2017 marks one of the biggest and most exciting years from video games, and that extends to the racing genre specifically. In addition to a new entry in the Forza Motorsport franchise, one that supports the latest and greatest in console hardware (the Xbox One X), there's a Project Cars sequel, a new Gran Turismo game, and after a year off the market, EA and developer Ghost Games have brought back the Need For Speed series with Need For Speed Payback.
Given the mixed reactions to the PS4 exclusive Gran Turismo Sport, the awful progression system Forza Motorsport 7 is killing itself with, and the niche nature of Project Cars 2, Need For Speed Payback had the unique opportunity as a mainstream multi-platform triple-A title to really capture the market. But it doesn't.
Need For Speed Payback starts off on a relatively strong note and addresses a few of the major criticisms of the 2015 "reboot" of the series. The story campaign can be played offline for instance and the story begins by throwing players right into the action to introduce multiple driving styles and its three protagonists. There's the drift specialist, Mac, the getaway driver, Jess, and the sort of main character, a precision driver named Tyler.
The game doubles down on the cinematic action and brings with it a story and easy-to-play racing experience that’s pleasant to look at as it is to play. Need For Speed Payback is essentially an interactive Need For Speed movie and the closest thing you’ll find to a Fast and Furious game this year (based on the earlier movies where it was more cars and cops, of course).
The story revolves around a car heist gone awry, and crews of racers battling "The House," an organization profiting from rigging races in the game's fictional take on Las Vegas. Most of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and sometimes just plain terrible when it comes to the "car talk" but overall it's totally serviceable in moving the player along and providing reason and motivation for the car action. The game boasts a great soundtrack too that plays nice with the impressive visuals and sound effects for a nice style that stands out from the other big racers this holiday season.
Is Need For Speed Payback’s Driving Good Though?
As for the gameplay, driving is fast and forgivable. Of the three big racers out this season, Need For Speed Payback is the easiest to pickup and play from a driving mechanics standpoint. It's highly unrealistic so in no way is this a sim racer and it's not trying to be. Especially when it comes to inconsistent AI who sometimes make it punishing or impossible to complete side challenges.
Cars drive right through many objects - from light posts to fences - with ease and can bounce off walls without being wrecked. Turning is responsive and breaking or hand-breaking is extremely overzealous, making sharp turns easy to manage, and it plays well into the style the game is going for.
Players can choose between multiple third-person camera angles while driving, or a first-person hood view, and the right stick on the controller makes looking around or side to side, smooth and easier than the other games on the market. Unfortunately, unlike the competition, Need For Speed Payback doesn’t have its car interiors rendered so there’s no in-car experience. Given the game type however, it’s arguably not needed.
As for the structure of the game, while story beats largely dictate the cars and locations, Need For Speed Payback utilizes a checkpoint system (and things like speed traps) to guide players down its objective paths. For driving through these various checkpoints types and beating times, players earn a star rating. Stars earned lead to unlocking in-game rewards.
Otherwise, the world is open. After the tutorial and story introductions, players can access and explore the Need For Speed Payback game map. In between the main races and story segments, there are collectibles and mini events. It's here where the excitement level falls off.
Grind and Loot Boxes Ruin Need For Speed Payback
As soon as the Need For Speed Payback map begins to populate, the pace of the gameplay comes to a grinding halt. There are a lot of icons for repetitive activities to complete but it's the main game progression that really kills it. Players are able to quickly get a car of each type (i.e. speed vs. off-road) in order to participate in the main races but in order to really compete, the game requires players to increase the "level" of their vehicle of choice in each class.
This can be done in two ways: by simply purchasing a better car from a shop which requires exponentially more credits (hours of your time) than the game's activities pay out, or acquiring car upgrades ("Speed Cards") by purchasing or earning them in events. By finishing a race for instance, three flipped over cards appear on screen and players can randomly choose one of the random rewards in hopes to have one stat on their vehicle increase ever so slightly. It's arbitrary, stupid, and feels entirely out of place. Players have no control in levelling up and tweaking the performance of their vehicle and worse, it's a slow and not-fun process that turned us off from the game quickly.