Any franchise burdened with a yearly release cycle is going to suffer. Outside of simple roster updates and virtual puzzle books, a game takes more than twelve months to fully come together. Add the ever growing requirements of a AAA production on top of a rushed schedule, and you have a recipe for disaster. That's why many industry onlookers were pleased when a pair of games in decline took a year off after 2015 to focus and come back refreshed. One team took criticism to heart, looked at their competition and redesigned large parts of their gameplay for a much-improved result. I can't say for certain what the team behind Need For Speed Payback opted for, but it wasn't that.
As many suspected from the E3 premiere of the game, the latest Need for Speed takes more than a little inspiration from the Fast and Furious films. You play as Tyler, a street racer in Fortune Valley going for one last heist. When your crew is busted by the cops and broken apart, you have to take up work for a benefactor known as The Gambler. Only with his help can you bring your friends together again and take on a megacorporation known as The House in racing warfare. It's not a bad setup, but any potential the game has at storytelling is thrown out the window by its awful presentation.
Voice acting ranges from "inoffensive" to "Tommy Wiseau impression" throughout the experience, and these poor vocals are all we have to build out the majority of the cast. That's because cutscenes often avoid showing character models, instead choosing to pan around close up shots of cars. Only the most major characters have faces attached to their names, and every minor player in the story is depicted solely by a voice and the street gang they ride with. So, no matter what these characters are saying, you'll see the same repetitive camera angles slowing off slightly different cars, making story moments extremely monotonous at the best of times.
That might be fine considering that Need for Speed Payback is primarily a racing game, but several past Need for Speeds have had such genuine character that it carried average gameplay to new heights. There are even a few spots in Payback that could have been something, like the group of anarchists who use the "tools of the bourgeoisie" to drift against the machine. That's exactly the type of nonsense I could get behind if it was played into, but Payback takes its world very seriously. Instead of making these faceless voices enduring, players are assaulted with lame one-liners and endless exposition for the entire game.
So, considering that the storytelling is a major low point, you'd think that the developers would focus on the driving, but you'd be wrong. Need for Speed Payback handles storytelling in the same manner as a Dynasty Warriors game. Every race, every drift challenge, every time trial, they're all filled to the brim with dialogue, even if it's just your driver telling themself to "stay in the game." You'll also get a ton of useless police chatter whenever you're being chased by the boys in blue through the desert. To be fair, there are some interesting tricks pulled here, as characters will seamlessly comment on your position in the race and when you wreck during story conversations. It's a neat feature that would be even better if the dialogue could be overcome without cringing.
If you can manage to get past the presentation, you'll find a serviceable open-world racer to run through. The driving can be a bit wonky in the opening few races but works for what it is once you upgrade your car a bit. You can slide into turns with ease and there's a good sense of speed, and forcing opponents to crash gives you a slowed down camera angle that's straight out of Burnout. However, the gameplay is handicapped by the world that you're driving through. Everything feels tuned for realism rather than enjoyment, so you'll often crash into rocks or solid barriers that make sense logically but feel out of place in an arcade experience.
In addition, a few spots on the rather small map are isolated by long twisting roads, and most attempts to take a shortcut with a big jump are stopped dead in their tracks by the game's overzealous course corrections. If you go off the beaten path even a little, the game will violently cut to a black screen and force you back onto the road. This happens even if you're still able to drive after your "wreck" and can sometimes cost you events if you're close to the finish line. Of course, since there's no rewind feature here, finishing an event outside of first place means a slow restart and another five to ten minutes of driving with the same dialogue playing in the background.
Race events are generally the most fun, especially in multiplayer, but the game's systems work against this enjoyment at every turn. For one, every event in Payback is a checkpoint race, meaning that offroad shortcuts are completely off the table. This combines with the game's overabundance of resets to add to the frustration of getting momentarily off track. It's entirely possible for a rival to knock you off the track and then have the game take over and reset your car miles behind him. Of course, the game's progression system is also a big factor in any race, as each car has a specific level and you just aren't going to beat someone driving smoothly in a ride with a higher number than yours.
So, how do you upgrade your vehicle? Opening loot boxes, of course! Each car you own will have a set of Speed Cards with different quality numbers and perks attached. You get one after finishing each race and you can trade in a few old ones to spin a slot machine and get more. You can buy more parts with cash as well, which is dripped out slowly to you as you progress through the main story and level up your Reputation. Each event in the campaign has a recommended level similar to Destiny. If you have a few unlucky pulls of the one-armed bandit, you'll need to either grind out older events (and listen to the same dialogue yet again) or pony up your cold hard real-world dollars for loot boxes containing in-game currency and car vanity items.
Simply put, the game seems designed to push you in the direction of spending money. There are jumps in levels spread across five different types of events that require players to spend through their entire bank throughout the campaign, and that's if you're only buying the bare minimum of cars. Each car you acquire can only be used in the event you purchased it for, and you have to buy the same car again if you want to use it for drifting instead of offroading. If you have your eye on a specific car like a Dodge Charger, you'll almost certainly have to grind to get it, because the game doesn't give you the means to purchase it otherwise without stopping your forward momentum dead in its tracks.
That's all if you just want to play single player, but everyone who plays Need for Speed Payback is pretty much required to slog through Tyler's street racing journey. Car levels carry over into multiplayer races, so you'll need to level up your vehicle over hours and hours of missions if you want to be competitive. After finishing the game, switching to a new car will require more and more grinding, because speed cards don't carry over between vehicles. Of course, it doesn't really matter what kind of car you have, as performance is set on trading cards rather than what would realistically be under the hood. This makes every car feel interchangeable and adds another layer to the game's monotonous mechanics.
You'd at least hope that the game can run smoothly if it's going to be begging for your cash, but there's plenty of technical jank to go around here. I can only comment on Xbox One, but there are serious issues on that platform. Loading into an open world can take upwards of five minutes, and this includes switching between single player and multiplayer since they are two separate modes. If you want to do something during that load time, I'd suggest not using the Xbox Guide when loading into multiplayer, as that reliably kicked me offline and forced another crazy long load back to the main menu. During single player, I also found plenty of spots just off the road where my car would phase through the scenery. I even got stuck in the geometry a few times, forcing me to spend a bit of my precious in-game currency on fast traveling to the nearest gas station.
As far as the franchise goes, Need for Speed Payback is one wreck that's going to be hard to walk away from. All of the grinding, the game's overbearing tutorials and course correction, the horrible presentation elements—they all really took the game over the edge of mediocrity. I had the sense I was playing a mobile spinoff rather than another main entry in a storied racing franchise. None of the currency management and trading card collecting contributes to what little fun there is to be had racing cars. Even with virtually no competition on the market today, I'd recommend countless decade old arcade racers over this clunky mess of a game.
Our Need for Speed Payback review was conducted on Xbox One with a copy provided by the publisher and via EA Access. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and on PC via Origin.
Need for Speed Payback is a grind to play both figuratively and literally. Even if you like the arcade racing on offer, it's not worth slogging through the amateur presentation, repetitive missions and microtransaction hooks.(Review Policy)
- Burnout-Style Crashes
- Serviceable Racing
- Multiplayer is Functional
- Corrupted Progression System
- Horrible Presentation
- Restrictive Open World
- Abundant Jank