Need for Speed: Payback review

Welcome to the NAG review of Need for Speed: Payback! Just by reading this brief introduction you have earned a thousand Review Coins, and you’re on your way to unlocking the rest of this review! You could read this paragraph a few more times, and as soon as you’ve reached the 50 000 Review Coins mark you will be able to enjoy the second paragraph. Well, the first bit of it, at least. But hey, if you’re in a hurry, why not buy a NAG Bag™ ? A NAG Bag™ contains three EA Game Pig Heads, and one Mystery Multiplier Voucher. You can use some of these to speed up your progress. But to keep things interesting, we’ve made the various currencies vague and loosely connected. Oh, yes, everyone… it’s Need for Speed: Payback, and you’re definitely playing an EA game.

Game info
Genre: Racing
Platform/s: Xbox One, PS4, Windows PC
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: EA
Distributor: EA

Right, so you’ve made it to the second paragraph. Well done. I’ll lose the overly meta metaphor now and get down to business. I understand that whining about loot crates and paywalls and microtransactions is so du jour but I assure you I’m not just trying to be on point by bringing it up. It’s an important enough part of Need for Speed: Payback that it needs to be addressed up front.

I don’t really even mind loot crates in some instances – I’m a complete sucker for FIFA Ultimate Team card packs, and opening a fresh gold one excites me no end – but it feels really out of place here. By converting the car modifying process into a hit-or-miss blind pack system, the whole idea of slowly crafting your dream machine to suit your needs decays into a mess of luck and microtransactions. Upgrade parts are hidden in Shipments, and these need to be earned (so prepare for the grind) or bought with real money. It’s not impossibly hard to grind your way to glory, but even then you’re often just hoping for the best and not creating a bespoke racing monster. I loved the modding aspect of old NFS titles, and I miss the olden days very much right now.

There are so many currencies and levels and things to earn, you’re best off with an economics degree to work it all out. Cars have their own level, you’ve got race points to collect, then there’s Bank (imaginary money) and Speed Points (bought with real money), and, some other currency that I haven’t bothered to decipher. They seem hard to earn, though, as I’ve only got 18 of them, whatever they are. Your Speed Card collection, perhaps.

I’ve gone on about all of that long enough now. There’s a game here too, and it’s actually quite entertaining. I recently bought the last Need For Speed reboot, called (imaginatively) Need for Speed, as it was on sale and I’m cheap like that. While I fancied the wet, murky night-time setting, the cars handled like ox wagons and none of it was much fun. NFS: Payback, on the other hand, feels great to play once you’ve spent some time the various wheels of the various race disciplines. Ha! Disciplines! There’s no discipline around here, let’s be serious. It’s a hoonigan’s wet dream.

The storyline funnels you along from race to race and cutscene to cutscene, flipping you between the three main characters and the event types they are locked into, but between races there’s fair time to just drive like a jerk with no regard for rules or human life. So, like your average BMW driver then, amirite? The surprise here, though, is that driving around the open world without an objective is actually enjoyable. I found it dull it at first, but once you’ve opened the game up properly there’s something cathartic about screaming around the desert at dusk. And oh, yes, day/night cycles. I quite liked that.

Let’s just be clear, though: the handling model is fun. It’s not accurate. Not by any means. It’s the exact scientific opposite of Project Cars 2, but it works for a Fast & Furious simulator like this. Chucking your beefy Skyline into a corner at deathly speeds and whipping it into opposite lock, kicking that tail out and then smacking that Nitro button as you roar out onto the straight again, it’s pure filth and it’s glorious.

Also quite pleasant is that feeling that, most of the time, when you lose, it’s your lack of focus and talent to blame, not bad game design. Lose, try again, try harder, and eventually win. But other times, oh, other times there is a darkness across the land, the shadow of a paywall looming overhead – you know you aren’t going to win unless you pour some cash into your car. Or grind yourself into a coma. But until you hit those later stages, it’s rather easy going, and you get that good old NFS: Most Wanted feeling.

Cop chases are a thing, but they’re a wasted opportunity because they feel so scripted. Offroad racing, too, is a thing, and it’s sometimes dismal, sometimes bloody brilliant – charging down sweeping canyon curves, you feel like you’re barely hanging onto the edge glory, and it’s riveting stuff. Other times it just feels like you’re snaking left and right for twenty minutes trying not to drive into a cactus. Same goes for the drifting – get it right, and it’s a blast. Except when it’s not.

The pacing of the single player feels a bit off at first, as you have to slog through what feels like the world’s longest intro before you’re into the thick of it. It gets better once you’ve opened up the various mission types and race styles. But no amount of raceway happiness could make up for the dialogue which pisses down on the narrative like acid drops of seething garbage rain. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s like the writers slept outside of the caravan of the people who write Fast & Furious movies, rummaging through their trash every morning for the scraps that were deemed too cringeworthy to use. Too cringeworthy for a Fast & Furious movie. It’s enough, and I’m not being hyperbolic here, to make you want to quit the game, permanently.

Need For Speed narratives have never had Oscar potential, to be clear, but this is a whole different level of terrible.

So, it’s stupid as hell. But it’s quite pretty. And that, as we all know, is often all you need. Is it pretty enough? Not really. Car models are good, but about five beers shy of Forza good. The same goes for the game world, which has some stunning desert settings but is let down by a sub-GTA V city area. And I don’t know why, but it really threw me off to see Coca-Cola and LG billboards along the highway.

The muliplayer component, by the way, hits you like a gangbang your first time out. After the scripted, neutered, heavily rubber-banded singleplayer, being manhandled by strangers at high speed is a huge departure. It gets better though, once you’ve spent the time or money to improve your cars. It’s also here that you’ll earn a lot of the bits and pieces you need to unlock things to pay for things and use that one type of thing to open up other things, and other such vague progression stuff.

It’s funny, we all saw Need for Speed: Payback being announced and some of us got quite excited. But as the promo stuff started pouring out, let’s be honest – we all started having premonitions of big, boring 75% scores across the board. It’s just that kind of game. I honestly don’t think this franchise will ever reclaim the glory days of Hot Pursuit, or even Most Wanted, so it’s resigned itself to the realms of the slightly above average.

They’ve taken a good racing game and crowbarred the worst possible narrative experience into its engine bay, and then made you pay real money, over and above the already monstrous purchase prices we pay these days, if you want to avoid hours of repetition and grind. I’ve already hinted at the score I’m going to give, haven’t I? So here it is.

75A cheesy, predictable fast and furious racing experience with more exploding barrel rolls than you can shake a stick at, let down by one of the worst scripts in gaming history and a very EA microtransaction system.