Need For Speed has been in a slump in recent years. The series is now helmed by EA Ghost (Ghost Games) and none of the latest games are as well received as Underground, the original Most Wanted in 2005 or Hot Pursuit 2010. After the disappointing release of Need For Speed 2015 the team took a one year break. Rather than just make a better Need For Speed 2015, they announced Need For Speed Payback, featuring a story of betrayal and packed with action.
Or so it seems. While early promotion materials suggest this is a departure from the last game, it is in fact just a better Need For Speed 2015. There are significant improvements made, addressing a lot of past fan feedback and borrowing features from either past NFS or similar open world racers like The Crew and Forza Horizon. But a Fast and Furious game it is not.
Graphics & Audio
Payback introduces a new open world- the city of Silver Rock, part of Fortune Valley. The fictional Las Vegas setting brings back the day and night cycle and the map is huge. There are stunning vistas along the many twisty roads and can be pretty to look at, but the ideal experience might not be on the regular PS4.
Texture pop-ins are so commonplace. Load times might seem faster than the last NFS but a lot of elements like textures on terrain, on cars, even the HUD and images from the UI can be slow to load. It’s also distracting to see the magnificent vistas pop in so much detail even while just driving around. Without the cool raining effects from the last game, it can look a bit rough.
In addition, Payback also struggles to maintain 30fps when the action gets too hectic, or when you ram into too many physics objects like a line of fences. The game has support for PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X, with the PC version having uncapped framerates and 4K support, so maybe it looks and runs better on other, stronger platforms.
The cars are all nicely detailed, now with interior features being modelled as well. There are also character models driving these cars though they too look rough despite being powered by the Frostbite engine. No wonder most cut-scenes here are pre-rendered. Human animation is also limited, there’s a lot of scenes where characters just talk by parking their cars next to each other- a workaround that thematically fits all things considered.
Payback features an expansive soundtrack- now more varied with a mix of high-adrenaline tunes for racing and chill songs during the down times where you just roam around the map or spend time customising cars. It’s ironic that a mellow tune with lyrics such as “slow down, slow down, slow down” is perfect for cruising around in game about fast racing, but it works.
With Payback having a big story to tell this time, there’s plenty of dialogue here, especially from the three main characters Tyler, Mac and Jess. They will quip and respond to what’s happening on the road, and sometimes they call each other and trade banter. The performance is a mix bag- some sounds authentic while some felt phoned in terribly. It’s not helping that the story is all over the place.
Payback follows the adventure of the three characters, a crew set to pull of a heist to steal a hypercar, only to get double-crossed. They went their separate ways but Tyler wants payback on the double crosser, who now works for The House. The House is also controlling the whole city and has been rigging races to their advantage. So the crew reformed and establish their plan to take down The House: Get into the Outlaws’ Rush- a special race for only the best racers in the country and win. To do that, they have to defeat the many Street Leagues dotted around Fortune Valley.
When the story tries to be serious, it’s hokey and bad. There are many moments where the game try to portray The House is the nefarious and mysterious organisation.. but you always beat them, every single time. There are no stakes here, even the revenge angle falls flat. The writing is decent when it goes campy and self-aware. There are conversations with bad puns where characters are sighing at how terrible it is.
Despite being showcased as a more action game than any other NFS title so far, it is still mainly about racing. The Street Leagues are similar to NFS Carbon’s crews- race them a couple of times and beat the boss to progress the story. The structure is clear and concise like it was in the original NFS Most Wanted, and after a 2 hour prologue sequences you are thrown into the open world, free to race and roam.
Rather than the 5 ways to play approach of the last game, Payback now has car classes: Race, Offroad, Drag, Drift and Runner. Tyler handles the Race and Drag races, Mac takes Offroad and Drift while Jess is off doing missions to uncover The House in the Runner cars. This is not a GTA V-style where you get to switch characters on the go, the character you are depends on what car you are driving, with the switches happening automatically during the action set-pieces.
Speaking of the action set-pieces, they are a major letdown. If you thought that the highway heist mission shown during E3 was underwhelming, then most of these set-pieces are not as exhilarating as first thought. I appreciate that they didn’t add quick time events like what they did in NFS The Run to make those set-pieces work, but there’s so many times the game cuts away from control just when you about to do something cool, or ask you to just go from checkpoint to checkpoint. These special missions appear at each end of the chapter.
Thankfully those are not the main thing you will be doing. It’s still about the races. Each chapter you will have to take down the bosses of the Street Leagues. The bosses are all characters with some backstory. It’s odd that many of them, including one cameo from a crew in NFS Prostreet, will cheer you on during races and trade backstories when battling against them, but the last few Street Leagues do deliver some trash talking.
While Tyler and Mac are busy with racing, Jess has to do missions- a bit like NFS Undercover. These include a form of scramble race where you get to chose the multiple checkpoints to go yourself, time trials and getaway missions from the cops. The dynamic pursuit system introduced in the original NFS Most Wanted is now gone. Instead, it is now a checkpoint race with relentless cops in huge numbers trying to stop you. It’s an odd choice, and surely not bode well for fans who love to toy around with the cops, but personally I don’t mind the change as much. You can trigger this chases outside of missions by finding bait crates.
Despite the two-year development time, I was hoping they made a new handling model. Unfortunately it is still based on the model from 2015, which means it is still bad. Drifting is still the best way to drive in Payback thanks to how it is hard to turn normally with brakes around the many winding roads inspired from NFS Hot Pursuit 2010. You now can tune the handling at any time during free roam, a good new addition but this is just painting a broken house. The handling is terrible on a non-drift car, Drag cars in particular are not fun to drive around winding roads. There are fun on drift cars, however. The offroad cars, brand new to the series, also works great with the handling model.
Payback also changes up the progression by having performance parts tied to trading cards. These Speed Cards drop after a race win or bought at Tune-Up-Shops. Like many games with random loot, the shop’s stock will only have one or two good cards each time it refreshes and getting Speed Cards can be time consuming. You can trade-in unwanted Speed Cards for Part Tokens and have a go at the slot machine. It can be a grind to get low level cars up to a decent level quickly.
Content & Longeivty
The story spans five chapters, and you have a large open world to drive around freely after the prologue. There are now side activities you will frequently stumble upon like Speed Runs, Jumps and Drift Zones ala Forza Horizon (though drift zones did appear in the final NFS 2015 update). Roaming racers are still a thing and has some improvements. You have billboards to smash (like Burnout Paradise or its spiritual successor NFS Most Wanted 2012) which are fun and casino chips to collect which are bad collectibles. The game has dropped its online-only requirement and thus online free roam, first appeared in NFS Rivals, is now gone.
Car customisation was a letdown in the past game despite a strong foundation. Thankfully there are more parts this time around. Cars you expect to not have much customisation like the Porsche Cayman GT4 or the Corvette Grand Sport has one or two options for most aspects. It may not be as rich of options like it was in NFS Underground 2, but it is still a good selection. The showstopper for the customisation is the Derelict cars. You have to find five parts of the derelict with only clues from a treasure map, hunt them down and rebuilt it. These cars has the most options in the game and is worth checking out.
There are loot boxes in the game in the form of shipments. Base shipments can be gained by levelling up your Rep or finishing enough daily challenges. It contains one random vanity item, at least three Part Tokens and at least 20,000 worth of in-game money. These loot boxes doesn’t feel as bad and progress impeding like Shadow Of War, since it is one step removed from the main random loot dispenser that is the Speed Card slot machine. Though you may gain a Speed Card directly through the premium shipments, which uses real money. Thankfully, these are buried deep in the game and safe to ignore.
Multiplayer is there, but it’s just there. There are several changes to how the playlist works, but the experience is just not good. The loading issues mentioned earlier is even more prevalent- traffic cars and other players can take long to appear properly even after the race starts. There’s no gating of car level either. You need to bring one race and one offroad car but most players online would just bring level 399 cars, so only touch it once you’re done with the story. It took me 30 hours to finish the story, though bee lining all the races could result in around 20 hours.
There’s plenty of cars- about 78 of them to buy, customise and upgrade. Some cars from the list are currently not listed in the game for some reason, but rest assured it will take some time to get them all to the level cap thanks to the Speed Card system.
Need For Speed Payback is an improved outing for the series after the misstep in 2015, but it still falls into the same problems- the small improvements they made thanks to fan feedback is a good move but the brand new features they added sounds good on paper, but is executed badly.
The handling model is still bad, requiring too much work to make it feel good. The story sets a great structure for a single player campaign but it is not why you should buy this game. The much touted action missions are a dud. The new Speed Card system has potential but relies too much in RNG.
If you were disappointed with NFS 2015, Payback certainly paid back its due. But this will not be a good game for those expecting more action in veins of the Fast and Furious movies or just a fun, easy to grasp racing game. But they indeed embraced the idea of a certain Dominic Toretto.
Need For Speed is improving, one quarter mile at a time.
Review based on version 1.03 of the game, played on a regular PS4
Review copy purchased by the reviewer
Improved customisation for all cars
Open world is massive but fun to drive around
Offroad racing is fun
Great selection of soundtrack
Good amount of content with a decent story length
Handling model is still problematic
Speed Card system can be cumbersome and time consuming
Set-pieces are not as interesting as advertised
Horrendous loading/ pop-in issues on regular PS4
Story goes from either cheesy to just plain bad