Need for Speed: Payback – Review
PC, Xbox One, PS4
The opening hour of NFS Payback is comprised of character-hopping heist beats that are meant to be exhilarating but boil down to holding the accelerator trigger and following checkpoints. The game takes over for you at every interesting intersection, playing missions out via cut-scenes rather than letting you do anything that doesn’t involve zooming through checkpoints to time constraints. Things stray into interesting territory briefly when you’re teleported into a car type that can knock out police cars, eliciting a takedown sequence that isn’t a takedown because this isn’t Burnout but it kind of is and it’s also Need for Speed and Forza Horizon so just shut up and press the accelerator and follow the checkpoints, chump!
Things start off with Blandy McBlandface and his team of bland sidekicks stuffing about and talking tough for an hour or so before you’re introduced to the game’s open world, where you must complete a bunch of races and follow more checkpoints and press the accelerator a lot more. These sections give you the illusion of choice, with extra elements such as billboards to drive through (hey there again, Burnout! Or is it Forza? Everything has coalesced into one big driving game lump!), derelicts to unlock and locate (basically, car bodies that can be upgraded to good rides) and gambling chips to find. On that last point, the whole game has this strange gambling theme, with quips like “You’re my ace but I hold all the cards!” and the ability to add side bets to each race, simple stuff like “You will stay in the lead for 60 seconds and win” or “You will hit 15 objects and win”. All this feels very on the nose given the recent blow up around loot boxes.
Payback also has a real problem with consistency, especially the relationship between what’s being said by the characters and your actual progress through the game. Rivals will never stop trash-talking your chances at success, when in fact you cannot progress through the game unless you pass every race, so to them, you’re coming up unbeaten and unchallenged. Speaking of challenge, the game doesn’t offer one until a few hours in, at which point you’ll be regularly used to overtaking the entire racing field on the first or second corner and staying there for the rest of the race. It’s only when the game’s progression system comes into play, which uses collectible Speed Cards, that things reach a point where you might need to grind, and the game is happy to provide this, stringing out the main story’s handful of heists behind hours of required side missions, so really this game should have been called The Need for Buying Cards with Real Money – again, very on the nose.
At least the visual customisation of your car is – oh, wait, that’s locked behind grinding too! You can’t change the look of certain parts of your car until you’ve drifted a certain amount, earned jump ratings around the map, defeated roaming racers, and so on. Honestly, it’s like the game just wants you to stop playing. The story is so crap that I started skipping every cutscene after the prologue and while the open world looks cool, there’s nothing in it that hasn’t been presented much better in one of those other games that Payback tries to moosh together beneath its hood.
Then there’s the sense of speed, because, you know, it’s literally part of the name. While there’s a certain enjoyment from the game’s Ridge Racer-esque cornering, I rarely felt like I was travelling as fast as the speedo was telling me. My heart rate remained sedate throughout every race, a combination of easy difficulty, simplistic handling and the simple fact that it just doesn’t feel like you’re going very fast at all. I’m guessing this game is using a similar engine to the previous, Criterion-led, games, so I’m not sure what the issue is. Perhaps there needed to be more traffic, although moments when a slow-arse car gets in the way of a race can be frustrating, so I don’t think I’d wish for more of them.
If there’s anything positive to be said about Payback, it’s that it looks nice, it drives easy and the story is so safe and generic that I guess players absolutely hanging for a popcorn racing game might be satisfied. The unfortunate truth, though, is that every game that this copies is far better and more worthwhile of your time, even if you’ve already played them. The whole time I was playing Payback, I was thinking “I’d be much better off just replaying Burnout Paradise or one of the Forza Horizons”, which is sad but true.