I can’t remember the last time I truly had fun with a Need for Speed game. I remember loving this series back in the day. Hot Pursuit 2. The Underground games (remember the soundtracks? TO THE WINDOOOOOOOOW!!!!). Most Wanted (the first one) wasn’t that bad at all! Oh, I also remember having fun with Carbon, which was probably the last game I got for the franchise. The older I was getting, the less interested I was getting in tuned cars, therefore the less interested I was getting in games like this, as well as the original Fast & Furious movies and Pimp My Ride. Even though I blatantly ignored the near dozens of subsequent NFS releases, I was actually looking forward to Payback, as you could see in my E3 review. That presentation showcased what looked like a hybrid between Need for Speed, Forza Horizon, Burnout and the most recent Fast & Furious movies. Now that I think of it, that actually sounded like a completely confusing hodge-podge of a game suffering from a severe case of identity crisis. And that’s what Need for Speed: Payback is: a game with a severe case of identity crisis.
So please MTV, pimp my ride!
My initial reactions with Payback weren’t very good. The first few hours (maybe they weren’t even literal hours, but damn was the pace lethargic!) are completely linear and very scripted. You control a gang of really unlikable crooks who fell for a set up, lost an expensive car to a bigger criminal crew, and are now hellbent on taking revenge. Those first hours introduced me to the wooden characters (the main protagonist gives Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs a run for his money when it comes to delivering a wooden performance), the somewhat weird controls (quite slippery and featuring a weird automatic feature in which your car would keep being dragged back to the center of the road), the disappointing framerate (30 frames per second at best, with constant drops when there are lots of elements onscreen) and the Burnout-esque “combat,” which is limited solely to mafia cars and police vehicles. If the game stayed this way to the end, it would have easily become a 4 out of 10, or worse. The plot is silly and you care very little about anyyone around you. Things were really bad. Then salvation arrived.
One of the most unlikable protagonists since Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs
After a couple of hours drowned into a car-based B-movie which managed to be dumber than Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The game suddenly set me into a vast open world, gave me a free car and told me to explore and win races. The game suddenly became a decent open world racer, a discount version of Forza Horizon 3, let’s say. And it became fun.
You choose a car category, find a team to run against (usually run by a very silly cartoonish character), beat a series of challenges, defeat a boss and then get rewarded with what I consider to be the coolest aspect of Payback: derelict cars. Think of those as the “barn finds” from Forza Horizon 3, but more challenging. You don’t actually receive the exact location of the car, as you get a map drawing, and it’s to you to look at the map, deduce where said location is, and find the chassis. Yes, your job isn’t over yet! After grabbing the chassis, you receive four more drawings, each one representing a car part. You need to find those four parts, usually located on top of hills or areas with natural obstacles, in order to properly fix your derelict and be able to use it. The amount of challenge and exploration involved when looking for those derelict parts is great, as Payback‘s huge map is actually very fun to explore. Sadly, there are problems in this mode as well.
Those sections would be great if they weren’t so scripted
Payback suffers from what I can only describe as “AAA publisher syndrome.” The game features some of the most annoying RNG and loot box systems I’ve seen in a fully-priced AAA game. The stupidest addition this time around is the fact you don’t have the freedom to choose any car part you want for your car’s engine. Car part shops feature a limited stock which is randomly generated every 10 or so minutes, and you can only choose from those or, of course, have the chance of getting better (random) parts by acquiring loot boxes. Granted, you can get loot boxes by performing in-game tasks, but they take an eternity to be unlocked, and guess what, you only get a “basic” loot box with the weakest selection of items. If you want to get a better loot box, you gotta open your real world wallet, buddy.
Every now and then, after beating a certain amount of racing bosses, the game stops acting as a proper Need for Speed title and goes back to its desperate attempt to emulate a Fast & Furious ripoff. Remember the heist mission presented at E3? It happens right after completing the first couple of bosses, and it severely disappointed me. To sum it up pretty quickly, it’s VERY scripted. No matter how fast you run after the truck, it will run faster than you until the game decides it’s time for it to slow down. There’s little skill involved, as the game nearly plays itself, while you just watch what’s happening.
By the way, remember the Burnout-esque “combat?” Well, it is very limited, as you can only destroy mafia cars or police vehicles, and guess what, they only show up in scripted sections.
The open world is actually fun to explore
Technically speaking, Payback is passable at best. As previously mentioned, the graphics are quite pretty, but the game suffers from some very bad framerate issues. The sound department is also decent at best. I always look forward to a Need for Speed soundtrack, with Underground 2‘s being iconic from my teenage years. Payback has a decent collection of tunes, with songs by artists like Tom Morello, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nas (Jaden Smith, of all people, is here as well, but we don’t need to enter into details). But you can’t customize your own playlist. That means you have to constantly skip songs (which are always played randomly) until you find something you want to listen to. The game also suffers from very bad voice acting. Every time the sun sets, my protagonist nearly always delivers the following line “nighttime is when I come alive.” It’s cringy, it’s corny, it’s terribly delivered, it’s embarrassing.
Need for Speed: Payback alternates between moments of utter brilliance and some of the dumbest story-driven segments I’ve ever seen in a videogame. When it tries to be an actual open-world Need for Speed like the classics from the last decade, or a discount Forza Horizon, it’s great, as it provides fun exploration and a vast map for you to do whatever you like. When it tries to be a Fast and Furious ripoff, it becomes a completely different experience, a worsened version of the dullest getaway driver moments from previous Grand Theft Auto games, coupled with a stupid script and severely unlikable characters. This is one of the most disappointing games I’ve played so far this year. It’s not a terrible game at all. You can see the absurd amount of potential in it, but it never manages to fully deliver.
Also available on: PC, Xbox One