It wasn’t that long ago that the marketplace was seemingly flooded with street-style racing games. Fans had their choice between stalwarts such as Midnight Club or oddities like Blur and Juiced. However, as we head into 2018, only the OG of the genre, Need for Speed, remains. Having delivered everything from fast-paced police chases to questionable on-foot segments, the series has continued to vary things up, even after almost 25 year on the road. Fresh off a necessary two-year break, Need for Speed: Payback is looking to one of the biggest franchises in all of cinema for inspiration.
Story has never been a strong suit for Need for Speed, but that didn’t stop Ghost Games from emphasizing it with Payback. Following a heist gone wrong, a trio of street-wise racers are looking to not only get revenge on the person that betrayed them, but also to take down the powerful organization she works for, The House. To do so, race fiend Tyler, mercenary Jess and flashy Mac, must win over the various Street Leagues that litter Fortune Valley. Together, these adrenaline junkie drivers can wrest control of the city from the high-money cartel that is dead set on ruling it.
With its focus on over-the-top stunts and sleek rides, it’s hard not to see the Fast & Furious inspiration in Payback. However, while Vin Diesel’s turbo-charged franchise manages to make ridiculous storytelling work, this quite can’t deliver in the same regard. For starters, it lacks the self-awareness necessary to make its revenge-driven storyline work. I knew things were going off-course when the arrival of the hacktivist drifters known as Shift Lock was played completely straight. Secondly, the characters just aren’t compelling, and their dialogue is atrocious. The banter between them sounds forced, and their jokes almost always land with a thud. Good on Ghost Games for at least trying to do something here, but this doesn’t work the way it needs to.
The storyline worms its way into pretty much all of the missions found in Need for Speed. Most of the missions you undertake are to prove yourself to the assorted Street Leagues in the city. Each member of the team focuses on different disciplines, so you’ll be frequently switching between them. For example, Tyler is an ace-street racer, so he’ll deal with The Silver Six, while Mac’s drifting skills put him in contact with Noise Bomb. These missions are perfectly fine, but are pretty direct with what they are. More interesting are Jess’ missions, which put her more illicit driving skills to the test. Even if her personality is grating, these segments are flashy, entertaining showcases for the game.
Outside of these missions, there are also big storyline advancing challenges that typically bring all three drivers together for a single set-piece. I wanted to like these intense missions, and there are parts of them that really work well. However, Ghost Games does a curious thing during them that instantly takes you out of the action. During certain big moments, they’ll take control away from you and switch to a cutscene. I guess they might give the game a little more of a cinematic flair, but there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be behind the wheel for every second of the mission.
This questionable decision bothers me not only because it seems incredibly lazy, but also because I genuinely enjoy playing the game, and this takes time away from that. With the glut of sims out there, it felt nice to step behind the wheel of an arcade-style racer again. The controls took some time to adjust to, but after I got my timing down, everything felt natural once again. The ability to tune your car on the fly was also a nice addition, and I think it is a great way for beginners to find the ride that fits their driving ability.
There are five different vehicle classes to choose from: race, off-road, runner, drift and drag. Race and off-road have you competing against different drivers on either the streets of Fortune Valley or its more rural areas. Runner has you performing some form of illegal activity, while drift and drag are pretty self-explanatory. Once I was able to get the controls down, I was really able to enjoy taking on the different Street Leagues. The races are fast-paced and fun, and even the drift challenges, which are events I typically hate in racers, are pretty well designed.
And then, the relentless grind began to takeover. Good god, the amount of grinding in Payback is ridiculous. So, every race and driving event in the game has a suggested car level rating which is almost necessary to follow. You could enter at a lower level, but you’ll likely get smoked by the other drivers. In order to raise the level of your ride, you’ll need to get Speed Cards. Coming in six different categories, these cards can be acquired through three different means: successfully winning a race, purchasing them through the auto shop or cashing in old cards for use in a card dealing slot machine. A card upgrade system is already annoying enough, but it’s how Ghost Games dishes out the cards that is a real problem.
Rather than let you pick and choose Speed Cards as needed, everything is randomly generated in some way. At the end of a race, you can pick from one of three cards, but you can’t actually see what card you are picking. You can see what’s available at the store, but the stock is always changing, and what’s there at the time may not be good enough. It’s a system that is designed to make you continually grind away at old races so that you can potentially luck into a card you need. Or in the case of the store, grind coins so that when you drive to the shop, you can maybe have the option of buying something good. At least with the slot machine, you can roll for a specific part, brand or perk. It’s still randomized, but you can somewhat tailor it to what you need. Why can’t I just purchase the cards I need when I get the money required? Why do I have to wait around and hope that something I need is put back into stock? It’s a completely terrible system that has no respect for the player’s time.
The card system also negatively effects what type of car you want to use. You are gifted cars in each of the different classes when you they become open to you. However, any other car must either be purchased, or reassembled by finding parts hidden in Fortune Valley. Once you get a new car, though, you can’t just transfer over your previously acquired cards. No, no, you’ll have to grind through previously won races again just so you can work on getting your new car up to the same level as your old car. If you’re already re-doing races just to get the cash needed to purchase a new car anyway, why not just let Speed Cards transfer over? I can understand not being able to move cards between classes, but it would have been nice to be able to move cards from one off-road car to another.
Of course, the answer here is a problem that has plagued several releases this year: the push for microtransactions. While you may not be able to purchase packs of Speed Cards wholesale in Payback, you can purchase sets of Speed Points. These Speed Points can then be used to purchase Regular or Premium Drops which contain both cosmetic items (which still have to be purchased with in-game currency even after getting them via drop), as well as coins and slot tokens. It’s a roundabout way of getting players to drop more money in order to improve their cars, but one that still plays into the randomized nature of earning Speed Cards. It’s almost worse than regular microtransactions, despite not being as upfront with the idea. Drops can be earned by doing events in-game, but there’s clearly a push towards paying to speed up the upgrade process.
Another disappointing facet of Need for Speed: Payback is how lifeless Fortune Valley feels. The city, which is essentially Ghost Games’ take on Las Vegas, is almost barren. There are little to no pedestrians roaming the streets, and even the roads are only lightly sprinkled with other vehicles. Perhaps this was to make sure the roads weren’t going to be cluttered with obstacles, but it makes the city and surrounding areas feel sterile. And I wish it wasn’t such a drag to look at, because there’s enjoyment to be had in just driving the roads. There are challenges found all over the place, as well as billboards in need of smashing and cars in need of some assembly. There’s a good amount of content here, but the drab setting makes it kind of boring to deal with.
The already dull environments aren’t helped by the fact that Payback isn’t particularly good looking. Whether you are driving past casinos or rampaging through the desert, everything looks rather plain. There’s even some nasty pop-up that occurs sporadically during the game. Sometimes it’s a building appearing in the distance, other times a car will pop into sight mid-cutscene. Finally, there’s just something off-putting about the character models. They all look slightly off, and while I don’t know if it’s because of the uncanny valley or not, but they looked strange to me. With all that said, I do think the cars themselves generally look good. They all look accurate, and there are plenty of ways for you to customize the cars appearance to suit your personality. I just wish the rest of the game looked as nice.
I genuinely believe that there’s a good game buried within the guts of Need for Speed: Payback. The driving feels great once you adjust it to how you play, and the plot could have been entertaining in a mindless way. However, the good of the game is negated by the relentlessly frustrating upgrade system, tone-deaf plot and drab open-world. With this underwhelming release, I’m not entirely sure where the franchise can go from here. There are tweaks that can be made to make this style of racing relevant once again, but considering where the marketplace is headed, it’s hard to be certain if Ghost Games can make it work. Considering the proud and excellent history of the series, I hope they figure something out.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
There's a good game buried within the shiny shell of Need for Speed: Payback. But between its frustrating upgrade system and self-serious storyline, it's hard to get invested in the title.