Need For Speed Payback Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
It’s just really sad. In 2008 we had the wonderful open world of Paradise City, in Burnout Paradise, a gigantic and varied area with anything and everything to do for hours and hours. Criterion, the developers, had reached their peak and innovated in 360 degrees the twitch-racing genre. They had been owned by EA since 2004 and now they were asked to manage the Need For Speed franchise. This populist series began life on Panasonic’s 3DO and over the years has had multiple iterations trying different things, but always pivoting on the fact the driving is illicit in some way. Criterion gave us two titles - perhaps the best in the series - before being downsized to create Ghost Games, the incumbent developer, and seeing its leaders leaving to start their own, new, development house. With Need For Speed: Payback we have a racer designed to fit in the lowest common denominator of games. It’s bland and broad twitch racing without the speed or the twitch and it’s around three ‘cool kids’ who make you sigh each time one of them speaks. You get to play the game within the confines of a narrative trying to ape The Fast & The Furious, written by monkeys and a typewriter, and yet, despite all of this, if you give it time you’ll not want to stop.
Here the fundamental racing game functions very well. By this I mean the world is large and the whole thing is sleek and not in any way broken. But it just feels so boring to start with. The narrative is basic at best and often tedious. For the first couple of hours you only get to play parts of missions as and when the game feels it appropriate - the rest of the time it’s taking over (normally at the cool bits) because things must happen in the one way they need to for the story to move on. Fine, then let me do it and if I fail I restart. I really don’t want to be taken away from the controls when I’m about to get to do that big jump, for example.
This story, this narrative, which EA and Ghost Games are so big on is focused on three young kids. Tyler, the best driver in town; Mac, the best drifter in the city; and Jess your wingman, as it were. Together they form the best crew and they have a plan. The plot dictates something goes wrong and then the story proper starts. You then complete a variety of missions on your way to achieving your ultimate aim. In and around these missions you get many in-game engine cutscenes which look like they’re from the last generation. The missions themselves are split into various categories: race, offroad, drag, drift and runner. In addition to the questline missions (yes, they are called that) you have billboards to smash, speed traps to spring, jumps to make and derelicts to find. The last task is a treasure hunt effectively where, given clues, you locate a chassis and car parts from a dead-and-buried piece of hardware which you and your team can put back together and get roaring over and above any other vehicles. All of this extra stuff to do sounds like lots, but in reality there’s often vast expanses of the very samey game world where there’s nothing to do. That which is there to do is all old, as well. It’s from the aforementioned Burnout, or a previous NFS. Even then it’s done in such a way that it seems to have regressed, not even remained still. Take Autolog, for instance, which is basically an in-game social media where you can compete against friends across any event as long as you’re connected online. You don’t have to initiate or manage anything yourself regarding Autolog - it all happens automatically, as the name might suggest. So, for instance, it will find a ‘rival’ and let you know after a race if you have beaten their time or not. In previous titles it was front and centre of the game and gave you something extra to drive towards progression. Here it’s noted after a mission only - not the other world events - and when it is mentioned it’s typically some global random you’ve been matched against. There’s just no point. I don’t care that I beat a random person’s time after the fact. It’s not even as if I knew I was going for it. What’s the point?
Progression is borked in this game, too. For everything you do you gain Rep. For completing missions, and for winning any side-bet you placed, you get cash as well. Rep is basically experience points. Cash can be used to buy new cars, speed cards or garages. It can also be used to allow fast travel between two previously found locations. In-game cash is needed to fast travel! Amazing. And not at all implemented to nudge the player towards a microtransaction at all. More on that in a moment.
That’s not the only way the game pushes you towards paying hard earned cash for some base shipments full of in-game currency, part tokens, vanity items and more. For each of the five mission types you need a particular class of car. As you complete each mission the overall car rating recommended for the next challenge increases. So, to complete the game you need a minimum of five cars, each upgraded to enable you to complete the narrative. If you have a car somewhere around the recommended rating then things are more than manageable but too far away and it’s nigh-on impossible. So upgrading is a must. You do this by application of a speed card, a consumable which changes the output of a given component - turbo, exhaust, head and so on - as well as providing perks and a bonus if you have three or more from one manufacturer.
So far, so Need For Speed. Now for the doozie. Each speed card once applied to a vehicle is done with. You get more cards for completing more missions (or redoing them) and better cards when you complete one with a better vehicle. In practice it means by the time you’ve upgraded your first car - a Mk I VW Golf GTi in my case - you don’t want to buy another as yours is already rated higher. You will get forced to buy a new car for another race type but then the same applies. Ultimately you can pay for a new funky vehicle and to upgrade it but then you’re left grinding. So in a game which prides itself on enabling the player to have a garage full of their chosen cars upgraded accordingly, you’re effectively forced to play the game multiple times over to get there, or forego that entire part of the experience. Or pay real money to do it, obviously.
There are other examples of silly things stopping you enjoying the game and making you think of rampant commercialism over gameplay. For instance in the first set of drag missions you get a drag car, win some stuff and then perhaps upgrade it, focusing on what’s important for those who live their lives a quarter mile at a time - and then you’re asked to take part in a race. A race in your drag car, not your already super-upgraded race car. It’s likely the only way to win this is to spend more speed cards on upgrading your drag car. Being forced to do things because it really is the only way to win - and doing it more quickly if you just spend more real money - is not in any way fun.
This latest Need For Speed is a black sheep compared to recent examples and will always come second best to its greatest competitors. But it’s still a big world with fast cars and lots of races to complete. There is a drive to progress if it catches you right - or you spend the time to really get involved with it. To help make this happen you need to get over the fact that it’s not what it could have been and that it has been designed purely to extract as much money from people bored of the grind. Don’t play it that way though; just pick a car and stick with it. Get good. Win a race and move on. Grinding isn’t needed then, nor is any paying to win. Sure, you shouldn’t have to. and in all honesty picking up a Criterion Need For Speed, Burnout or DriveClub would be a far better choice, but if you’ve played those all to death and you absolutely need this particular speed, play it your way and embrace what it is the way you want it to be.