Whipping down a highway alongside another car, I slipped into a familiar rhythm that I remember from my middle school years. Both my souped-up muscle car and the other driver’s vehicle began weaving towards each other, nudging each other with increasing ferocity, sparks and bits of scrap trailing behind us. In a split second, a guardrail catches my eye. With one final definitive nudge, I t-bone my opponent into the rail, triggering an extensive, slow motion sequence of the gnarled hunk of metal flipping through the air. This isn’t a new Burnout. Instead, Need for Speed: Payback takes the bits from both that dearly departed franchise and its own past, and combines them for an exhilarating, if a little unwieldy racer.
Payback seems squarely pitched at people who miss pulling off the perfect takedown, but still has its roots firmly in Need for Speed’s signature blend of sim style and arcade racing. Which threw me through a bit of a loop when the game started telling me to drift around corners and smash into my opponents. Drifting and slamming other racers in Burnout is something that was easy and satisfying to pull off. In Need for Speed: Payback, players are expected to drive with the precision expected in some of the newer racers on the market, which led to a mechanical culture shock for me. When slamming on my handbrake and initiating a hard drift, my car veered wildly out of control and spun in the complete opposite direction. It was quickly apparently that yes, I was still pretty bad at these sorts of racing games.
But that initial hurdle didn’t distract me, because what was propelling me forward made me want to keep going. Much like the virtual Maggie Q vehicle Need for Speed: Undercover, and whatever The Run was trying to be, Need for Speed: Payback puts narrative front and center. From what I could gather, the two characters I played and the people chatting with them over the radio were part of Fast and Furious style crew of daredevil drivers. An infamous cartel stole a top-of-the-line sports car, and these characters were going to get it back come hell or high water. Cue cute banter, one liners, and lots of surprised exclamations. This gave the whole package a nice feeling of character, something that the middling 2015 reboot lacked, despite having a narrative as well. There’s a real personality to all the characters I met, and even some of the more narrative dump-heavy entries in the franchise didn’t match this small chunk on that front.
Where past entries did surpass this bit on, though, was the gameplay itself. While I definitely enjoyed Need for Speed: Payback, it seems like the franchise is having a bit of an identity crisis. There are things present in this game that feel very arcade-y in their conceit – taking down other vehicles, outmaneuvering exploding barrels being hurled at you, and pulling up alongside other vehicles so teammates can jump on them. These are all very silly, gonzo things. The problem, then, is that the actual mechanics don’t reflect these high-octane objectives. Turning around corners is still an experiment in slowing down to make a proper turn instead of blazing around a corner with a sick drift. It’s still very easy to steer a bit too hard and lose control of your vehicle. Everything still, for lack of a better word, feels squirrely in that way that non-arcade racers typically do to me. It sort of feels like the game is setting itself up to be one thing while playing entirely different, and while I’m a pretty adaptable person, I kept wishing I got more tactile satisfaction from what I was doing. I’m a bit put off by this blend of sim controls and arcade concepts, and kind of wish Need for Speed: Payback had really shaken things up by controlling a bit more like the series it is clearly drawing from.
Yet, despite this, it hard to knock Need for Speed: Payback entirely, especially because part of my dissatisfaction is based entirely around preconceived expectations. What I got to play was very fun, on top of being absolutely beautiful on a PC at 2K. Every little detail breathed life into the long stretch of desert highway I played on, with vivid reflections and rich colours filling every second. It’s a game that looks good, but most importantly looks interesting. Of course, other maps will be the actual deciding factor in that statement, but what I saw looked promising, and I definitely wanted to see more.
So Need for Speed: Payback sits a bit to the side of the middle of the road for me. I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of using these car controls to steer around very arcade-y situations, but said arcade-y situations kept me hooked. Avoiding oncoming traffic being crashed towards me by a huge truck and ramming enemy vehicles were some of the most white-knuckle thrills I’ve gotten from a racing game in quite a long time. It’s not a new Burnout, despite its best efforts, but it’s shaping up to take a lot of what I love about those games and appropriating them to fit into the Need for Speed canon. This isn’t a franchise I usually pay a ton of attention to, but there’s some solid work behind this, and I’m curious to see how the full product turns out when it releases in November.