Need For Speed: Payback Review – Grinding gears
To say Need For Speed: Payback is a disappointment is an understatement.
To be blunt, this game is one of the worst the franchise has seen for a while and a depressing signifier of things to come. The fact that a game sold at full price at retail has microtransactions in it is bad enough, but what’s worse is that action here is bland to the point of banality.
First, let’s get the positives out of the way; Need For Speed: Payback looks stunning. Visually it doesn’t scale the heights enjoyed by Forza 7 or Gran Turismo: Sport, but it’s still a very pretty-looking racer.
Thanks to the Frostbite engine, which seems to issue forth better-looking visuals across EA’s games on an annual basis, racing through this game’s myriad missions is eye-candy on speed. Whether players are kicking up dust on an off-road race or gliding through the night on a runner mission, Need For Speed: Payback looks the part and then some. It’s just a pity that this is where the goodwill for this game stops on a dime.
The game’s campaign is set in the Las Vegas-esque Fortune Vally, and it centres on a trio of obnoxious street racers and their laconic mechanic. After being betrayed by a business partner at the behest of a shady gambling syndicate called The House, the team relocate out of town and plot their revenge. Seems The House is trying to fix all the races around Fortune Valley, so in the interests of justice and payback, the team decide to take down this organisation one race at a time. Hilarity ensues.
Actually, hilarity doesn’t ensue, because the major events that mark the campaign’s progression are generic to say the least. Even worse, in some instances what looks like the set up for a juicy set-piece – such as hijacking a supercar from a semi-truck on a highway – turns into a cutscene, wrenching control from the player entirely. Mind you, Need For Speed has never been renowned for great plots. This franchise’s appeal is tied up in the thrill of burning rubber through fantastic races. Here’s where the second problem comes in.
The racing feels lightweight. While the visuals look great, players will never really get the sense they’re hurtling along the tarmac in a four-wheeled monster. The nitro bursts feel more like polite farts than speed boosts. Drifting is so fiddly that NFS veterans may find themselves frustrated to the point of rage-quitting; the possibility of overshooting a turn and fish-tailing into oblivion is magnified ten-fold. To make matters worse, it becomes apparent after a time that each individual player’s skill isn’t as much of a factor as their ability to level up their cars.
Aside from ‘event’ races, the lion’s share of racing is divided between standard races, off-road races, drift challenges and drag races. The first two are pretty fun for a time, the third is by turns annoying and easy, while the fourth is the lame-duck of the bunch because it essentially involves timing gear changes with a meter filling at the top of the screen. Each race comes with a level requirement attached to it and players are urged to make sure their vehicles are at least within spitting distance of it, because attempting to do so with a low-level vehicle will result in disappointment and frustration most of the time.
How does one level up their vehicle? We’re glad you asked. Every car comes with six slots players can fill with speed cards that confer certain abilities – such as longer nitros boost, better brakes and so forth. Players earn cards by winning races (they’re given a choice between three) or buying them with in-game cash at vendors who stock a rotating selection. Oh, they can also crack open their wallet and spend real-world money on card-filled premium loot boxes in Payback’s in-game shop.
The jump between race levels is pretty high. In early sections of the game, players can find themselves trying to attempt 175-level race with 150-level car, which is damn near-impossible to win under those circumstances. If they don’t want to pay real money for new cards, they have to go back to earlier races and grind out a few wins.
As was mentioned, cards are available at in-game vendors for in-game cash, but players are urged to hang onto race winnings in order to buy more cars. The reason for this is two-fold; first players can’t compete in a certain race type if they don’t have the right car, and second, in later stages of the game, their first cars won’t cut it, no matter how jacked up they are.
In short, it’s hard to escape the feeling while playing Need For Speed: Payback, that there’s been a very conscious effort on the part of the developers aimed at funnelling players towards spending more of their money. Speed card cost roughly the same amount of in-game cash as players earn for winning two races. Players do earn loot boxes for free every time they level up, but the Premium loot boxes require real-world cash. Unless you’re prepared to pay up, prepare for a lot of grinding.
A lot of grinding.
Away from the single-player campaign, Need For Speed: Payback offers an online multiplayer in which players can take part in casual or ranked races. It’s perfectly serviceable but hardly groundbreaking stuff, feeling more like it was tacked on as an afterthought.
So Need For Speed: Payback is a bland racer split between an unremarkable multiplayer and campaign underpinned by a generic plot, in which players can choose between grinding for ages or paying more money for a game they’ve already paid full price for.
To be frank, it feels like a decidedly cynical package and to make matters more depressing, this game was produced by Ghost Games. EA’s studio in Gothenburg produced the perfectly decent Need For Speed: Rivals back in 2013, but to makes things more glum, a lot of Ghost’s personnel used to work at Criterion Games. That studio birthed not only the superb Need For Speed: Most Want and the gorgeous Burnout: Paradise, it was responsible for Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, the most recent pinnacle of this series.
In short, the people behind Need For Speed: Payback can, and have, produced better.
Need For Speed: Payback – Verdict
Instead, they’ve produced a game that feels at best banal and at worst money-grubbing. Need For Speed: Payback’s structure that forces players to grind or pay up would be cause for bad feeling alone, but damning it even further, if its microtransactions were stripped out, this game would still warrant criticism. Between its unexciting racing, lousy plot and uncompelling multiplayer, Need For Speed: Payback is arguably one of the worst entries in this franchise.