Need for Speed is an iconic franchise and has given gamers countless hours of fun over the years since its initial release in 1994. I personally remember playing the likes of Need for Speed: Underground 2 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted during the couch co-op glory days for hours on end. But as the console generations moved from linear and couch co-op focused experiences to those of open-world and online co-op design, you have to wonder whether Need for Speed got left behind and never fully made the transition. 2015’s reboot from Swedish developer, Ghost Games, was the series’ first release developed specifically for the current generation of consoles, which sadly was a mixed bag with its impressive visuals and arcade driving mechanics but bland story and frustrating gameplay elements. Payback is the latest iteration in the franchise and the truest indicator that the IP has gone stale.
Do you have the need for speed?
Payback is set in the fictional city of Fortune Valley, a metropolis that is inspired by Las Vegas. The city plays home to Payback’s three main characters, Tyler, Mac and Jess who are backstabbed by a colleague during a mission. The ragtag trio devise a plan to seek revenge and take down the cartel known as The House, a depraved group who has gained control over the city’s casinos, criminals and police force.
In a positive change, Ghost Games has dropped the cheesy FMV cutscenes for traditional CGI cutscenes, and while the delivery may be less tacky, the story is predictable and the writing is still as cringeworthy as ever. The story feels like a script that didn’t make it past the pitch phase during the brainstorming session for Fast and the Furious 8 (or whatever number they’re up to). It also doesn’t help that the characters lack depth and have the personalities of your typical street racer.
Each of the three characters specialises in different types of races. Tyler is known for his street and drag racing abilities, Mac is the clan’s drift and offroad connoisseur and Jess is the resident escape artist with a penchant for transportation and delivery jobs. These race types make up the game’s campaign, with the story switching between characters as players undertake the different race types spread out across the city, with each race requiring a certain level of vehicle. Cars for each race type can be acquired from the corresponding dealer using in-game currency earned from races and that same currency can be used to upgrade or customise your vehicle. Parts are also acquired at the completion of each race in the form of Speed Cards, with you picking one of three cards and then being awarded a part. You then have the option to equip, sell or trade that part depending on your car’s current setup. Cars can also be upgraded at the Tune-Up Shop with parts on offer changing frequently. Ghost Games have kept the comprehensive vehicle aesthetic customiser which gives players plenty of options to craft their car’s visuals to their liking.
Big Mac going taking the dirt road
As you get accustomed to your ride, drifting around corners for bulk points becomes a thing of beauty, and weaving in and out of traffic at high-speed while avoiding the Five-O is exhilarating – that is until you inevitably fender kiss an oncoming vehicle or building
As you would expect there are a number of well-known cars at your disposal – should you have the cash to buy them from the dealer that is. Herein lies one of the game’s faults – the way in which new vehicles are acquired. New vehicles are unlocked after completion of a questline (usually five races), however they still must be purchased. The problem is that finding enough cash to spread between all of your vehicles upgrades and purchasing new vehicles can prove to be a challenge. So much so that it’s almost easier to persist with your original car and upgrade that for as long as possible. You can, of course, pay real money to bypass the grind (something which I refuse to do), and as with all microtransaction implementations of this ilk it cheapens the experience considerably and has drawn considerable ire from the community.
The handling of the cars is much like you’d expect from an arcade racer. Early doors the cars can feel a little resistive but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of your wheels, and the more upgrades you apply or the superior the car you purchase the better the handling of your vehicle. As you get accustomed to your ride, drifting around corners for bulk points becomes a thing of beauty, and weaving in and out of traffic at high-speed while avoiding the Five-O is exhilarating – that is until you inevitably fender kiss an oncoming vehicle or building. The only driving type I struggled to adapt to was in the offroad races, where I felt like I sliding around everywhere and couldn’t get good traction. Occasionally you’ll have to take out some of your pursuers and this is done by ramming them several times before a slow-motion scene is triggered. These scripted action sequences do a decent job of breaking up the grind of your standard race missions.
It’s no Porsche Challenge
For those looking for a challenge, the AI offers a fair amount of competition on most of the tracks. As I mentioned earlier, the events have a vehicle level requirement and if you’re under that requirement there’s a good chance you’re going to get smoked. Even if you’re car is slightly above the required level there’s no guarantee that you’ll take the chocolates on your first rodeo, in fact there were several times where I entered a race confident I’d wipe the floor with the other drivers only to crash and fail to recover in time or end up in back of a paddy wagon after being busted. Given that the AI rarely slips-up, your biggest obstacle is often the general population of Fortune Valley who are out on their leisurely drive when you’re driving at high speeds. The one AI downfall is during the police chases where the AI simply gives up when you get close to the destination, rather than you being forced to shake your pursuer before being able to finish the mission.
Thanks to some impressive visuals, Fortune Valley looks like an ideal place to spend a weekend away with the lads or to film the next entry in The Hangover series thanks to its striking metropolitan scenery of casinos and high-rise architecture, but otherwise it feels quite lifeless. If you’re the kind of person that prefers a weekend getaway testing the 4WD there’s plenty of desert topography for you to get your fix. The world is also laden with billboards, skill tests (speed runs, drift runs etc.), fast travel points and derelict parts which can be found and used to restore vehicles. These extras have been ripped straight from The Crew and do provide a modicum of enjoyment separate from the game’s main campaign.
Despite the improvements from its predecessor, Need for Speed Payback is a case of one step forward and two steps back. Ditching the compulsory online connection and the FMV cutscenes gets a tick, but the story and writing commit the same generic crimes as before. Couple that with an upgrade system that makes spending real money an attractive option and an AI system that seems a little unbalanced and you’ve got another lacklustre Need for Speed experience.
Reviewed on Xbox One X