Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

Need For Speed has been around since 1994, when the first one was released on the all but forgotten 3DO. Since then it has been through countless iterations, culminating in the newest entry, Need for Speed Payback.

In some regards it has come a long way as a franchise, and though I applaud taking risks with new entries, the way Need For Speed Payback implements certain mechanics prevent it from keeping up with well-regarded previous entries in the franchise

A Race Against Time

Need For Speed Payback is of course a racing game, and at that, it for the most part succeeds. When you’re allowed to open up the throttle on the desert freeways, or drift around mountain roads, it’s simplistic fun.

The gameplay essentially consists of driving short races around quarantined areas of the fictional state of Fortune Valley, either attempting to come in first, or escaping from nefarious thugs or police. These pursuit missions are simply timed events disguised with some surprisingly convincing police chatter, and the races in between are about as straightforward as can be.

It’s arcadey, and unashamedly so. You’ll be drifting around corners with ease, using copious amounts of nitro, and generally flying across the asphalt, the dirt, and through the air with reckless abandon. This ain’t Gran Turismo, but that’s ok. The driving is relatively simplistic, but the different environments and handling of the vehicles keep things fairly fresh until the end of the story.

There are plenty of diversions to engage in across the state, from speed challenges to off road races. Though eventually these actions do become repetitive, this is pretty much par for the course for this style of open world racing game. There’s a lot to do here as far as side missions go, and a map covered in points of interest, so if earning currency and checking off boxes sounds fun to you, you might find a lot to like.

The World is Looking Good, if Empty

One of the game strengths is the design of the massive open world itself. The fictional state of Fortune Valley, and the city of Silver Rock (think Las Vegas) are fun to explore, and the transition through varied environments feels natural. The excellent draw distance helps to draw attention some lovely vistas, and the cars themselves are rendered in the loving detail you’d expect from a modern racing game.

Photo mode is a lot of fun with this one.

In between missions you’ll be driving around the open world, pulling up to checkpoints to activate races and the like, and the world seems a little sparse. It’s an open world sure, but a remarkably empty one. It never really feels like you’re exploring, more like you’re driving around a tech demo from race to race. A very nice tech demo to be fair; I especially appreciate the day to night cycles.

Part of why it feels so eerily empty (especially in urban areas) is the utter lack of pedestrians. I get it, these are licensed cars and Audi is probably not too keen of seeing their A7 running over people, but the lack of a populace is distracting and dramatically reduces immersion.

Though there is a lot of surface area to explore, there are strange and seemingly arbitrary areas that are off limits, and will simply respawn you if you try and go “too” off road. Those limitations seem a bit strange in a game that has off-roading as one of the key driving styles. It essentially means it’s an “open road,” not open world game, as you can only go where the game deems acceptable. If you deviate from this the screen will simply go black and you’ll reappear on the road. It’s frustrating and limiting in a way that contradicts the joys of open world exploration.

Silver Rock isn’t the most exciting urban locale I’ve encountered in an open world game, and the desert setting imbues a certain drab brown palette, but overall the world itself is detailed and nicely rendered.

The character models are nicely detailed too, which is good, because you’re going to be seeing A LOT of them due to the copious cutscenes.

Sort of story

Need For Speed Payback tells the tale of three protagonists: Tyler Morgan (The Racer), Mac (The Showman), and Jess (The Wheelman) as they struggle to bring down a cartel like syndicate called “The House.” It’s a narrative riddled with over the top heists, bombastic chase scenes, and characters and dialogue that’s trying very hard to be relevant in a post-Fast and Furious world.

While it may seem nitpicky to judge a story from a racing game so harshly, the game puts the narrative front and center, and makes it the primary thrust of the game. There are long, detailed cutscenes that beg to be taken seriously, while simultaneously putting forward some of the most cliched and cringe-worthy pandering I’ve seen in a long time in a AAA title.

Not every racing game needs a sophisticated narrative of course, but considering the heavy emphasis on story here, it’s a shame it’s so irredeemably obnoxious. At least Fast and Furious has the decency to only be two hours long, and though it occasionally delves into somewhat serious territory, it is quite aware of what it is.

Need For Speed Payback on the other hand, can’t decide if it wants to be a jokey adventure or a serious treatise on revenge and finding your place in the world, and this lack of cohesion cripples any potential interest in the stereotypical characters.

There’s no reason a driving game can’t have a good story, but this is not it, and the focus on narrative over gameplay is very much a detriment.

Nowhere was this misguided prioritization more pronounced than during story missions.

Need More Speed Please

My principal concern when playing this game at EA’s pre-E3 showcase was the constant interruption of the driving missions by cutscenes. Sadly, that hasn’t been addressed, and is probably the biggest flaw in the overall design of the gameplay.

As I stated in the linked article, disrupting a driving mission by cutting to a cinematic that shows people doing awesome things in cars is fundamentally misguided. Not only does it completely disrupt the joy of speed (which is why we play a game called Need for Speed!) but it negates player involvement in order to show off cutscenes, only to drop you back into driving. It’s jolting and disruptive, and I can’t imagine a worse idea for a racing game short of making sure all the cars had no tires.

I want to drive in a driving game, not watch other people drive.

Monetizing Customization

The final, and perhaps most egregious mistake that Need For Speed: Payback commits is the car upgrade system. While changing your car to reflect exactly how you want it to look is one of the most enjoyable parts of a racing game, it’s implemented terribly here.

I never thought I’d have to grind in a racing game, but Need For Speed: Payback seems intent on forcing repetitive and bland upgrade system onto the player.

You upgrade your cars through a card system. Every vehicle in your garage has six different sections that can be upgraded in order to increase the vehicle’s level. You can’t hope to win certain missions until your car is of the recommended level, which means you’re forced to grind for parts. Think Destiny, but instead of headshots in alien environments, you’re replaying races in order to unlock the next story mission.

There’s a bit more complexity involved, but essentially your progress is held hostage if you don’t have the right upgrade cards. This would be irritating enough, but the inclusion of microtransactions (which are optional) to bypass this dull grind seems particularly exploitative.

There are a great many licensed cars to be fair, if you have the patience (or money) to unlock them, and modifying every facet of them is very entertaining, especially if you’re a gearhead. It’s another example of hard work being scuttled by a draconian design that locks content from people who already paid full price for a game unless they’re willing to grind races or pay money.

A Missed Opportunity

What’s especially unfortunate is that Need For Speed: Payback does a lot right, and clearly a great deal of work went into it. 

When you’re drifting around a corner in the dusty desert, the sun reflecting off your newly painted hood, when you hit the nitro and launch past a particularly tough opponent, this game works. The lovely (if unpopulated) open world is there waiting to be explored, the arcade driving is compelling, the copious amount of well designed cars are begging to be tinkered with...but it’s hamstrung by some remarkably poor design choices.

The primary culprit is the terrible card upgrade system, that punishes the player for wanting to play more unless they pay up in either time or cash. This isn’t helped by a hackneyed story that fails to deliver, and gameplay interrupting cutscenes during story missions.

I’m hoping that Ghost Games rethinks its focus on narrative, and instead shifts back to what Need for Speed should be about...a need for speed.

Keep the cars, keep the customization, keep the detail...but rethink the microtransactions.