The Need for Speed series has gone in different directions over the last decade or so. The Underground series from the early 2000s embraced street racing and import culture. The Shift series took the series in a slightly more realistic, track-based direction. The Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted games (which were, in my opinion, some of the most fun entrants) reintroduced cop chases and long, Outrun-esque sprint races. The last entry, 2015’s Need for Speed, was developed by Ghost Games and appeared to recapture the spirit of the Underground games, though it was far from perfect and lacked some basic features – like a pause function (seriously). This finally brings us to Need for Speed Payback, which is the latest entrant in EA’s longstanding franchise. At its core, Payback is a fun game that features a lot of tight racing action, but it’s also sadly let down by its tedious progression, upgrade system and terrible dialogue.
Payback is once again developed by Ghost Games and is set in the open world of Fortune Valley. Players can assume the role of one of three distinct characters. There is Tyler, who is your typical sombre male character and who does the racing events. Then there is Mac, a ladsy Brit who you’ll play in the drift and offroad events. Lastly, there is Jessica, a lady with connections to the criminal underworld and who you’ll use for the courier/cop chase events.
Payback features five distinct race “types” – traditional racing, outroad races, courier/cop chases, drift races and drag races. By far the most fun of these race types are the traditional races. The racing is tight and your typical Need for Speed arcade-y handling features heavily (more on this later). The courier/cop chases are the most mundane and sometimes amount to little more than fetch quests. It really feels like a desperate attempt by EA to add more content to the game without adding much. Basically, a case of quantity over quality. The other race types fall somewhat in between but do little more to push the boundaries of racing games.
There are also some set piece “action driving” events scattered throughout the game. These are a combination of narrative-based missions with racing and cop chase elements combined. They were featured heavily in Payback’s marketing materials and are very cinematic and well-directed. Usually, all three characters will participate in these events, and the game will chop and change perspectives during the race (think the heist missions from Grand Theft Auto V). Unfortunately, while they’re great fun, they are far and few between. Players coming into Payback expecting these sequences to be the bulk of the game will walk away very disappointed.
Graphically, Payback is flashy. Vehicle models are well detailed but fall short of the obsessive attention to detail in games such as Gran Turismo Sport and Project Cars 2. They do, however, showcase some impressive damage modelling, although the effect on the car’s performance in-game is minimal if any. The open world of Fortune Valley is well realised but can feel very empty, like the game’s 2015 predecessor. There are no dynamic weather conditions, but there is a full day/night cycle. The game also runs at a relatively solid 30fps on PS4, which seems par for the course for an arcade racer. I did notice some aggressive texture and object pop-in during my time with the game, however, which resulted in sections of the track not loading fast enough while racing. This may not be a huge issue to some, but it personally impeded my ability to enjoy the gameplay at times which was slightly disappointing.
Props must go to the degree of visual customisation options available for the vehicles in the game. It’s still one of the best systems out there. Players can spend hours painting and stickering their vehicles with all manner of garish decals and street art. It’s like your own tattoo parlour, except on cars instead of people. It’s great!
Audio-wise, Payback’s vehicles sound great. All of them have distinct growls and engine noises and the sound of tyres screeching while you take a tight corner is as satisfying as any racing game out there. The soundtrack is passable and mainly features a forgettable selection of modern hip-hop and rock music. It’s your typical Need for Speed music.
A massive downer for me, though, is the dialogue in the game. It’s atrocious. This is even more painful because the characters feel the need to be on a constant teleconference while they’re racing/outrunning the police. I thought of including some choice lines from the game in this review but could not bring myself to torture you, the reader. The characters in the game also feel the need to represent their own racing league’s subculture and inevitably turn out to be extremely one dimensional in nature. There is little depth to be found here.
One area which Payback does excel at is its racing action. Unsurprisingly, Payback is first and foremost an arcade racer, so don’t expect large amounts of performance customisation or realistic handling. Powersliding around corners and liberal use of nitrous oxide is the name of the game here. Cars handle well and feel distinct, and overall the racing is tight and polished. There’s something absurdly fun about driving a fully souped-up Porsche Panamera Turbo in an offroad race.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the progression and upgrade system. The game is structured around the completion of racing leagues, of which there are multiple for each racing type. Complete a league, get a bunch of new cars, and progress a little towards the finish. By the end of my 18-hour campaign, it felt like a massive drag and grind.
The upgrade system is slightly worse. No longer can you specifically target a part of your car (i.e. engine block, brakes etc.) to specifically upgrade. Instead, upon winning a race, you get some “race cards” which randomly upgrade a bunch of attributes. For example, one card might net you a massive increase in speed and acceleration, but a decrease in brake power. Another might get you an increase in nitrous but a drop in top speed. This system sucks. You end up relinquishing quite a bit of control to chance. And while there are loot boxes in the game (something EA is taking heat for in general at the moment), they only provide you with vanity upgrades and a relatively small amount of in-game currency which you can earn by winning one or two races.
What’s also annoying is that you can’t simply choose to upgrade the visual customisation options of your car without completing some arbitrary task first. For example, to upgrade a vehicle part, you might be asked to first drift for 8 seconds continuously. This has no link to that particular vehicle part and just feels like an unnecessary obstacle.
Need for Speed Payback is a fun but ultimately flawed and frustrating game. I was optimistic going in based on what had been shown prior to release, and while the racing action is indeed as tight as ever (albeit lacking in set pieces which were so prominently advertised), there are just too many issues which add up to drag the experience down. It’s another classic case of quantity over quality, and while it isn’t an inherently bad game, it’s seriously let down by its linear structure, tedious progression and upgrade system, and terrible dialogue.