This is a long review so if you just want the gist, here is the TL;DR:
|Visually stunning||Car class segmentation goes too far|
|Arcade physics make driving tense and exciting||“Speed Card” upgrade system is a mess|
|Story is fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously||Visual upgrades (body kits, etc) are locked behind random tasks.|
If you don’t feel like reading or want to know what Need For Speed Payback looks like in 4K running on the new Xbox One X then check out our video review below:
Otherwise you can read the full review below!
I have to admit, when Need For Speed Payback was announced I had low expectations. Mostly because of the incredibly disappointing experience I had with the 2015 Need For Speed reboot. I had my hopes up for that game but it’s cringe-worthy live action sequences combined with the always-online requirement and inability to pause the game left a pretty bad impression.
Though I also have to admit that once I went hands on with Need For Speed Underground at the EA Play event, my hope for the franchise was re-kindled. While I didn’t get a lot of time with the game at the event, I saw enough to realize that the developers ditched all the bad things about the previous game while improving the good things. I was actually excited to play Need For Speed again and that was a feeling I hadn’t had since the original Need For Speed: Underground.
EA was kind enough to send me a copy of the full game a few days before its release and after playing for a while I have to say that while Need For Speed Payback is far better than the previous game, it gets in its own way and stops itself from reaching its full potential.
Like Underground, Payback is centered around a narrative. The developers had no issue with admitting that they borrowed a lot from films like the Fast And The Furious among other action flicks to build the story.
There are three protagonists: Tyler who fills the hot-shot street racing prodigy role, Jess who is a adrenalin junkie who is essentially a female version of the transporter, and Mac an off-road racing and drifting specialist who also serves as the comic-relief.
The story begins after the trio is betrayed by a former crew member who double crosses them after a deal they make with a crime syndicate known as “The House”. From there a revenge story unfolds that sees our heroes taking on several “Street Leagues” in order to get into a “race wars” style event where they will eventually take on “The House”.
It is at that point that all of the game play types begin to unfold. There are five car classes: Race, Drag, Drift, Off Road, and Runner. Each league is specific to a car class and each of the three protagonists are locked exclusively to certain classes. Tyler does all of the Race and Drag events, Mac does the drifting and off-road events, and Jess does all the runner missions which typically involve getting a person of interest or item from point A to point B while avoiding the cops.
This is where the issues started for me. Need For Speed Payback isn’t the first game to have separate car classes with class-specific events. However, Payback takes things a bit too far. Not only are there specific car classes but there are specific dealerships for each class and they’re spread out few and far between on the game’s open world map.
The odd thing is all dealerships actually sell the same cars but the car’s characteristics will differ depending on what dealership they’re bought from. For example: a Subaru WRX can be bought at a race dealer, drag dealer, off road dealer, or drift dealer. However, if you buy the WRX from a drag dealer, it’s going to suck at “race” events because its handling will be set up for going in a straight line. If you buy the same WRX at a Drift dealership it will suck at drag racing because drift cars don’t have large nitrous stores and do not accelerate fast enough.
While we’re on the topic; Need For Speed Payback doesn’t have a huge list of cars relative to other major racing games but it still has a very diverse and quality mix of cars to offer. I don’t think many people will be left wanting for much, with the exception of Toyota. However I won’t knock this game for that as Toyota has strangely chosen to pretty much pull out of racing games all together.
Also, tuner shops are separate from dealerships so you’ll have to go to one location to buy a car for a certain class then go to another location to buy upgrades for that car and tuner shops are not always close to dealers. You can fast travel to dealers and tuner shops but it costs money to do so. That causes upgrades to cost even more than they really should.
That leads me to the other major issue with this game: the upgrades. Need For Speed Payback does not have a great upgrade system. Instead of just picking the specific parts you want to tune your car the way you want, Payback turns upgrades into “cards” and you don’t necessarily have that much control over which upgrade cards you get.
The cards can be bought at tuning shops but each shop has a limited inventory and the store may not have the card you’re looking for. You also win cards at the end of each event but it’s a random draw. As you progress in the game the cards you end up with at the end of a race may be weaker than what you already have equipped. Luckily you can sell them if you don’t need or want the card you get. Lastly you can trade in cards for separate points which can be used in a slot machine like mechanic and cards can be won that way, but again it’s random.
There is also a loot box style system that cards and other upgrades can be earned as well but again, it’s all random. Oh, and don’t worry about the loot boxes, they aren’t obnoxious. In fact it took me a while to even figure out they were there. As you level up you’ll earn a few basic loot boxes that contain some nice items but if you really want the good stuff you’ll have to get a “premium” box and you pretty much have to pay to get one of those.
This way of doing upgrades really doesn’t make sense to me since there is a ton of product placement in this game. All kinds of aftermarket brands are represented here. Everything from Vorsteiner to Castrol.
The other area where the upgrades fail is when it comes to the visual stuff. You can’t just buy a car, take it to the garage, and start throwing body kits on it. You have to “unlock” the different areas of the car by completing random tasks. For example you may not be able to change your hood until you’ve done two jumps somewhere in the open world. It’s a really annoying system and just throws random stuff in the way that keeps you from doing what you really want to do.
It just seems like the devs were more concerned with tying the upgrade system to the overall “Las Vegas gambling” theme of the game rather than making it a system that’s actually fun to use.
When it comes to the actual gameplay things get better. The physics are far from realistic but in this world you wouldn’t want them to be. It’s easy to do long dynamic drifts, you can hit objects without too much punishment and the sensation of speed makes the racing feel tense and exciting.
Also apparently this is a magical world where every single car has nitrous no matter what. That’s always fun.
Another big plus is the visuals. During gameplay the cars don’t necessarily look realistic but they are still very pleasing to look at. In the garage is where the details really come out and cars start to look more photo-real.
Even more impressive are the environments of the open world. Downtown is sprawling and the details on the buildings, hotels, and casinos really make the experience of driving down town feel more immersive. The same can be said of the mountain and desert areas outside of the city. They are just as visually impressive and nice to look at.
I played the game mostly on the new Xbox One X and Need For Speed Payback definitely takes advantage of the extra horsepower of the new console as it will run in 4K resolution but it is still locked to 30 frames per second. The game will also run in 4K at 30fps on PS4 Pro as well.
This next bit is probably going to be a bit controversial but when it comes to Need For Speed Payback’s story; I actually liked it. Others have criticised Payback’s narrative for being too cheesy and having cringe-worthy dialogue. The thing is, I agree with that 100% but I think in the context of this game, it works. Sure sometimes the bad dialogue is a bit too much but for the most part I enjoy it because it’s just damn funny.
Also because the narrative is done completely in CG and not as live action sequences, it just seems to fit better when things get really crazy and over the top with either dialogue or visuals. The whole thing was just really fun for me when things were actually unfolding. As long as you don’t take it too seriously I found it to be really enjoyable.
At the end of the day Need For Speed Payback is a good game that could have been great if it didn’t shoot itself in the foot by trying to change things up too much. The story is good cheesy fun, the visuals are great, the gameplay and mechanics felt right for an arcade racer but the over segmentation, the needless grinding, and incredibly bad upgrade system hold this game back from reaching its full potential.
If you are a huge Need For Speed Payback fan then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with this game and you should probably pick it up ASAP. If you’re a more casual fan looking for a fun arcade racer I would still recommend picking this game up but after it goes on sale rather than dropping $60 or more on it right now.