The Need for Speed franchise is in trouble. The series hasn’t seen a decent entry in the better part of decade, and Need for Speed: Payback is yet again another failed attempt at trying to reclaim a throne that’s long been lost. It’s got the looks and sometimes the feel of a decent arcade racing title, but the combination of a cringe-worthy story, an awful micro-transaction riddled progression system, and some questionable design decisions make this entry in the series one that doesn’t live up to the name. It’s a shame because Need for Speed fills a much needed niche in the racing genre. Need for Speed is starting to feel a lot like the NBA Live series, one that’s seemingly lost its way and may take years to get back on track.
EA wants Need for Speed to be the video game equivalent of The Fast and the Furious. You play as a street racer named Tyler during the single player campaign in a setting that’s modeled after Las Vegas. The game opens with a heist gone bad where Tyler and his crew try to boost a multi-million dollar supercar from its owner, before being betrayed by one their own. The crew is busted up and Tyler goes to work for a character known as “The Gambler” who promises to give him the opportunity for revenge. Need For Speed has had some OK stories in the past, and the premise here isn’t entirely bad. It’s the way that this story is unraveled and presented to the player that ultimately make it feel like an uneventful slog that focuses on cars rather than the characters that are in it. While that might be expected from a game that is centered around racing, it definitely feels like low effort story telling by Ghost Games. Where movies like The Fast and the Furious don’t take themselves too seriously, and much of the entertainment value comes from the sheer ridiculousness of it all, Payback takes itself far too serious to be enjoyable and the moments that it doesn’t come off as hacky attempts at humor and pot shots at popular culture.
The arcade racing mechanics and racing visuals are probably where Need for Speed Payback is at its best. On the Xbox One X, Need for Speed Payback is a good looking racer. It’s not a Forza Motorsport or Project Cars, but it’s impressive nonetheless. The in-race gameplay is pretty straight forward, whether you’re racing in the streets, drifting, or off-roading. It’s the one saving grace of the game, and the spot where Ghost Games does get things right. There’s a good sense of speed. Racing checkpoints are easily identifiable. The controls are simplistic and intuitive. It’s a good formula for arcade racing fun. While the base of a fun game is here, it’s nearly every design decision made around this core gameplay that detract from the enjoyment.
Need For Speed Payback is an open world racing game that doesn’t quite take full advantage of its possibilities. There’s a decent-sized map to explore that’s dotted with a ton of activities to engage in. Speed traps, collectibles like breakable billboards and chips, jump challenges, and of course, racing activities that require that your car be a certain level to compete in. It takes some inspiration from the likes of Forza Horizon and Burnout Paradise, but doesn’t quite deliver the level of enjoyment that those titles do. While there’s an opportunity for the game to feel organic it rarely succeeds in doing this. Instead it relies on funneling players into checkpoint to checkpoint races, and boring drives to your next event. Where Ghost Games seems to put most of their emphasis is in the car customization aspects of Payback and they do this by level-gating racing sequences that doesn’t feel natural in terms of progression.
Something feels a bit off here. You just never seem to have the required funds to get the parts that you need to upgrade your cars for specific races in Payback, which in turn forces you to upgrade your vehicle by doing a bit of grinding. Grinding in a driving game means that you’re essentially re-racing certain events and that can be a bit tedious. If you’re not into tedium, EA has something for you in the form of microtransactions. Offering “Speed Points” you can purchase this currency to purchase loot boxes that might contain the parts or power-ups you’re looking for to increase your car’s power. EA and Ghost Games are walking a fine line here. Where many games offer these types of progression boosting purchases for those that want to save time, Payback’s progression system feels tuned to become monotonous whether you have all the free time in the world, or not.
Worse yet, these cars that you build up through progressing in single player (or outright purchase through microtransactions) are carried over into multiplayer. While the game says that your matchmaking is directly correlated to your car’s loadout, we didn’t find a single instance where we weren’t matched with cars that were far superior. If you have an desire to play multiplayer in Need for Speed Payback, and you want to be competitive, you’ll need to have the most powerful car in the game. While we toughed out races where we were doubled in terms of car power, the end of race leaderboards always correlated with the most powerful car being on top and the least powerful car being on the bottom. Simply put, multiplayer is unenjoyable for all except those who have the most powerful vehicles. If you have no intention of playing through the story mode, and are thinking you might just want to have some multiplayer fun, do not buy this game. Again, this is a missed opportunity for Payback. Racing at the back of the pack is fun against racers with similar car levels. The arcade style is fast paced and has an anything goes feel to it. It’s a shame that you have to have the best possible car available to be competitive and that there’s a lack of lobbies for car level ranges.
It’s almost unfathomable that EA and Ghost Games would release Need for Speed Payback as it is. With a mediocre story mode that’s basically required to sink many hours into just to play multiplayer, they’re aiming at very specific audience. That audience is one that’s incredibly tolerable of a manipulative progression system and willing to either spend time or money to get the most out of the game.
Need for Speed Payback is an all-around miss for the franchise. The racing feels good, the presentation feels great, but everything surrounding it is absolutely abhorrent.