Need for Speed Payback
Need For Speed Payback sees the long-running franchise return after a two year-long absence. The last entry acted as a bit of a reboot and saw things shift from open-world racing to more of a narrative-driven structure complete with live-action footage mixing in with game models. Ghost is back with Payback – an action movie-infused tale. Tyler, Sean, Jessica, and Rav are a…fast and furious group of friends who love to drive and filled their bodies full of adrenaline at the same time. They’re out to take over Fortune Valley – a Las Vegas expy with a criminal underworld. When the group tries to steal a prototype car, they find that a possible ally has turned her back on them and nearly killed one of the group. Tyler acts to save the whole by sacrificing himself to the would-be mark in the hope of getting revenge for all of them.
Payback’s story-heavy approach is different for the racing genre, but works as a way to frame the all-out action in a new way. Having a narrative gives you characters to root for and provides context for what’s going on. Instead of just “here’s a crazy thing and then here’s another crazy thing”, you get them spaced out and generally learn a bit more about the characters along the way. There isn’t a great amount of character depth here, but I would put what Payback has above a lot of summer action movies. There is at least an attempt to build up bonds between the characters and provide them with more depth than “here is this character type, and here’s this one”.
The core gameplay is a blast, and beyond giving you a checkpoint racer with a purpose, provides some major thrills along the way. Large jumps are commonplace, as are the franchise’s beloved cop chases. Cop chases now have a far more cohesive structure and manage to still find a way to challenge the player while also feeling like a race in and of themselves instead of putting the player in a pure panic mode. You may still get boxed in, but when it’s just you against a few cops on a straightaway, it’s a riot. The post-Criterion Need for Speed games get a nice bit of love with a touch of Burnout’s takedown system being used to disable enemy vehicles as well.
This means that while Burnout fans may not get 100% of that itch scratched with Payback, at least the act of running folks off the road and seeing a thrilling camera angle of it is alive and well. Making Need For Speed a checkpoint racer may aggravate some, but it also evokes a bit of an arcade style in doing so while the open-world nature of the game makes things feel a bit like a Midnight Club game as well. The benefit to how Payback does things, and to be fair, how the Most Wanted reboot did them as well, is that you get some on-map guidance. This may not be huge or even a benefit to some, but it can be a blessing for others.
As someone who is absolutely terrible with navigation in real life, having an open-world racer without some kind of guidance for an actual race is tough. Thankfully, Payback always gives you at least a suggested line that will get you from point A to point B. The key is that it also gives you the freedom to go off of that beaten path if you want, and still get the race done. So if you’re on a path that works, but see what might be a shortcut, you still have the freedom to take the shortcut and maybe get in one extra jump versus just going the entire suggested route. You will still get everything done that you had to – it’s just a bit more exciting to do it with an increase in freedom.
Payback’s racing engine is rock-solid and no matter what kind of vehicle you’re driving, you can count on it to do what you need it to when you need it. Despite that, every major vehicle type does feel a bit different – so cars that are a bit lower to the ground and bulkier will do a better job of checking rivals into guardrails and other vehicles than something lighter. A lighter vehicle is better-looking in mid-air, but can’t take the pounding upon a rough landing of something that’s a bit more durable. No matter what vehicle type you prefer, you can get the hang of its handling fairly quickly.
The arcade-style racing action is fast and a lot of fun. Having the ability to race around an area while also taking folks out Burnout style brings back fond memories while also forging new ones. The in-game storyline may not be the most riveting thing ever, but it moves the plot along well enough while also giving you reasons to care about things. It’s better than the one featured in The Run years ago at least, and does try to offer big budget action movie-style thrills. Starting from the top as the adventure begins only to have it all taken away is a fun narrative, while working your way back up reminds me a bit of a Metroidvania – only with more grinding to get better. The core racing action works well and controls perfectly – for a game like this, that’s the most important part.
Visually, the actual racing looks cool – but is definitely hurt by all the mid-action cutscenes during story-related missions. This isn’t so much an issue during regular street races, but mars the action and takes you out of things during crucial story points. The vehicles themselves look great, with a lot of impressive lighting effects hitting the screen at all times. The character model work is fine, but definitely shines a light on how the uncanny valley can still take a bite out of a game’s drama as the characters just don’t hold up to the same level as the cars – and actually disappear when you use the in-game photo mode.
From an audio perspective, the game definitely goes for less music and more dialogue – so whether you want to or not, you’ll hear music mixed in with a lot of story exposition between missions. The acting is fine, but nothing amazing – with everyone fitting their characters well enough. Smarmy folks are smarmy, your everyman character sounds beaten down by The Man, and your boss is a grade-A jerk at all times. There isn’t much depth, but for what the game is trying to do, the acting works reasonably well. The car-crashing and siren sound effects work nicely though, and when you have frantic car chases, everything clicks into place from an AV perspective with red and blue lights swirling around and chaos with cops calling you out alongside the sirens.
Need For Speed Payback isn’t perfect – but it’s a nice step up from prior entries. Outside of Rivals, the series has really struggled over the past five or so years to really find its own way. The FMV-filled reboot wasn’t the right answer, and going for an action movie-styled variant is great for an ad campaign – but doesn’t make for a great campaign itself. Fortunately, the racing action and cop chases that litter the campaign make it worth playing. It looks great in motion, even if the action doesn’t hold up very well. The cop chases are exciting and the point-to-point races bring a level of arcade-style thrill that the series definitely benefits from.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Need for Speed Payback for the PlayStation 4 provided by Electronic Arts.