It’s always hard to know where to draw the line. Need for Speed has been burning rubber since 1994, with nearly two dozen games which include offshoots into the handheld world and even a movie. Need for Speed Payback marks the 23rd in that line, and the third from developer Ghost Games. After receiving some fairly critical feedback on their reboot of the series in 2015, the team decided to go back to basics and try to drive in the things that make us come back to the series year after year, and then blend in new elements to take it to the next level.
From the second you hit the street, it’s very clear that EA and Ghost are looking to capitalize on the most recent action-focused installments of movies like The Fast and the Furious (remember when that franchise was about racing?), aiming for a bombastic and story-driven blockbuster action racer filled with cops and intrigue around every corner. To some extent, they’ve succeeded, but not without a few speed bumps.
Need for Speed Payback tells the story of Tyler Morgan, Mac McAllister, and Jessica Miller (as well as a few supporting cast members) as they try to pull off the heist of a lifetime – stealing a one-of-a-kind Koenigsegg Agera supercar worth entirely too much money. Bouncing between the three lead characters, we pull off the heist only to have it all go sideways. As the prototype supercar rolls off into the sunset, so do our criminal mastermind aspirations. Rolling forward six months, we find ourselves parking cars for an asshat criminal casino owner in Fortune City – a Vegas-analog where your future can change just as fast as a roll of the dice.
Naturally, the main thrust of the storyline is how Tyler, Mac, and Jessica plan to claw their way back to the top, whilst enacting some delicious revenge on the person who screwed them over. Shenanigans ensue and the player finds themselves battling literally all of the local street racer gangs to earn a spot in a super race worth millions. Nothing quite ever goes to plan, though, and that means cop chases, helicopter close shaves, and more than a few intense moments where Tyler’s crew find themselves taking on the local crime syndicate. If any of this sounds a little far fetched, then you are in the right ballpark to enjoy Need for Speed. The game is all arcade action, with a dash of simulation, and more than a little in common with the movie blockbusters of the last few summer movie seasons.
Need for Speed Payback features five different classes of races, and you’ll have to be good at all of them to succeed. This time around, racers will tackle challenges in the desert, forest, offroad, and everywhere in between. To take players beyond the asphalt, Ghost has introduced five car classes — runner, offroad, drift, race, and drag cars, each with 10 unique characteristics that affect their overall performance. Horsepower, top speed, 0-60, 1/4 mile, NO2 capacity and power, airtime, landing, and brake power and response all come together to create the “character” of your car. Leveling up your rep and upgrading in a way that meets the upcoming challenge builds an RPG-like core gameplay loop that makes racing feel like more than just beating the clock.
In practice, this tends to play out in the same way the main story does. You’ll be tasked with taking on the local crime boss that, for story purposes, are all street racers that enjoy one of the five racing archetypes. Convenient! Racing each one through a series of five or so challenges will net you a chance to face off (I say “face off”, but you never do actually see their faces) against the boss themselves in a head-to-head race for supremacy and respect. (see? Just like a movie — everyone gets along once they lose) This hems nicely into the five chapters of the main story, with each chapter punctuated by some blockbuster crazy heist.
Winning races, tackling illegal transporter duty, and completing story missions will give you a choice of three random Speed Cards. Speed Cards provide boosts across in six different areas — head, block, ECU, turbo, exhaust, and gearbox. Together, these allow you to push past stock performance, allowing you to hit higher speeds, drift, handle jumps, and beat those oh-so-scary rival gangs. The cards are set up with levels, bonuses, and when combined in a lot of three or six, provide additional boosts across a span of stats. If you don’t like the part, you can toss it back into the grinder for a part token. Once you have three, you can take a spin at the wheel for something better.
At any tune-up shop you can buy upgrades for any of the six slots I’ve mentioned above (provided they are in stock – available items rotate periodically), equip any cards you’ve received, or, in a slot machine-like presentation, gamble for something better. Using part tokens, you can lock one of three wheels. This means you can narrow your odds by locking in, say, an engine block card as a guaranteed return, but leave the brand and perk to chance. Similarly, you can lock brand or perk and leave the other elements to luck. These tie directly into the “Loot Box” system that Ghost refers to as “Premium Shipments”.
Reputation, Shipments, and Convenience
Racing earns you reputation. Your reputation score will eventually result in a bit of tribute called shipments. “Base Shipments” will give you a box with three cards in it – cash, a car part, and a visual customization. As you might suspect, “Premium Shipments” exist in Need for Speed Payback. I take a very critical eye to these as there is a fine line between pay-for-convenience and pay-to-win. The Premium Shipment provides five cards instead of three, which is a nice added bonus for shelling out actual cash, but I was happy to see that it’s not required.
Throughout the course of the game, I found myself forgetting to open my earned shipments, and at one point looked up and found that I had 58 accrued part tokens just waiting to be spun into something better. The parts that are available for cash are often more than enough to get you through whatever race you are facing, and you can use any part tokens to fill gaps in your build.
In my opinion, the shipment boxes in Payback are pay-for-convenience. I’m not a loot box apologist (as I didn’t appreciate them in Shadow of War, for instance), I just didn’t find them to be intrusive here. Instead, they fill the role of allowing busy players who don’t have the 20+ hours to devote to the storyline a mechanism to bypass what they might perceive as a grind. In my experience, any time when I felt the icy grip of grinding mechanics, I just went and did something else. There are five full “storylines” of car race types, an innumerable amount of collectables, speed traps and all manner of goodies to find. There’s also a whole derelict system whereby the game provides clues to find parts of cars that you can assemble into a classic vehicle and then slot it into one of the aforementioned car archetypes. There is more than enough interesting things to do in the world Ghost has built.
Car culture and customization
There’s a great deal of customization under the hood using the Speed Card system, but there’s an equal amount of visual adjustments to play with. Using a familiar layer system, Payback provides all of the geometric shapes needed to create works of art to place anywhere on your vehicle, as well as a massive collection of real-world and fictional decals.
Beyond how you paint or decal your vehicle, you can also throw in five special visual flair items to make it uniquely yours. Dozens of options present themselves in nitrous color, tire smoke, underglow, air suspension heights, and horn categories. If you want a hot pink McLaren with green nitrous smoke, billowing blue smoke from the tires, and sporting a neon orange underglow, well…the rest of the car culture community will hate you, but it’s your ride and your money. Just make sure you throw in the ice cream truck horn sound to seal this horrible deal.
The derelicts provide a good break from the racing, but they underscore some areas where Need for Speed’s open world concept develops a shimmy in its alignment. While trekking around in the dirt, I found plenty of invisible walls and impassable rocks where a path should exist. It’s immersion breaking, and occasionally frustrating. In one instance, there’s a piece on top of a cliff that, despite a reasonable amount of trips around the bluff, I was simply unable to figure out how to retrieve. I’ll wait for YouTube to show me what I’m missing, but after bouncing into the air on more than a few invisible walls, I just lost interest in restoring that classic Mustang.
It’s not often that a specific area in a game is irredeemable, but despite my earnest attempts, I couldn’t find a single song in the soundtrack that I could tolerate. I turned the mixture of licensed and (I’m assuming) Ghost-made music off at about ten hours into the game. That couldn’t fix the voice work.
The storyline in Need for Speed is fairly cliche’, and that’s ok — I didn’t expect it to be Shakespeare. I also didn’t expect to have a clear dislike of the protagonists by the end. The voice acting for all three of the racers makes them fairly dislikable, and it’s as pervasive as it could possibly be. With zero wins under his belt, and not even a pillow to rest his head on, Tyler insists on bragging like he’s the best racer on the planet. Mac, despite not even owning a car at the beginning of the game, has similar insistence. Jess sounds like she’s forcing every line, breathlessly shoving each one insistently at the player until my wife and I were actively making fun of her delivery. Still, all three continue to deliver the same lines repeatedly, whether it be on unskippable sections on race retries, or just randomly as you zip around the city. It’s as insipid as it is insistent.
It sounds like I’m being fairly rough on Need for Speed, and in some areas, I probably am. That said, it does deliver on what had to be one of the singular pillars for the game — excellent racing. The controls that were loose in 2015 are now tight and responsive. Cars that felt floaty before now hug the ground, gliding only when you break the tires loose to drift. Offroad racing, something new Ghost has brought to the table, feels fantastic and fresh, but Drag racing was a real surprise.
There have been some one-off games that scratch the Drag racing itch, but there’s not enough substance to really justify a full product devoted to it. That said, it feels right at home with the car culture-focused racing world that Ghost has created. The races are all pretty much in a straight line, but manual shifting at just the right time, and tuning a vehicle to handle these balls-to-the-wall racing moments, are a surprising highlight.
One of the favorite games in the Need for Speed series is Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. The car racing was a blast, and dealing with the police during crazy escape moments made for some memories. Sure, the police were completely insane and willing to murder everyone around you to take you out, but watching their cars explode as you knocked them out of commission was fun. The races here are tied to checkpoints, meaning you spend less time trying to wreck the cops as you do running from them.
I do wish the damage modeling in Need for Speed was more consistent. Sometimes your car will take damage, and sometimes it won’t. It means that sometimes you’ll ram into a pylon at high speed with a crunching sound only to zip away without a scratch, and other times your car looks like it’s cracked nearly in half. It’s all cosmetic, sure, but it breaks immersion a bit when it seems almost random.
Need for Speed Payback
With some excellent improvements to car control, customization, and cinematic moments, Need for Speed Payback delivers on the promise of a better racing game. That said, it occasionally has a few engine knocks with chunky dialogue and invisible walls barring your path in the vast open world they’ve created. It’s a good step for the series, and it should provide a good foundation for Ghost’s next time behind the wheel.