Need for Speed Payback is one step forwards and two steps back for EA’s 23-year-old racing series. While Payback does fix a host of the 2015 Need for Speed reboot’s missteps, it also brushes away a lot of the stuff developer Ghost Games got right at that time.
You see, Need for Speed 2015 brought with it a resurrection of the spirit of 2003 and 2004’s successful Underground games and saw the return of meaningful performance and visual customization. Between all the hokey live-action, first-person fist-bumping it also revolved around encounters with real-world automotive icons. That’s an idea I still genuinely like. Of course, it was very short, the world was largely empty, there initially wasn’t any drag racing, and you couldn’t even pause the game in single-player. It was flawed, no doubt.
Payback remedies all that latter stuff. There’s a much longer experience here it took me around 17 hours to complete the story alone. Plus, the world is filled with extra activities and events, drag racing is included from the get-go, and yes, you can pause it. Truly a novelty.
You may have heard that Payback has dialled back on the pure street racing focus in favour of a self-described “action driving” experience. The reality is that racing still pads out the bulk of the driving in Payback and the new “action driving” stuff is limited to a small handful of movie-inspired sequences and Payback’s new police pursuit system. They may look exciting on the surface, but they aren’t really that demanding; unlike, say, the Stuntman games, Payback doesn’t require us to do any of the trickier stuff ourselves the game takes over all the cool bits. We’re just driving from cutscene to cutscene. They’re well-executed, particularly how they seamlessly swap you between characters and vehicles (like the opening moments of Forza Horizon 3), but they’re completely scripted. Fast and frantic, but shallow and not worth replaying. They’re really just built to service Payback’s paper-thin story, which starts with a confounding succession of betrayals and ends without ever really going anywhere interesting.
The cop chases feel largely neutered too; escaping police is now a totally linear exercise, where we have to follow a set path via checkpoints within a time limit instead of improvising and doing something unpredictable to throw them off. Taking down cop cars in these events has a welcome enough Burnout 3 flavour to it muscling your pursuers into spectacular slow-motion collisions with poles and parked cars is fun but I don’t think it was worth losing proper pursuits for. No more darting down random side-streets at the last second to shake the fuzz, or parking in a dimly-lit area with the engine off, like Need for Speed 2015. There aren’t any cops around during free-roam, either; they’re only present in story missions or at certain triggers spread around the map that will initiate another linear, pre-set chase.
Payback changes things up slightly in the penultimate race event, where it adds cops in the middle of an actual race, but otherwise police pursuits are basically now just time trials where the AI is trying to stop you. The cop AI seems robust enough, and they’ll work on boxing you in when they have the numbers, but I didn’t find them too dangerous. They’re supernaturally fast (as usual, standard issue Crown Vics are able to go doorhandle-to-doorhandle with seven-figure supercars) but player-controlled cars are incredibly powerful battering rams, tearing through cop cars like a bad curry through a colon.
The rest of Payback is wrapped up in drifting and racing including street, off-road, and drag. The handling model is accessible, arcade fare long, lazy drifts are possible with a dab of brake and a bootful of throttle. That said, I’ve had more than a few events ruined by some overly hostile AI. The respawning is a bit aggressive, too. After clipping an obstacle or skirting with a steep slope I often found myself being respawned in the middle of the track after a few seconds, even though I’d instantly recovered and was already speeding off in the right direction.
The events themselves are all tied to defeating themed race crews spread over the map, each of whom introduces themselves like they’re the Most Important People on Earth. It’d be almost funny if the script was equipped with a single ounce of self-awareness, but Payback treats its cast of hip young millennials and soda commercial cast-offs like they’re the coolest thing since the other side of the pillow. Unfortunately, they’re not cool, or funny. They’re not even actually likeable, to be honest. The three main player-controlled characters are the worst offenders, ranging from irksome to infuriating.
The characters aren’t functionally different from each other; they’re just each tied to one or two of the five specific car classes that are different from each other. Payback splits its cars into five categories race, off-road, drift, drag, and runner (which are used for battling cops). Cars for specific race types need to be purchased from specific dealers and can’t be used in any other race type than the one they were purchased for. It’s a bit restrictive, particularly considering the game doesn’t always necessarily play by its own rules. For instance, it makes a fuss out of communicating that ‘runner’ cars are specially-reinforced vehicles built to take on police, but then regularly throws us into cop chases in non-runner cars that seem to handle the events just as adequately. It doesn’t mind tossing drag cars into impromptu sprint races, either. I wasn’t a fan; my GT-R drag car corners like a whale on a skateboard.
Toyota and Ferrari have fallen out of the game for reasons beyond EA’s control, but the mix of tuner, muscle, and exotics has otherwise improved from the already decent selection available in Need for Speed 2015. They still look nice too, particularly the weather-beaten “Derelict” cars we’re tasked with discovering around the map (think Test Drive Unlimited’s hidden wrecks, or Forza Horizon’s barn finds). The way Payback’s lighting system plays off the damaged paint and rusty panels of these derelicts is excellent.
Beyond the cars, however, I found Payback less visually impressive than Need for Speed 2015 overall. Payback’s dry and dusty casino city and its outskirts make for a large, varied map (and it boasts a day/night cycle this time around) but it’s not nearly as good-looking as the grimy, reflection-packed, rain-slick asphalt of Need for Speed 2015.
The segregated car divisions, I can handle; the upgrade system, I cannot. I hate it, in fact. Individual visual customization options now need to be unlocked by performing arbitrary tasks out in the world. I get that it’s designed to get us interacting with all the new Forza Horizon-inspired jumps and speed traps, et cetera, but it’s a lot of new hoops to jump through to change your cars’ appearance where previously there were none.
Much, much worse is that performance customization has been distilled into a collectible card game. Unlike Need for Speed 2015, which allowed us to bolt on specific parts to improve performance you know, like a normal racing game – Payback’s upgrades are controlled by what the game dubs “Speed Cards”. Payback’s many-tentacled Speed Card system is absolutely not for me.
To make your car faster you need Speed Cards, and each vehicle your crew owns has six slots for Speed Cards (the slots ostensibly represent things like the gearbox, or the turbo, and such). You can earn a single, random Speed Card by completing a race, but at best it will only be an incremental improvement on your current Speed Card line-up. You can also buy Speed Cards for in-game cash from auto parts stores, but the cards they carry are random and rotate every 30 minutes.
If you get a Speed Card you don’t want, you can turn it into a single “Part Token”. You need three Part Tokens to have one tug at the Speed Card slot machine (stay with me), which generally yields better cards than the ones you can buy à la carte from parts stores. You can also earn Part Tokens from “Base Shipments”, which are loot boxes that also contain cash and additional customization items (like coloured tyre smoke or neons).
You earn Base Shipments by racking up in-game reputation points, but there are also “Premium Shipments”, which can be bought with “Speed Points” (a second in-game currency that costs real money and seems geared only to obscure how much actual money people may be dropping on Shipments).
It’s a cold, convoluted, and random system dredged up from the sloppy shores of the free-to-play mobile swamp. How is this a fun upgrade system? It doesn’t care what parts you want or how much time you have to play the game. Any time I was awarded a worthless Speed Card I felt nothing but resentment. Surely not an emotion most developers want their games to elicit?
It just turns getting your head under the hood and purchasing bespoke parts for your favourite car into a wearisome grind. I couldn’t ignore this system because with the exception of the drift and cop chase events the AI spanked me whenever I tried to cheap out and enter certain events too far below the suggested car level. You have to acquire Speed Cards and, once you’re out of Part Tokens to pump into the vile slot machine, replaying old races is the only way to slowly push your car’s level up.