A high-speed return to form — Need for Speed Payback preview

I’d understand if you weren’t keeping up with Need for Speed Payback. 2015’s Need for Speed reboot came out swinging (we liked it) but missed the mark on a few areas (65%). Need for Speed: Rivals was a solid redoubling of efforts and came in with a strong OpenCritic rating of 81% (we gave it an 85%). The last time we got behind the wheel was in 2013, so I was eager to see where Sweden-based developer Ghost Games was taking the series, how much fan feedback they’d absorbed, and whether this third title would re-ignite fan passion for the series.

It was immediately clear that Need for Speed Payback was built directly from the experience gleaned from the previous two titles. Fans (like me) had been requesting the return of a story-driven experience, instead of focusing so hard on multiplayer and open-world. They’d also requested something more akin to blockbuster movies like The Fast and the Furious-style racing where arcade racing can make you feel like a badass behind the wheel. Most of all, they wanted to build their cars and customize them cosmetically and under the hood.

The team delivered on all of those requests and much more.

Car-poetry in motion

Starting off our day with the game, the team turned us loose from the very beginning of the experience. No pre-built experience, and no PR trickery — just load and play. Running in beautiful 4K/30fps on PlayStation 4 Pro consoles, the first and most immediate thing I noticed was just how gorgeous the game looked. Cracked asphalt roads, dust and debris as my tired ripped through the desert landscape, and a stunning horizon with zero pop-in was brought to life with some of the best lighting and shadow work the series has ever seen. Motion blur when I kicked off my nitrous boost was often punctuated by a shower of sparks as my car rubbed paint with other racers. As impressive as the previous installments have been, Ghost Games has outdone themselves here.

While stunningly-rendered photorealistic cars isn’t new to the race game, Ghost Games has delivered an excellent stable of cars, hot rods, trucks, buggies, sedans, and more. From modern supercars to classic ratrod-style roadsters, each car also feels unique in the way they handle — something Payback’s contemporaries, often with larger stables of cars, can’t claim. What is new for this series is where you’ll take them.


Need for Speed has, until now, been a primarily asphalt-bound experience. Payback shakes things up, allowing players to race in the desert, forest, off road, and everywhere in between. To do this, 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.

Before we talk about the overhauled cosmetic system, let’s chat about Speed Cards. Winning races will give you a chance at flipping over one of three random Speed Cards. These cards are split by brand, performance level, perks, and the slot it fits in. The head, block, ECU, turbo, exhaust, and gearbox make up the guts of your car, coming together to push past stock performance. Putting three or more cards from the same manufacturer together will net an additional bonus. If you get a card you don’t need, you can either sell it for cash, send it to your warehouse for possible use on another vehicle, or trade it in for a part token. Once you’ve amassed three part tokens, you’ll have enough for a spin at the wheel.

At any tune-up shop you can buy any of the upgrades 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 the 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.

I stumbled on an unadvertised feature during my playtime that I really loved — live tuning. Live tuning allows me to, at any time or place in the game world, adjust the suspension, power steering, and grip balance of my vehicle on the fly. This means I can lock in a heavier rear grip balance for times when I need to hold tight to the road, and flip it to the front when I want to compensate for weight transfers in braking. While Payback says in its “arcade racer” lane, it’s not afraid to drift a little bit into the micro-adjustments that make gearheads happy. In the garage, I could further tune the camber of my wheels, the height of the vehicle, and much more.

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 took 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.

One of my primary complaints with racing games in general is that, if you aren’t first, you’re last. This leads to a lot of frustrated last-moment rage quit moments, making an awesome close-shave second place finish less fun. In Payback, you earn cash based on completing the race, meaning you are moving forward, even if you aren’t yet winning. Each race is categorized by horsepower, and while you can attempt it without hitting the prerequisite, you won’t always be successful. As you will earn something regardless of where you finish in the pack, you’ll not only have a little scratch to set aside for a much-needed upgrade, it’ll also give you a quick glimpse of what that something might be. In a race with big jump opportunities, perhaps it’s the mod to retain stability upon landing. In another race with long stretches, top end may be your friend. Either way, it feels less like losing, and more like incremental progress, even when I’m not collecting that top spot every time.

Visual toybox – customization and derelicts

Outside of the impressive level of customization and Speed Cards, there are an impressive amount of visual adjustments you can make to your vehicles. 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.

There are five classes of vehicles, each purpose built, but there’s another type in the game – derelicts. Zipping around the world and winding through the storyline, you’ll get clued in to the location of old broken down vehicle chassis. In our demo I had access to a Nissan Fairlady 240ZG and a Ford Mustang, though there are quite a few to discover. With the chassis back at my garage, all I had to do to bring it back to life was find a transmission, body panels, engine block, and the suspension and brakes subsystems. Once collected, I’d be able to resurrect these iconic vehicles and put them back on the road. These derelicts can be assembled in any one of the five archetypes, but first you need to collect them.

In a nod to platformers, with a dash of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Need for Speed Payback’s derelict piece locations are provided via a hand-scribbled map. Pinning it to your game map, you have to do a bit of treasure hunting to find the location. Once you’ve nailed it down, then the platforming elements come into play. The pieces are often hidden beyond a jump, tucked behind fencing, or otherwise off the beaten path. It rewards the player for exploration, and creates a great alternative to spending in-game cash for cars.

The return of the heist – story mode in an open world

Need for Speed has, in the past, had some pretty decent storylines. Most recently, however, the series has focused more exclusively on creating a compelling multiplayer-accessible open world. Need for Speed Payback brings back this much-requested story mode, forge welding it into their open world and multiplayer environment. I got to experience the first half dozen hours of this storyline, and so far I’m reminded of Need for Speed Most Wanted — high praise indeed.

Taking place in Fortune Valley, a Las Vegas analog, the story mode tells the tale of a heist crew who aimed high, got screwed, and has to claw their way back for a little bit of payback. Jumping into a street race for a local hustler named Marcus “The Gambler” Weir, he is intent on having us win the race for the prize money. Instead, Tyler Morgan, the gang’s leader intends to heist the loaned Koenigsegg Regera – a 1.9 million dollar car. Partnering up with Lina Navarro, a local fixer who will fence the car for us, we pull off a daring heist and escape the police. Using the rest of the crew to pull the heat off our theft, we pull up to the transportation truck only to see Navarro calling our position into the police. She’s betrayed us, taken the car, and screwed us. Chasing after her, we find ourselves beset by unmarked cars who corralled us into an alley for an impromptu forced meeting with Mr. Weir. Rather than rubbing salt into our wounds, he offers us a chance to work off the debt with the promise of a chance at revenge at some point in the future.

Fast forward and we find ourselves on the path to revenge as we work for Mr. Weir. More accurately, we are doing damned near nothing and valeting cars. It’s hardly the glamorous revenge plot we planned. Delivering an Aston Martin DB9 to Weir, we find that he’s now being threatened by Navarro as well, telling him to sell his casino or she’d “take it from them”. Another day in the books, we head back to our house in a rusted out Nissan Z. Already two months overdue for rent, we start taking street races for “The House” to start earning some side cash. Unfortunately, The House runs fixed races. Giving us a tricked out BMW M5 to “look the part”, we enter a street race run by none other than Navarro herself, and she’s expecting that we will lose on purpose. Well, you know what they say about expectations. Winning the race, we cost Lena and The House a lot of money.

The person who runs The House (a man called “The Collector”) intends to rig the Outlaw’s Rush – a massive rally that takes in millions of dollars. Weir wants us to win the Outlaw’s Rush instead to bring down The House, but that’s not our fight. Exhausted and caught in the middle, we make our way back to our house. Victory in our pocket, we head back home. As we walk towards the stoop, it explodes, leaving us homeless and pissed off. Sure, it wasn’t our fight before, but it certainly is now.

One of the new features in Payback’s story mode is a nod to games like Grand Theft Auto V. Periodically (and mid-race in the game’s most explosive moments) you’ll swap between the central characters. With a good idea of Tyler’s origin story, we jump over to Mac. Mac is now working with an annoying streaming personality named “Hashtiger”, teaching him how to drift his flashy new ride for clicks. Popping over to Jess, we see that she’s transportation for casino robbers. At least she’s still in the game. As our would-be robbers bleed over the nice upholstery of our black Audi S5, we’ll need some additional convincing to join this heist. As we drop our drippy passenger and escape from the police, the black and whites provide all of the motivation we’ll need. With our master mechanic, Rav on the crew giving us a few starter cars, it’s time to take it to the House, and we’ll get payback on Lena Navarro to boot. What could possibly go wrong? As the crew comes together once again to pull together their biggest heist yet, plenty.

The final stretch

The main storyline of Need for Speed Payback will take roughly 20 hours to complete, but there’s still an open world with full Autolog support just under the surface. At any point, players can challenge AI racers, tackle story missions, find hidden derelicts, nab collectiblesA , smash billboards, pick up poker chips for money, and all of that before we even hit on multiplayer. Speed Traps, Drift Trials, Speed Runs (maintain speed over a span), and a whole lot more activities dot the landscape. After playing for an entire day, I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what Need for Speed Payback has to offer. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait much longer to see what else is under the hood – Need for Speed Payback will hit EA Access and Origin Early Access on November 2nd for a 10 hour trial, November 7th for those who snap up the Deluxe Edition, and November 10th for a worldwide release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Stay tuned for our full review ahead of release. Hang on, it’s gonna be fast!

To Top