While EA have most of their eggs in the FIFA and Star Wars baskets, their Need for Speed series has always been a consistently popular title for them and so with roughly one game per year bearing the title, it was no surprise to see the series return again this year, this time with Need for Speed: Payback which continues to explore similar themes to before. You’ll be racing around a big open world while winning races, upgrading your car and sticking silly colourful things all over your pristine paintwork.
I’m a couple of Need for Speed games behind (the last one I played was Rivals) but playing Payback was a very familiar experience but thankfully now has more of an emphasis on the story. You play a talented street racer, Tyler Morgan, who while racing around Fortune Valley (read: Las Vegas) is ripped off by a shadowy crime syndicate called The House. They’ve got all the street racing in the area cornered and the fix is in, so when Tyler decides to scupper their plans his life is turned upside down and, in true videogame plot fashion, he’s forced to start again at the bottom of the street racing scene, winning races to earn ‘rep’ in an effort to get noticed enough that he’ll be able to enter the big, important races.
It’s all very much aimed at the kind of young man who enjoys those Fast and Furious movies that they keep making. And while the our generic Chad Protagonist hero is quite lacking in charisma, EA have at least put together a story that is kind of enjoyable. Especially as Tyler is joined by two chums: a drift racer named Mac and a get away driver called Jess. You get to play as all three, sometimes in the same mission, and it does help mix up the gameplay.
Sure, the dialogue is awful (“It’s night time. This where I come alive”) but we’re really glad to see a Need for Speed game that isn’t just about racing cars from point A to point B. As much as we pine for the days of Need for Speed: Underground 2 and Burnout: Paradise, it’s good to have a story behind the racing. That said, the actual mechanics of the racing are really good. From street races in and around the city to the drift and drag racing, everything feels pretty much right. Cars have a weight to them and are a joy to maneuver around the roads of Fortune Valley.
As expected, the open world map is huge and events are drip-fed to you. The story mode operates in stages. You’ll be faced with various leagues to conquer (in order to get noticed by the sort of people who matter in the world of street racing). These usually have four to six events that you’ll need to win. Beat all the available leagues (racing, drifting, off-road, drag races, sprints and courier/getaway) and you’ll unlock a story mission that usually involves you stealing something. Beat that and the whole circle begins again until you get through the whole story.
The problem with Payback has been that to be competitive in the next round of leagues, you’ll need a suitably upgraded car and fans and critics alike have complained of having to grind earlier races in order to be able to progress. This was mainly due to EA’s recent policy of adding time-sapping grinds to their games, only to offer a quick and easy solution in the form of loot boxes which are paid for with real cash. The backlash has been real albeit with Star Wars: Battlefront 2 taking most of the force (hrmm hrmmm!) of the public’s wrath on that. However, Ghost (the dev team behind Payback) have been making server-side adjustments to speed up the progression and reduce the grind. It’s not perfect but it is something and the internet has found a way to speed up the process by replaying one particular drift mission over and over. So, with us arriving to this game a little later than the day one reviewers, we’re not really seeing the problem as much now but there was one and EA have had to eat some humble pie for sure.
Another criticism has been around the upgrading system used for the cars. Instead of just being able to buy the part you want, you either have to hope that specific part is in stock (and then pay over the odds for it) or you can trade in surplus parts and ‘roll’ for new ones. You’ll still probably not get exactly what you want (why do I need a gearbox that will help my street racing car jump further?). Also, other vanity parts such as underglows and tyre smoke colours are earned via free loot boxes which is a chore if you want, say, a red one but you’ve ended up with your fourth green one for some reason.
That said, this is only a problem if you take the customisation stuff really seriously, which we don’t. We enjoyed it in the fantastic Need for Speed: Underground 2 but now we just want to get through the game. That said, there are a wide-range of paint colours and decals if you want to make your car particularly silly. We repaired and upgraded a derelict 1971 Nissan Fairlady and have turned this once classy car into a shiny green thing with a lime green underglow, green tyre smoke a Ukrainian flag on the roof.
But as easy as it is to be cynical about the by-the-numbers plot and the target demographic this game is aimed at, the fact is that it’s a blast to play. The racing is great, the drifting is very enjoyable and it’s quite nice pottering around looking for collectables. The setting of Fortune Valley is good too although there is a bit too much desert for our liking, also the off-road racing is fine but a little limited. There is far too much scenery that you can’t drive through/over. We’d have liked to have seen some fun sand buggies. GTA5 managed it.
In fact, that’s not the only limited aspect of the racing. During the story missions you’ll see cars jumping over trucks, across the gap between roof tops and even taking out helicopters in true Die Hard 4/The Transporter fashion but you don’t get to play any of those moments. It’s a shocking omission and would have really made the game essential. Are we playing a game here or watching a film? Let us do everything.
Visually, things are pretty good. The actual gameplay graphics are on point. The cars look suitably detailed and realistic and the environments seem solid (although there is a bit too much pop-in at times). Cutscenes are a little disappointing though with some jittery textures and a slight soft-focus filter on everything. If you’re a car fetishist though, this game has you covered. Most importantly, the way forward is usually pretty clear during races and missions (something that most racing games, especially open world ones, struggle with).
Oddly for an EA game, the soundtrack isn’t entirely dismal either. The usual mix of indie and rock tracks is mixed with some dance and grime stuff. It’s not amazing but is rarely as offensively bland as, say, a FIFA soundtrack. And while the voice acting isn’t exactly going to win any awards, the roar of the engines is nice and raspy.
So, overall while we weren’t expecting much from Need for Speed: Payback, it’s actually proving to be a lot of fun and the game only falls short of greatness because of a few regrettable design decisions. And while the mechanics related to upgrading and gameplay progression are a serious black mark against EA, we genuinely appreciate Ghost’s attempts to communicate with the player base and improve things. Hopefully the backlash will see all the EA dev teams putting gameplay first from now on but, bigger picture aside, we’re having a blast with this.
+ A good mix of driving styles
+ Lots of customisation options
+ The story does keep things interesting
+ Solid online play
+ Ghost do seem to be reacting to initial bad feedback
+ A bit less faffy than previous NFS games in terms of Autolog notifications
- Progression and customisation are spoiled by EA's appetite for loot boxes
- Off road areas aren't accessible enough
- Story is a bit cheesy