One of the things that has always enticed me about the Need for Speed series is their focus on street racing, especially 2015’s soft reboot of the series. Being an avid street car lover myself (and just like the game advocates for itself, don’t run from the Police, please), the whole “stick to a track” simulation racers never were my style. 2015’s soft reboot of Need for Speed reintroduced something I had always felt the series needed to go back to: the deep culture in and around street racing. And for the most part, I loved that game. It had everything I was looking for: lots of rain, deeply customizable cars from the get-go and plenty of varied racing events and missions to feel like you were slowly but surely making a name for yourself in that specific car community. Also, I was able to use and modify the car I drive in real life, a 2013 Scion FR-S (now rebadged as a Toyota GT-86).
Unfortunately, Need for Speed: Payback seems to have taken the best features from the 2015 reboot and has either removed them completely or altered them to the point of absolute frustration. On top of that, the complete tonal shift from, “let’s make a name for ourselves in this close-knit car community” to “we are now heist members” is both unsettling and out of place for what the series has seemed to try to do with the previous entry. But without further ado, let’s just jump into it.
Let’s start off with what’s probably the best part of the entire game: the visuals. Need for Speed: Payback, as one would expect from a game running on the FrostBite engine, is gorgeous. All of the cars, from derelicts to stunning exotics, all look spot-on and sound great. For the most part, the environment of Fortune Valley looks pretty great as well. Being set in a fictional town based on Las Vegas, the differentiation between driving out in the desert mountains and within the city itself is pretty distinct and cool.
So here’s where my initial concerns began throughout my playthrough of Need for Speed: Payback. Like I mentioned before, this time around Ghost Games have decided to depart from the very unique and cool world they had built with 2015’s Need for Speed to instead focus on what can only be described as the same dull “action movie” story the majority of NFS games have had the past 5 – 10 years. The best sort of way I can think to describe the story, which encompasses the entirety of the game, is to compare it to the Fast and Furious movie franchise. The jump from 2015’s Need for Speed to Payback tonally is as if you watch the original The Fast and the Furious and then jump to Fast 5. It just doesn’t work.
Luckily, for the most part, I enjoyed Payback’s characters. Centering around Tyler Morgan, Mac and Jess as they attempt to take down what I can only describe as a car-obsessed mob that controls Fortune Valley. Tyler, Mac and Jess are all wonderfully voice acted, if not a little too on-the-nose as to their given specializations. Tyler is the racer, Mac is the show-off drifter/off-roader, while Jess is the stereotypical professional getaway driver. Of course, given whatever sort of car you are driving (which we’ll dive into in the gameplay section of this review) is who you drive as in the open world and in events. But overall, I never really had any investment in the characters.
In fact, other than getting “revenge” on The House (the car-obsessed mob), there really isn’t any reason to care for the story at all.
Ah, Need for Speed: Payback’s gameplay. On one hand, I want to love it. On the other, I just want to forget it. Yes, the cars handle beautifully and each have their own distinct stylings and event usages. For example, racing-type cars are ideal for racing events, off-road cars are good for off-road events, etc. And as one would expect, all of the cars match their designation and the actual races are fun and challenging. Actually, the majority of the events are very fun to play and participate in.
It’s the frustrating systems that have been put in place that make upgrading/modifying your car(s), and ultimately how you have to play the game, an absolute chore. First, let’s start off with the actual engine upgrades to your car. Unlike 2015’s Need for Speed, you are no longer able to just buy whatever upgraded parts you want for your car. Instead, you must use “Trade-In” parts to spin what essentially amounts to a slot machine game to hope you get the upgraded part you want/need. It’s an infuriating system that forces players to spend either real money to get “trade-in” tokens to use on this slot machine system or trade in old parts in hopes that the new part they get will be better. In the end, I seemed to reach a point where the car I wanted to drive (the aforementioned GT-86, except I had to settle for the Subaru BRZ) was useless in later parts of the game. What I loved about the 2015 Need for Speed was that I could pick my one favorite car, upgrade the hell out of it, and still feel competitive in events. But in Payback, I feel forced to upgrade cars I don’t want to drive just to complete events. And this new lottery-esque upgrade system just makes things more frustrating.
This leads directly into my second issue: the visual upgrades to your car. Much like the 2015 Need for Speed, you’ll need to complete several tasks to unlock the ability to buy external mods for your car like bumpers, fenders, headlights, etc. But with Payback, some of the mods seem out of reach unless you have the appropriate engine mods in place. For example, to upgrade the exhaust on my BRZ, I needed to reach a speed of 195mph. For the life of me, no matter how many engine mods I was able to equip, I could only reach about 180mph before crashing into something. There’s no doubt I’d be able to find a faster car to reach this speed, but I thought the whole point of this new rebooted Need for Speed franchise was to pick your favorite car and upgrade it to your hearts content without switching to another car. Luckily, all of the other external mods seem easily achievable just by playing the game.
One new feature they implemented I found pretty fun and encouraged me to explore the world just a bit more was derelict vehicles. These old and decrepit cars found out in the wilds of Fortune Valley can be collected and rebuilt into brand new cars to be used in races and events. Hunting down the various parts and cars was a pretty cool feature, and actually something that is very popular to do in the car culture. So having a gameplay system dedicated to exploring and slowly piecing together a new car was something I found very enjoyable to do. I just wish the rest of the game was as compelling to play.
All in all, Need for Speed Payback is a step back to what the series had rebooted from in the first place. I certainly miss the love for street racing and the street car culture 2015’s entry had, and with a lot of the newly implemented features being mostly frustrating, I find it hard to recommend this entry over the one that released two years ago. Were the focus not shifted to trying to be an action/heist/mob movie and stuck with respecting car culture, I feel Need for Speed: Payback would have been a standout in the series.