Okay, so where to begin with Need for Speed Payback the latest entry in the long running franchise from EA? Well, how about the beginning. The opening moments where you’re put behind the wheel of a done-up and shiny vehicle as Tyler Morgan - a young, scruffy white dude with a slight case of attitude who can drive real good and is part of a larger crew. A driving crew. Anyway, as Tyler and other members of the crew you get to drive around in different vehicles, outrun the fuzz, and take part in race-related crimes.
Wait, that came out wrong.
That’s race-related in the sense of speeding and boosting cars and taking part in illegal street racing. Not the other kind, that would have been terrible.
But, certainly more memorable.
Need for Speed Payback’s biggest swing and miss, or one of, has to be its rather convoluted and not all that well written story. A tale about betrayal, friendship, golden cars, and clawing your way back to the big leagues to take down the House. Yeah, as per previews Need for Speed Payback takes place in a fictional gambling town out in the middle of the desert called Fortune Valley. And it’s that last bit where the game borders and sometimes crosses over into the realm of greatness.
Because outside of the cinematic presentation of some of its more involved and outlandish missions, Need for Speed Payback is a drive anywhere and have fun kind of experience. The open world of Fortune Valley is not only large but exceptionally well designed. To the point where you’ll be able to look at pictures of clues leading to car parts (to restore what the game calls Derelicts) and know right away which area to begin the search.
Also, once you venture outside the city limits and bright lights of the opening casino district - Need for Speed Payback comes to life. Thanks to the different classes of vehicles to drive and events to take part in, stuff like off-road racing through the desert hits that arcade sweet spot that can and does provide hours of fun drifting through dirt and jumping off ramps. Also, drift events where you’re endlessly looping around bends overlooking canyons and forests are, well, awesome.
Now, in terms of layout and design after spending a few minutes with Payback you’ll begin to see similarities between the setup here and the one found in perhaps the finest of open-world racers – Forza Horizon 3. Speed, drifting, and jump challenges are littered throughout the map. Also, collectibles in the form casino chips are hidden providing sizable cash rewards. And billboards to find the right elevation to smash through too.
Coupled with the very old school arcade feel of the driving model, one that means a quick press of the handbrake button results in a 180 degree turn at 200km/hour, Payback has a distinct and different enough feel and approach to differentiate it from something like the Horizon series. Case in point, the car parts you need to find to restore Derelicts. Which are classic cars you can restore to their former glory and then some. Thanks to the arcade nature of the physics and driving, most of these require you to find hidden jumps and ramps and dirt roads to reach them. It’s a lot of fun. So much so that you’d be hard pressed not to simply spend the time seeking them out instead of racing in events.
Which, brings us to Payback’s biggest problem. There aren’t enough events, and that progression itself is built entirely on the concept of you racing and taking part in the same ones over and over. One of the achievements and trophies awarded early on has a description that, well, welcomes you to the grind.
At its core, the upgrade system is perfectly fine. Cards used to improve different aspects of a vehicle built around an RPG loot-style system that results in bonuses and other goodies. Which is all well and good until your car is well below the recommended car level for the next event, and there’s just no way to quickly improve the rating. Because each new card awarded after a race is entirely random in what it’ll end up being, meaning that if your car is level 236 and you need to get it to 260 a new card awarded after repeating an event might only net you a small increase to level 239. Or worse, a worthless card to trade-in – where three trade-in tokens let you roll for a new card.
Laying out the ins and outs of mechanics like this isn’t exactly my style, but do the maths and you’ll begin to see where this is headed.
It’s not a completely broken system, and sure there are ways to roll for new cards and sell or trade-in parts to get better stuff. But as you’ll need to manage individual vehicles for each of the classes – race, off-road, drift, runner, and drag – you’ll run out of resources pretty quick. Which means that yes, there are loot boxes in the form of shipments that you can purchase with real-world money that will speed up the process. Which undoubtedly stings more than a little bit.
With grinding the same events, and loot boxes, and stat cards built into the progression, this ultimately means you’ll need to spend several hours with the game before you can afford one of the sleeker sportier cars on offer. Aka, the reason many of us play Need for Speed. And it’s a shame because it could have been avoided. Add non-essential events, increase the reward to multiple cards, and celebrate what it is about the game that works.
For all its many elements and features, that one word could be used to describe the nearest like-for-like in the market. Forza Horizon 3 and celebration.
After more than a dozen hours with Need for Speed Payback the number of race-ready, viable cars in my garage could be counted on one hand. Which is a shame because the actual visual customisation tools in Payback are impressive. Being able to switch out rims and hoods and tail lights and spoilers and paint jobs and decals is one of the coolest aspects of the game. A Need for Speed that struggles to commit to anything found within, could never live up to its potential. And Payback is a game made up of several great ideas, but just as many poor executions. Open world design, great. Story-driven missions, boring and repetitive. Off-road events, each more thrilling than the last. Having to grind to reach the next one, insulting.
There’s plenty of good to be found, but Payback doesn’t seem all that interested in rewarding and promoting that side of the game. And in the end, delivers open-world racing that confuses and confounds moments after it surprises and delights.