To think that the Need for Speed series is 23 years old today. You would think that after so many years, EA would have perfected the formula but unfortunately, that is not the case here. Payback is watered-down, uglier version of the 2015 reboot with very little going for it. Limited car customizations, a dull open world, and a story that gets cringy after the first 10 minutes due to poor dialogue on weak characters.
In many ways the 2015 version needed work but it did what it set out to achieve by reviving the classic Need for Speed Underground features in a modern game. All this is lost in Payback now, the game's 17-hour campaign sees you jump across different characters, racing in various leagues, all in an attempt to build up rep to take down The House, a cartel that controls Fortune Valley's underworld.
What payback does well is its awesome driving mechanics. I have played a fair share of racing sims over the past few months so the arcade-style approach in Payback was refreshing. Cars feel good across all types, be it supercars, offroad, you name it. Payback's racing is where it shines as its offroad, drag, and street racing works very well. They could have taken the entire story and all the characters out of the game and left the racing and it would have been a fantastic arcade racer. Cars feel great, drifting is fluid and precise and the even the A.I opponents are fairly decent.
Fortune Valley is divided into different sections with each one home to a set car type. As much as I loved racing across the streets in a BMW M4, nothing beat ramping over sand dunes and kicking up dust in the desert region. The various races also limit you to specific car types for each of them and the ranking system of your car determines if you will be able to enter the race or not. Different race houses that you challenge in the game also specialize in specific race types too. If you feel like doing some offroad racing them you would head to that house to start one.
Races are pretty simple and see you going from point A to point B while driving through checkpoints and making sure you beat your opponents. Drift challenges require you to score enough before the end to win, and races need you to come first as a mandatory requirement to move on. Yes, there is no second place here. You either win or lose. There are also certain pay-in challenges that you can trigger before the race that lets you barter cash in order to gamble on specific requirements that you might achieve in the race. Drifting a certain distance. knocking down a set amount of objects before the end of the race, and even staying in the first position for 60-seconds. These are just some of them you can take on. They are sometimes tough to do as you would always need to win the race in order to complete the challenge whether or not you achieved the requirements.
Driving does feel great in the game and I had no real issue with the handling, weight distribution, and lack of damage effect on my car. Some races do get tough as A.I is often extremely aggressive and will do anything in its power to knock you off the road. It would often be an easy cheese to use your nitro at the start and get to the front of the pack and stay there throughout the race as it would often guarantee a win.
Cars are also plenty in the game, if not the roster could even be better than GT Sport's sad excuse for a car list. Land Rover, BMW, Honda and much more have a couple of cars to choose from and the excitement of buying one and heading into the decal mode to place colourful stickers all over it was something we all loved from the past series. There are also various visuals mod changes you can make to each car but these are locked behind tedious objectives like bashing a set amount of billboards or getting three stars on the speed cameras a certain amount of times. It was kind of terrible that you had to do these challenges before you could change the look of your car, and given that Fortune Valley is one of the most boring places in video game history, this made it even worse.
With the driving being so great you would think it would be complemented by a decent story. Well, I wish we could say it is. Payback's writing is atrocious, so bad that I even skipped some cutscenes to save myself from dealing with the cheap dialogue and cliche characters you meet along the way. It is bad, like Fast and the Furious filmed and produced with no budget bad. There is just no reason to care about the people or events in the game as even the most dramatic moments are brought down by some cheesy one-liners. It pulls you away from the action and while there are some great story moments that play out like a high-octane Hollywood flick, they all fall flat due to this issue.
Some of the major action scenes are fun to play but then when you realize that most of the ramping and awesome driving shots are all pre-rendered and all you get to do it sit and watch it, the feeling that you are playing the latest Fast and Furious game slowly leaves your mind. Cop chases are also all pre-determined as you now just have to speed through checkpoints and get to the end of them to escape the pigs. There is no skill or excitement gained from these at all. Before, the more cop cars you destroyed by bashing them into walls, the more intense these chases would get. This is not the case at all now as the same boring cops chase you every time.
It is just a case of surviving as you drive from one point to the other. No hiding away, using smart driving skills to quickly escape or even tricking them by quickly taking a left instead of a right. The checkpoints keep you on the same path all the time and there is very little room for any sort of free will. To be honest, the best thing about the cop chasers is the radio broadcast that comes out of the DualShock 4's controller.
Payback's vehicle upgrades and customization system is bad. Want that sexy double exhaust? Well, then you will probably have to find billboards across Fortune valley and smash them before you can even think about installing it on your car. The system is walled behind tedious activities that make for an unpleasant grind. As for the performance enhancement system, this has now been locked in a collectable card game. You need to collect cards in packs unlocked by levelling up, and of course buying them with in-game cash and dare I say currency bought with real money.
These Speed Cards are equipped with your car and they boost the performance of it. Again, locking you behind a tedious grind or forcing you to spend real money or deal with the grind. There is even a Speed Card slot machine that randomly gives you performance cards. If that is not the definition of gambling then I don't know what is.
In the end, Need for Speed Payback is held back by its terrible story, poor narrative, and its broken Speed Card system that will screw you over a few times. The racing aspect of the game is great, if only it was possible to play it without dealing with all the other terrible features.
Available On: PC4, Xbox One, PC | Reviewed
This review is based off a review copy provided to us by Prima Interactive