Need for Speed: Payback is fast, exciting and beautiful, with breathtaking landscapes and great looking cars. Unfortunately, the final experience is watered down by a hard to digest progression system that feels like a whole lot of grind, loot boxes and multiple currencies.
Need for Speed: Payback
Initial release date: November 10, 2017
Developer: Ghost Games
Designer: Riley Cooper
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Racing video game
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows (tested)
Need for Speed: Payback takes place in Fortune Valley, a pretty cool place to race around. This fictionalized Vegas, created and rendered by the more than capable Frostbite engine, is surrounded by desert, mountains, and canyons, with some nice rugged, forest areas on one side of the map. Frostbite takes the open world to a next level and fills it with realistic landscapes and vehicles. On top of this, the city is also packed with events, challenges and duels to keep you busy when you want to take a break from the story and the three protagonists: Tyler, Jess and Mac.
The story revolves around The House, a money hungry cartel who rig street races and have the police on their side. They use unfair means purely for their personal gains. They have essentially ruined Fortune Valley’s street racing scene. After a series of events that we won’t spoil, it is up to the 3 protagonists to fix the situation. Tyler takes the straight street races and drag races, which basically boils down to speed battles. Mac handles off-road racing and drifts challenges. Jess takes on getaways and police pursuits using SUVs and sports cars. Each of these types of events leads to a final battle against the leader of a street-racing gang. This unlocks a big story mission that brings all drivers together and then takes you through to the next tier.
At its core, Payback remains true to the franchise. It doesn’t try to be a racing simulator like the Forza series. This means that the handling of each vehicle will only vary slightly. Sure, there is some sense of weight, grip, and momentum to feel the difference between a Mustang and an Impreza, but not enough to leave you spinning uncontrollably when you take some right-turn at top speed. This also means you can’t damage your ride at all, so you can bounce from police, walls, and others races all you want. Speeding through the streets, dodging the oncoming traffic and using nitrous blasts to right your course is as fun as any other Need for Speed title. The issues only pop up when you start looking at the way upgrades and progression works in-game.
You upgrade your car through a system of speed cards, which are either won when you come first in an event or bought from local tuning shops. These represent different enhancements for your engine, exhaust, brakes, suspension, you name it. These enhancements will increase an overall rating for your car. This in itself is an issue, but there is something worse. Each individual event has a rating, and to have any chance of winning you need your vehicle to near, match or exceed that score. Nothing stops you from trying while you are below the rating, but more often not, you will be just wasting your time. And you can only complete events by coming first.
Cars, parts and all the customization options are bought with the same in-game currency, taking the experience to something not fun: Drive the same car in different events, or drive different cars in the same races, to grind out currency, to improve different rides. I chose to make upgrades to a single vehicle over acquiring new ones. A new ride is to effectively start over, grinding through low-level races one has already beaten for currency and upgrades and other items to then customize your new ride and turn it into something competitive. Also, Speed Cards awarded are applicable to the class of car that earned them, so forget about grinding and maxing all vehicles with just one ride. Payback also introduces Shipments. You get them each day for logging in, and you can also buy them, and they include a chunk of in-game cash, a batch of parts tokens and a vanity item that can be exchanged for currency. It helps and somehow motivates you to log in every day while you are hooked on the game. Or again, you can spend real money to take a shortcut.
Don’t get me wrong: Payback is a fun racer. It is an enjoyable experience when you are able to put the attention on the actual races and not all the mechanics around. Events are also checkpoint based, meaning the game will always give you at least a suggested line that will get you from point A to point B, but it won’t force you to take that route. You are free to go off that beaten path, take shortcuts, do some crazy jumps in the middle, and get the race done instead of just going the entire suggested route.
You will also need to buy cars for the drag and drift events. For this, you will need more cash, hence more grind. Later on, you will need new vehicles for racing and off-roading, and you buy these with the same currency, and you know where this is going. And for some reason, you will also need more cash if you want to make use of the time-saving fast travel, without which getting from one event to the next can become a bit of a chore.
Should you play it? Need for Speed: Payback is a good arcade racing game and fans of the series will love it. It is more of the same with some improvements here and there, and of course, loot boxes and multiple in-game currencies. This means that you will have your fair share of fun when racing, drifting, off-roading or being chased, but you won’t find any kind of innovation on this iteration and the overall experience is stained with the grind. Those who are intrigued but not completely convinced, proceed with caution.