Need for Speed has certainly been through the ringer over the years, and there’s no denying that the series is in need of something more than just speed, if you will. It’s fair to say that (for a good while at least) the formula has had all the marks of a solid racing experience, but lacked the personality and excitement that should be bundled with. When Need for Speed Payback was unveiled at E3 2017 it was understandably met with mixed enthusiasm, because well, it just looked like a copy-and-paste take on the Fast and Furious franchise. Ghost Games and Electronic Arts have constantly promised a bigger and better experience with Need for Speed Payback, throwing in several much loved elements from previous entries and tying them to an action packed plot, but is that what we have? I’ll admit I was somewhat sceptical back at E3, but now I can firmly cast most of my doubts aside, Payback is a comeback.
The story takes place in the underworld of Fortune Valley, a location that’s owned notoriously by ‘The House’. We begin with our crew attempting to thieve a prototype car from some top-dog rich guy. Following a series of unfortunate events, the crew gets betrayed and the nifty motor instead gets delivered to The House, and so begins a bulky story of revenge and payback. The House has their fingers in all of the proverbial pies, owning the criminals, the city’s casinos and even the cops, it’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. You and your crew tasked yourselves with destabilising The House, working your way from the very bottom in the hopes that you’ll make it to the very top. Despite the rather basic premise (and without dishing out any spoilers) Need for Speed Payback delivers a well rounded plot that sits steadily with a firm and satisfying conclusion. I dare say that if this is the direction Ghost Games are taking the series in, you can count me in for the ride.
Payback serves up the largest open-world map in the franchise to date, offering up a large collection of varied, distinct and well designed environments to take to. Throughout the course of the game you’ll be taking on the role of three characters, Tyler, Mac and Jess, each of which brings their own personalities and traits to the experience. It’s here where one of my few gripes with the game comes into view, and that’s that these characters don’t do particularly well at relaying a memorable cast. Don’t get me wrong they’re enjoyable and certainly uphold the theme of the story well enough, but there’s just no sense of bonding or camaraderie. It doesn’t help that the writing does very little to bolster this, with Payback being crammed with corny and cheesy lines from beginning to end. Still, the story goes on to prove to be both exciting and exhilarating, despite the lack of a strong meaningful cast to see it through. Working from the ground up you’ll be taking on races, challenges and a range of missions as you work towards bringing down The House, but in a place where the house always wins, this is a mammoth job for even the most capable of drivers.
What really helps Payback is that feeling of progression you’re subject to whenever you pass a plot beat. It gives you that sense of accomplishment and actual movement as you dive deeper into the game, which is something I felt was largely absent from previous installations. Simply because of how uninteresting the cast members are as well as how linear Payback starts out as, it’s not unfair to say that the first hour of play is the worst. Payback truly opens up into something much more than what it is during the premise (and shortly after) once you get through the hand-holding sections of play. The moment you’re given more freedom to do what you want is exactly when Payback shows its true colours, so you may have to bear with it to begin with. You’ll be hit with countless opportunities and highly addictive aspects of the game, such as the RPG elements within. There’s nothing quite like crafting your own ride from scratch, and Ghost Games have ensured that Payback serves its fans with the deepest performance and visual customisation options yet. There are quite literally heaps and heaps of unlocks and motors to work for, spread across the entirety of the vast map.
Not too far into the game you’ll be trying to win over other crews, or ‘Leagues’ as they’re known in Payback. Each and ever league houses different a different race class, such as Off-Road, Race, Runner, Drift and Drag. These unique racers are tied to different styles of racing, forcing you to adjust and improve your skills in each class to ensure that you have what it takes to make your mark. The game bobs and weaves between these events and the story missions, indeed pitching a nice blend of freedom and structure throughout the entirety of play. When you’re ready to take a break between these missions and challenges, you’re able to drive around the map as and how you please. There are things you can seek out and earn when you’re off the beaten path, including the return of billboards and the implementation of derelicts – parts that can be obtained to eventually build a fabled supercar. There’s most certainly no shortage of content here, thanks to how well packed the huge map is, with the addition of unlockable warehouses to store more vehicles.
The control over your vehicle(s) is solid and tight on a Burnout sort of level. The actual racing is fast-paced but oddly forgiving, but with that being said it’s certainly not a game that’s going to gift you with wins. You need to earn your reputation and Payback doesn’t let you do that easily, regardless as to how accessible it may be. You will need to fine-tune your skills and not just your motors if you want to make it far. It’s a very fun experience across everything that’s on show, but you will indeed need to grind via side-missions to keep your motors inline with expectations. Customising your vehicles with the aid of Speed Cards is fairly straight forward and not at all as mind-boggling as the likes of Forza, and you can even add smoke, funny horns and plenty more wild accessories and attachments. Speed Cards collectively upgrade your car components, and can be purchased from the in-game vendors, which restock every 30 minutes.
You can breakdown any unwanted Speed Cards for tokens, which can be saved to spend on more cards. Much with any AAA game at the moment, you can indeed speed up the upgrade process via loot boxes, but these don’t tend to be as invasive as they could have been. Why couldn’t we just buy car parts? Heck if I know. In any case the system works just as well. You will indeed need to remain on-par with events that you race in, or at least just under-par, or else the AI will quite effortlessly make you their bitch. This again is why it’s important to get to grips with the different race / vehicle styles, due to how differently they can handle. This is made all the more apparent when you’ve got cops chasing you left, right and center, cleverly trying to box you in or break you down. There’s also some multiplayer fun to be had online, in which you can take on a series of events via ranked or unranked, but it’s the single player that steals the show. Visuals, Payback isn’t as realistic looking as (let’s say) Project CARS, but it’s still a freakin’ gorgeous game despite some texture and lighting issues. This is neatly tied up by some excellent sounds, which really kicks up the level of immersion to a new height.
Need for Speed Payback is a solid entry to the series, and although it’s not the best, it’s certainly high up on the list. The gameplay is tight, responsive and surprisingly accessible whilst remaining challenging throughout. The story may well indeed be basic in its delivery, but the plot does prove to be energetic and exhilarating nevertheless, however it is sadly held back slightly by a poorly voiced cast of forgettable characters. With deeper customisation and vanity options than ever before, all of which can be obtained in a wide variety of different ways, showcases how much content has been crammed into the large open-world map. The addition of side missions, derelict collectables and billboards will pull players back for repeat sessions thanks to the blanket layer of replay value. It helps that the game looks and sounds excellent across the entirety of play, ensuring that this action-packed experience not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. I have no doubt that the shift towards a Fast and Furious sort of vibe will split the crowd, but to those looking for a well crafted action-racer that packs great gameplay and attitude, Need for Speed Payback has you covered.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.