Let’s start by getting one very important point out of the way. Need for Speed Payback is not the Fast and Furious game we were all hoping for. The gameplay does not consist solely of over the top action sequences, there is no fast-talking lady’s man, and no one is wearing out the word family. Surprisingly, at least because of the way this game was advertised, Payback is more like Forza Horizon or Criterion’s beloved Burnout. In Need for Speed Payback you actually control three of Nevada’s best drivers, a little like what we saw in GTA V, as they challenge all of the state’s illegal street racers to illegal street races. As the puppet master of these digital drivers, your goal is to dominate the competition by winning races and eventually take on those Fast and Furious style missions. Repeat this cycle a few times and you’ll get into the area’s major racing event. Win that event and you get payback on those who have wronged you.
In terms of explanations, I know this is a little spartan, but I am paraphrasing the plot for two important reasons. The first is that I don’t want to spoil the narrative for you, and the other is that the story makes little sense. This is a Need for Speed game, after all, so you should already expect a lot of poorly written dialogue wrapped in a story that only makes a little sense. To avoid spoilers, I will just say that the story buckles under the pressure of carrying the game, but it never breaks completely. More importantly, all the voice acting in this game is far better then what was available for the previous two Need for Speed games made by Ghost Games.
Luckily the story is only one of three major flaws that I found with this game, and the second flaw does not affect the gameplay at all; however, it might be the most annoying. For some reason, Payback suffers from long load times when booting, and by long times, I mean you have time to make a sandwich if you want. Once in the actual game space, you might have to wait 20 seconds here or there for a race to start, but nothing else felt unacceptable. When it really becomes annoying is when you want to play multiplayer right away. In these cases, you load up the single-player campaign, and then the same long loading time happens for the multiplayer. It feels like it takes forever to get going, but if you like sandwiches, and you don’t suffer from celiac disease—the immune reaction to eating gluten—you will be fine.
My final issue is the fact that this game has been tuned in a way that you cannot make it through comfortably without loot boxes. I count myself lucky since CGMagazine was given the $100 premium edition of the game to review, so I had a ton of loot box currency dropped in my lap. The currency I earned from racing offline would not have been enough to proceed swiftly, and without the currency I was given, the pacing of this game would have felt completely wrong. Even with that currency, I did have to grind out a little, but nothing that really annoyed me. It is unfortunate but the sad truth is that the upgrades for your cars are just a little too expensive. Also, the cash you earn from doing events is just a little too finite to make the progression flow smoothly. The good news is that the game only requires a little tweaking of the in-game currency to fix its biggest issue. Yes, that is not great news right now, but it does mean Need for Speed Payback is easily fixed.
In the meantime, I feel like most people will simply race online to earn the cash they need for their car upgrades. Playing offline and online, in terms of how your vehicles perform, is nearly identical. Online races happen in a separate clone of the single-player map, and awards in multiplayer go back to upgrade your single player cars. Each multiplayer session is a playlist of races. Each player earns points for where they place in each race of the list, and the racer with the most points at the end will win the session. My only words of caution for the multiplayer section of this game is don’t go online your first day. Everyone is encouraged to use the single-player cars online, so those who have yet to upgrade their cars will lose to those who have spent a lot of time and money on their whips.
I am pretty sure this won’t be an issue for many people because the cars of Need for Speed Payback feel stiff and heavy. It will take you about an hour or so to adapt to them, but once you do you can float between street racing, drifting, drag racing, off-roading, and being the getaway driver for heists. These getaway activities you are basically Jason Statham in the Transporter franchise, but you don’t take your shirt off to fight. You stay in the car and that is good because the racing is fun, and the roads you drive on were planned out with fun in mind.
This is why I enjoyed Need for Speed Payback so much. There are a lot of things to consider, but at the end of the day, the driving is just fun to do. Hitting that perfect drift angle makes you feel like a god, and beating a friend’s autolog record is the best gift you can give yourself. You will constantly feel like you are accomplishing things, and usually only by the skin of your teeth. Even on the normal difficulty level, the AI drivers of Payback are no pushovers, and more than once I only won by hundredths of seconds. All of your efforts go into upgrading your cars, so before long you have grown attached to it as well. It helps that you don’t change vehicles much, but regardless each vehicle is a testament to your hard work. By the time you move to a better vehicle you feel like you are saying goodbye to an old friend.
The racing events themselves are not bad either, but they are not as polished as the cars you are driving around in. My biggest issue with them is that some drag racing events can suddenly become rally racing around parts of the game space. This is an issue because Need for Speed Payback is all about having the right car for the right job, and dragsters are not the right tool for making turns at high speeds. On top of that, it got to the point that every off-road race looked like every other off-road race. I would say that this is more of an issue with the terrain of the game space then it is with the actual racing mechanics. The art assets of the game space look comparable to some of the best-looking games of this generation, but every grain of the digital desert you race around looks a lot like every other grain.
Need for Speed Payback is a fine game with far more organ music than expected of a 2017 release. Those of you who don’t enjoy it will not be able to complain about poor gameplay mechanics, but your concerns with other parts of the game would be valid. I have a feeling that the loot boxes will end up concerning people, but if it becomes a problem for the masses that can be easily fixed. What makes me happy is that the core elements of Payback are well polished.
The cars are fun to drive, the events change enough to avoid being boring, roads are crafted with great drifts in mind, and the online racing brings people together for a good time. Payback is certainly not without its problems, but there are more pros then there are cons in this package. If you’re on the fence about this one, you can calm down and go buy it already. I don’t think anyone is going to name it game of the year, but you won’t regret adding it to your library.