It wasn’t meant to be like this. Slipstreaming off the success of 2015’s successful reboot of the Need For Speed franchise (after a few months of patching, much to the chagrin of fans who pined endlessly for the return of a pause button), Need For Speed: Payback should have been a winner. It should have been a V8 heart-stopper in a year where established franchises such as Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport had failed to live up to expectations.
The chance to grab the top spot was there. An open line, ready to be driven through as the biggest names in the racing genre battled amongst themselves and chucked loot boxes at each other. It would have been so easy for Need For Speed: Payback to slip through and claim the crown. Instead, EA’s latest entry in the racing series handles more like a nail in a coffin.
It’ll reach the finish line, albeit at the pace of a pensioner on payday as it splutters and wobbles towards the end of the year. Need For Speed Payback isn’t just a bad game: It’s a waste of promising potential, of high-stakes races and heists that are brought down not by the fuzz but rather from within. The problems start at a fundamental level with Payback: In a world where the Fast ‘n The Furious has proven to be a bankable franchise that makes money hand over fist like a diesel-powered Disney engine, everyone wants a piece of that pie.
Everyone wants to be that lone outlaw, defying the law and living the fastlane dream. Imitation may the sincerest form of flattery, but Payback plays out like bad fan fiction set in a better universe. A world with a trio of characters who exist to serve certain tropes in the genre. Not only are they predictable, their cardinal sin is that they’re simply the lamest excuse for renegades to ever change gears.
They’re deserving of their double-crossing doom, their cringe-worthy dialogue punctuated by characters who sound like utter wankers when you meet them and challenge them in a war against an organisation whose sole purpose is for the phrase “The House always wins” to be beaten like a dead horse having run afoul of a drunk Mike Tyson.
A bad story could be forgiven, especially one that is on the verge of becoming The Room of video game narratives. Need For Speed has always had the cheesiest of tales to tell when it focuses on giving players a reason to break the speed limit, as putting the pedal to the metal has always been a priority in these games.
2015’s Need For Speed felt like a successor to Burnout, a game where you could drift for days and turn a corner into a sharp boost of nitrous oxide. There were disciplines involved of course, that focused on the titular speed and maintaining the perfect drift as you threaded the eye of a tarmac needle, arcadey-racing that wouldn’t feel out of place in games such as DriveClub or Project Gotham Racing 4.
That feel for the road is still intact in Payback and when it works, it’s sublime. It’s a symphony of rubber and tar, a kinetic twist of the handbrake as you leave your autograph on the road with your tires. The problem here is that an otherwise fun excuse to rack up speeding tickets is undermined by a plethora of bad decisions.
The most damning of which, are Speed Cards. The idea is simple: Win a race, get a chance to pick one of three random Speed Cards and then up the stats on your chosen vehicle as if you were playing a caRPG. It’s essentially Destiny 2’s Light Level for cars and the idea probably sounded brilliant on paper. It also goes massively against everything that fans love about building the ultimate ride for their discipline of choice.
You’re stuck in a grind, slowly, slowly building up a car that can last a few races against increasingly tougher opponents and missions instead of tinkering with your ride. There’s a certain joy to getting some digital oil on your hands as you buy the right parts and slot them into a car, something that Payback doesn’t have at all thanks to those damn Speed Cards.
In essence, Payback has stripped some of the soul of the racing genre away from players with these horcruxes, forcing players to grind for progression and of course, loot boxes. Payback is utterly stingy with its payouts as well, emphasising shallow racing as you rarely find yourself earning cards which create a noticeable difference in your performance.
It’s aggravating stuff, especially when you repeat the process all over again for one of the five disciplines available to you. Like your VW Golf GTI and want to use it for more than just racing? Good luck pal, you’ll need to purchase a second one and designate it as your drifting car as vehicles are locked to those racing categories, as are all those Speed Cards you earned. Per vehicle.
The system falls apart even further on a cosmetic level, as instead of saving up your cash to alter your bonnet or blindspot mirrors, you have to first complete open-world objectives before you’re granted the privilege to do so. I get that the idea is to encourage players to explore the open-world more, but Need For Speed Payback asks so much of a player and offers very little in return for all of that effort.
The highlight of Payback also ends up feeling like a lowlight. Chapter-specific missions task you with using your trio of reprobates to pull off daring stunts, but the end result is always the same: You’re racing against the clock, hitting checkpoints and control is taken out of your hands when the mission starts to show signs of being interesting. It’s an aspect of the game that’s echoed within police pursuit missions, which offer little to no strategy whatsoever.
If Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is reading this, I can guarantee you that it’s crying tears of oil right now at how far the franchise has fallen. Much like EA’s other game which exists as a glorified platform to pump more cash into, Star Wars Battlefront II, Need For Speed Payback feels like another great game that was stripped of everything that made it interesting and Frankensteined back together as an unholy experiment in changing gears with a credit card.
It’s a crying shame, because developer Ghost Games is so much better than this. I still maintain that the 2015 reboot in its current updated form was a positive step forward, that got a lot more right than wrong. Payback is worse than a step backwards…it’s a disappointment. The open-world has no character, you’re playing as a trio of arseholes and the challenge is almost non-existent thanks to the stupid Speed Card system. Did I mention that multiplayer doesn’t allow you to freely roam around with other damned souls who are desperately trying to justify the purchase of Payback? Well now I did.
It’s a crying shame, because beneath all of these faults there beats the heart of a V8 engine. A car brimming with possibility, but stuck with a potato of bad get-rich-quick scheme ideas up its exhaust pipe.
Last Updated: November 17, 2017