The Need For Speed Payback plot, as far as I could tell from the trailers and the pressers that Electronic Arts sent me, would have us crash our way through a very Fast and Furious-style above-the-law campaign where cop chases, heists and wanton street racing were common. And if the game was comprised of just that, it would fine.
Unfortunately, too much of it is tied up in long commutes, a molasses-slow upgrading system and poor storytelling to be terribly enjoyable. After several days of play, the only one left with a “need” for “speed” was me.
(Full disclosure: EA sent us a free copy of Need For Speed Payback to download and play and keep forever and ever.)
Payback is the newest installment of the Need For Speed franchise. It follows the storylines of Tyler Morgan and his crew Sean “Mac” McAlister and Jessica “Jess” Miller (all playable characters).
They are double-crossed by Lina Navarro, who works with the nefarious, shady and vague criminal organization, “the House.” The rest of the game, as you may have guessed, is about getting payback on her and said House.
Open-world by design, your missions take you around the city of Silver Rock, a pseudo-Las Vegas and through its surrounding desert and mountain regions. This was a special treat, as the American Southwest yields some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscape there is. You can crash your way through dunes and shrubs or bomb down a curving ribbon of road with snakes of sand slithering across it. All in all, it’s a very pleasant environment to look at.
And unlike the previous version of the game, you can actually pause in the middle of it. This is because Payback can now be played offline, so you aren’t always caught in real-time situations.
Going into Payback, I’d been warned by Ghost Games founder and Need For Speed executive producer, Marcus Nilsson, that the characters weren’t Oscar-material. That was fine. You kind of want a someone who is just vanilla enough that you can easily put yourself in their shoes and run around to complete the mission without tripping up on their personality.
This wasn’t the case for Payback. From my observation, the three playable characters were only there so you could experience their respective driving styles, nothing more. And each was more offensively annoying and but also simultaneously forgettable than the last. This felt like a step down from even the endless F&F knockoff movies, like Overdrive.
Rivals and other street racers you’d face off against would talk constant trash at you, obviously meant to goad you into winning, but sounded more like a couple of 11-year-olds yelling into their mics with while their parents sat in the same room.
The first 45 minutes or so of the game are dedicated to you getting familiarized with the three playable characters. There are ample cop chases and cool stunts, but even those fell flat for me. For example, you need to leap a supercar over an overpass via a semi-truck ramp at one point. Fun! But as soon as you approach the truck at speed, the cut scene takes over and you only get to watch the stunt from a dramatic angle, not perform it yourself.
The AI driving the cop cars are nice and aggressive and crashing them off the road is cathartic and satisfying, but they’re also clumsy: multiple times, a cop car would come out of nowhere, crash straight into my rear bumper and wreck itself. I did nothing to initiate that.
Once you move beyond the intro, the grind starts. Because, oh, yes: Payback is very heavy on the grinding. The campaign is centered around multiple series of races that you need to complete in order to advance the story and help amass your collection of derelict cars (think Forza Horizon 3's barn finds). You earn money after completing each race but you can only graduate to the next one if you come in first place.
Winning is not always the easiest thing because each new race puts the rival cars a few levels above yours, and if you car isn’t at at least that level, then beating them is nearly impossible. So you have to upgrade your car.
How do you do that? Each time you win a race, you get a Speed Card that helps you upgrade different parts of your car. This system is slow to advance your overall car stats and leaves upgrading up to chance, because sometimes the Speed Card you get is for a part you already have.
The quickest way to upgrade your car is to visit the Tune-Up-Shop, where you can buy mods. Yet the mods are priced so that you can only buy so many before you run of money and, oftentimes, you haven’t gotten your car to the necessary competitive level of the rival cars. So you either have to do the little activities sprinkled across the map (speed traps, jumps, etc.) or you have to go back and do races that you’ve already won over again to make more money.
This would be more acceptable if the races weren’t totally effing mandatory in the race-centric campaign. Because this is a race-driven campaign, you get stuck grinding out activities for cash. In fact, there’s an achievement called “The Strategist” where you “grind a previously won event for Speed Cards.” The game literally wants you to do this. It’s a cheap way to retard your progress because there seems to be so little else to do other than race.
Happily, though, the cars of Payback are worth checking out. There are only 74, but it’s a good and solid list. My canary-yellow Honda S2000 was buzzy and angry and fun to drift around sweeping corners with nary a tap of the brakes.
What was most challenging was perceiving the speed of the car, because speed overall feels very artificial in the game. The landscape doesn’t appear to come at you any faster in the higher speeds; you have to resort to glancing at the speedometer in the corner of the screen to really tell how fast you’re going. This lack of engagement made it difficult to judge corner entry speeds.
Furthermore, the tactile feedback of what the car was doing was numb, vague and badly translated to the joysticks and the triggers of the controller. It didn’t feel as though a millimeter pull of the sticks or the triggers resulted in a proportionate reaction in the car’s steering, braking or gas. Counter-intuitive, I would call it.
Despite all of these flaws, you could argue that Payback is just a silly and unserious arcade driving game. And it does that part of things beautifully. Goddamn nailed it. Which is why so much of the plot is dumped on you while you’re driving, so you’re really only half-paying attention to it. It has its loose and casual moments and ridiculous crashing opportunities where nobody gets hurt. That’s great! But then you have to ask why the overly complicated and grind-heavy upgrade system.
I have a theory for this: it’s because Payback was meant to mirror those old and classic arcade driving games, the ones that were designed to eat your quarters and time by stacking everything against you. I think that’s why the game feels like it’s trying to do too much at once. Either it follows one simple plot line or it grows into a massive open-world environment where the grind feels worth it and not forced.
Need For Speed Payback will be available on Nov. 10.