With its bold attempt at incorporating high energy action movie moments into its well-worn street racing formula, Need for Speed Payback is a mishmash of solid mechanics and mind-boggling system inclusions that take it from fun to frustrating in quick succession. Open world racing games are becoming more and more common, but in trying to carve a unique identity for itself, Need for Speed as a franchise has gone for style and trends over actual substance, making for an experience that is aggressively mediocre.
While the previous footage released had my hyped for a Fast and the Furious style action adventure racer, the reality is far more predictable. You have a crew of sorts, and you go around battling other rival crews that are spread across an expansive map. The story is dumb and the dialogue incredibly cringe worthy, with characters chucking out ridiculous quotes and millennial speak at every opportunity. It’s OK to be corny in context but it really makes all of the characters incredibly unlikeable and not relatable at all, which isn’t good.
At least the driving itself is solid and enjoyable with a mix of street, off-road and drag. Car handling feels good, drifting is very easy to pull off and there is an ease to the gameplay that I found engaging enough across the relatively lengthy campaign. The open world that you’re exploring feels relatively empty though when it comes to other cars on the road, even though it’s littered with activities, collectibles, hidden car parts to find and other things to do.
The action movie sequences in Need for Speed Payback are there, but they are limited in a way that makes them feel incredibly hands-off when it gets to the exciting bits, causing them to lose impact. Driving towards a cool sequence such as trying to get your comrade to jump from your vehicle to a truck would be awesome if you actually had to control your car while this was happening. Instead, you get close to the truck and the cut-scene takes over, until you’re back to just driving on the road again. It made me miss Stuntman, which made me feel like a badass pulling off crazy stunts rather than a mere observer.
Cop chases have a similar feeling in the sense that they lack creativity, or don’t trust the player enough to make their own decisions to avoid them. Instead of having police after you and an open world to use to craft your own daredevil escape, you just drive on a set linear path through checkpoints until they eventually piss off. You can ram them into barricades, bump them off course and create cool slow motion takedowns that I still found satisfying and reminiscent of Burnout 3, but the scripted nature of these sequences (and no cop’s free-roaming the world at other times) feels shallow.
“…upgrades are done through a random collectible card game mechanic that didn’t need to exist…”
It’s important that your vehicle of choice is up to the recommended level for each race, or you will get stomped by your opponent, no question about it. There were times when I needed to earn more money or upgrade my vehicle so that I could ensure I would at least be competitive, which definitely put the brakes on when it came to my story progression.
Vehicle upgrades in Payback – which again, are required constantly – are done through a collectible card game mechanic that didn’t need to exist in the first place. It taps into the ridiculous randomized nature of loot crates and the excitement that supposedly comes from getting the right card to upgrade your vehicle, except can’t you just earn cash and then go to a mechanic to upgrade your car as you naturally progress and complete races like in every other racing game?
I mean, you could argue with me that they’ve tried to do something new at least by incorporating these “Speed Cards” that spin and flip on screen so that you can inch towards the next level, but when the characters repeatedly say things like “luck has nothing to do with racing” it’s laughable that you’re constantly crossing your fingers and hoping that the RNG Gods are kind to you, otherwise you’ll be off grinding some more cash until you land on a strong card that you actually need.
Even the visual customizations require you to do certain things like achieve a certain number of jumps or drifts, for example. It’s like they’ve implemented all of these systems to try and add more depth to the standard racing game experience, but in doing so they’ve actually put annoying road-blocks on basic expectations that we’ve already been playing for a number of years. Don’t make me do arbitrary dumb things like this is an RPG, because it’s definitely not.
There are also niggling issues that bugged me throughout, such as AI that were incredibly quick to knock me off the track at times and the fact that sometimes the respawn trigger would be pulled quickly, even if I’d just clipped an obstacle or gone slightly off course. This is all heightened by the fact that you have to come first in every story race, which had me restarting and replaying events, as there was literally no room for error.
The Bottom Line
Need for Speed Payback has the makings of a solid racing game. It looks good, the driving is solid and there are lots of things to do. Unfortunately, there are all of these odd systems that feel like they were approved in a meeting room somewhere without actually being tested with the core demographic of gamers who play racing games. Forcing us to randomly get upgrades to progress and penalizing us with impenetrable AI and a cast of forgettable annoying characters hampers the fun action movie vibe that we were all hoping for. Do you feel the need for speed? Nope, neither do I.