of that, Need For Speed's previous foray into the world of the MMO, Need For Speed: Online, was hardly a cause for celebration and never gained the level of popularity that EA expected.
To make matters worse, EA rarely lets franchises continue once a trend of disappointing releases is reached. One such example is the Medal of Honor series, where a push to bring the previously Second World War-focused property into the modern day resulted in two mediocre games before being unceremoniously dumped, with no releases in the franchise since 2012. At the moment, Need For Speed's only saving grace is the lack of another big name racing property on EA's books, but the publisher's move to close down Visceral and shift the development of a Star Wars game shows that there's only so far an established franchise can go.