I AM HERE… TO… UH… TALK ABOUT NEED FOR SPEED: PAYBACK
Remember back in 2017, when Youtube Creator Jesse Wellins froze during the announcement for Need for Speed: Payback? Whether it was due to inexperience or a lack of communication, the whole stream was uncomfortable and it turns out this is a perfect analogy for NFS: Payback. The game is awkward to the very end, in both the way the cars handle and the uninspired story. The characters lack depth and the game fails to reward meaningful progression. I spent the majority of the game with the same vehicles I chose at the start. I’ll get into the details in a bit but for now let’s talk about past NFS games.
I think it’s fair to say the best NFS game is Most Wanted (2005) with Underground 2 (2004) being a close second, or vice versa depending on the gamer. These two games added and improved upon elements that have become a racing genre staple, such as open worlds, customisation and police interventions. The chases in Most Wanted started out exhilarating and only got crazier and more rewarding. By the end you were speeding away from tougher and faster cop cars, giant SUVs trying to slam you off the road and helicopters sweeping overhead. Underground 2 gave players an open world to explore and endless amounts of activities to enjoy and just as much customisation to express yourself with. While the worst NFS offenders like The Run (2011) and ProStreet (2007) offer no replayability and take away from what made past games so successful.
What’s crazy is that Payback mirrors all of these games and adds or improves nothing of any value. There are police chases but they lack excitement and challenge. There is an open world but there’s nothing in it worth seeing and the activities littered throughout are all very pedestrian. It’s a shame because 10 years ago this game would have been a trailblazer, a shining beacon of what racing games can be, but today it’s lucky to be average. I can feel there’s something hidden in the game that wants to break out but instead we’re stuck with aggressive oversteer, shoddy AI and loot box mechanics that make buying new cars pointless.
The game opens up with a heist; a trio of racers are tasked with stealing a very rich man’s Koenigsegg Regera only for them to be double crossed at the last minute by the person who hired them, Lina Navarro, who happens to work for a racing organisation called The House. 6 months pass and Tyler, our main protagonist, is now working for said rich man as a valet but decides now is the right time to fight back against The House. He contacts his old teammates, Mac, the witty British drifter and off-road enthusiast and Jess, the no nonsense wheelman… Er, wheelwoman. With the team reassembled the game let’s you go and have fun at your own pace but not before you choose a new vehicle.
I’d like to say the story was satisfying and well written but I’d be lying. Almost every cutscene was filled with lazy tropes and cliche moments that never seem to stick the landing. The characters lack depth, the dialogue is wooden and the vocal performance is lacking. Tyler will often comment to himself when the sun goes down that night time is his favourite time and the first occurrence was worthy of an eye roll but every time after that was increasingly bothersome; Mac and Jess also have their own dialogue when the sun sets.
The game is clearly trying to give off a Fast and Furious vibe but fails at every turn to deliver a believable performance. Tyler is a typical, cocky racer who says things like “I’ve already won, you just don’t know it yet” and “How does my dust look from back there?” while grinning to himself and probably wishing he could make out with his reflection. Mac thinks he’s the only person to ever discover off-roading and drifting and his smugness gets old. Finally, Jess is stoic, I guess? She’s pretty forgettable and likely only in the game for diversity and because the developers realised they put too many event types in the game. Luckily the story will only take you 15 hours, give or take, to get through and if you skip every cutscene you can just focus on the driving.
Honestly, I think I would have preferred it if it went down the Burnout Paradise route and had no story at all; just a series of events and activities for us to complete at our own leisure.
Payback doesn’t offer anything new in this area. The controls are standard to accelerate, to administer that hot nitrous injection and for handbrake and that’s really all you need to know.
The main elements of play are the events, which are:
Race Events. These are your bread and butter moments in a racing game. Be the first to cross the finish line and try to look stylish doing it. Often times racers will bump into you and send you veering off out of control head first into a railing or you’ll just be unlucky and the dopey AI will get in the way.
Drag Race Events. If you saw Fast and Furious and connected with what Vin Diesel’s character said about living a quarter of a mile at a time then these events are for you. On the starting line you have to rev your engine whilst trying to keep a little white line in the green section of the bar until the countdown finishes and you zoom off. From there you have to hit in the smaller green area to do a perfect shift and hopefully you’ll be the first to cross the finish line.
Drift Events. Probably the second best event type in the game, however, the drifting mechanic in Payback was made to be more than easy and as a result you end up spinning out a lot and having to retry more than once because you tapped a wall or another car and lost control entirely. It takes a little work to get used to but after some time you become accustomed and can ace most drifting events with ease.
Off-Road Events. I really didn’t like these events because once you leave the nice, flat asphalt roads you lose too much traction and end up spinning out, even with the specifically built off-road vehicles. Each bump you drive over feels exaggerated which only ends up slowing you down and making it harder to make micro-adjustments to your steering.
Escape Point Events. These are your classic cop chases only they’re stupidly easy. For most of the game the cops are very timid and will only match your speed and drive alongside you asking you nicely to pull over. Later in the game special cop cars appear with a sort of emp device that can shut down your engine and huge armoured SUVs will spawn ahead and come barrelling towards you head on.
Courier Events. The most boring event. You have to drive from one location to another and park up which will trigger a short cutscene before handing back control so you can zip off to the next location.
Most of these events will require you to build a specific type of vehicle to match the event type. This sounds good in theory but actually you end up sticking with your first choice until late in the game and this is entirely down to the fact that EA managed to shoehorn loot boxes into the single player experience.
Each car you buy will have a base level, 99 for example, and in order to improve that base level you have to equip “speed Cards”. These speed cards can be earned through completing events, which you’ll be doing for the story anyway, by completing activities (I’ll talk about these in a bit) or you can just drive to the nearest Tune-Up-Shop and buy what’s in stock at the time (stock refreshes every 10 minutes).
There are 6 types of speed cards, Head, Block, ECU, Turbo, Exhaust and Gearbox. Each card can have up to 3 of any 5 perks, Speed, Acceleration, Nitrous, Air and Brakes. Finally, each card will have a brand, of which there are 5, Americana, Outlaw, Chidori, Nextech and Carbon. This means there is a large number of possible combinations and each card you receive will likely be unique; the problem is that these cards are randomly rolled when you acquire them.
The problem then, is when you buy a car and want to level it up with Speed Cards, you have 3 options. You can grind previous events and hope the random card you receive is worth it or you can get them from the Tune-Up-Shop by either buying what’s currently in stock or trading in 3 unwanted cards to randomly roll one card or you can whip out your credit card and buy a shipment of them.
This whole process can be both time consuming and expensive and early on in the game you simple don’t have the resources to buy a new car and level it up to where you currently are in the story. The first car I bought after receiving my starter Buick was just before the final story race. It’s a shame that a game like Payback would trip itself over with this terrible mechanic because EA wanted more of our money.
The End Game
Once you have finished with the story all that is left is the activities, derelict cars and roaming racers. Activities are like little challenges that require you to drive through a speed camera at a certain speed, achieve and average speed through a section of road, beat a target score on a drifting route or hit a ramp and travel a certain number of yards.
Each activity will reward you with 3 stars if you manage to achieve the highest speed, score or distance which is easy enough with a fully levelled up car. Apart from checking off activities you will have to find all the parts to, and assemble the legendary derelict cars. The chassis of these derelicts are awarded throughout the story but to fully assemble one you need to cross reference the incomplete maps in the derelict tab with your map to find all 4 pieces. The game made reference to these cars as if they were going to be the best cars in the whole game but I found this to not be true as I have bought and levelled up better cars.
Lastly, there are roaming racers from each of the racing leagues in the game that you will encounter whilst going about your business. You have to beat each racer 3 times in order to beat the league boss which I found weird because I had already beat them during the story but there’s a trophy tied to beating them again so I’ll do it.
In the end Payback was an average racing game with some frustrating mechanics and while the picture I’ve been painting isn’t a pretty one, it’s probably worth picking up on sale and having a go yourself because there definitely is some fun to be had but not enough to warrant paying full or even half price.