It’s incredible to think that the Need For Speed franchise is almost 23 years old. Over that period, the franchise has moved from being an arcade racer, to a story-led adventure through the depths of the car culture community, back to an arcade racer, onto a cops and robbers style format, and then a love letter to car culture. At this point, the only thing that really ties the games together is that cars are their core focus. In this decade (it’s crazy to be able to think of a franchise in decades), the games have been struggling for a focus.
There was the massively disappointing The Run, where you could get out of your car and ended up being something that did a couple of things passably, rather than doing one thing well. Then Criterion took over the series with Most Wanted and inevitably, it was like a crossover between the Need For Speed and Burnout franchises. After that, Ghost Games worked with Criterion on Need For Speed Rivals, which was like Most Wanted all over again. After a year off, the franchise came back with, the simply titled, Need For Speed. That game revelled in car culture focussing on some giants of the scene. It wasn’t bad entry in the franchise but the fact that the game was always online drew some ire from fans. Last year the series had another year off to take stock of the franchise, but now it’s back with Need for Speed: Payback.
This latest entry goes back to the more story-orientated style of some of the earlier games, but what it really seems to ape is the Fast & Furious movie franchise. Drawing inspiration from a multi-billion dollar franchise seems like an absolute no-brainer, but this really could be a match made in heaven. The outlandish nature of the action in the movies already feels like it would fit in a video game, so when the developers describe Payback as an “action driving fantasy”, I think we know where they are going with it.
The gameplay demo, shown during the EA Play press conference, featured what they called a ‘highway heist’. Driving a Mustang GT, the player had to race to catch up to a truck that was transporting the new Koenigsegg Regera and steal the hypercar. The race through traffic featured exploding cars and barrels, vehicular combat (between your Mustang GT and enemy BMW X6’s), and a character jumping from the bonnet of a car onto the target truck. This is just the sort of thing you would imagine in a Fast and Furious movie. Combine this with the cinematic feel and effects that a lot of the Need For Speed franchise has had, and you end up with something truly exhilarating.
If this footage is representative of the rest of the game, I think this is a very positive move for the franchise. The best games in the series are the ones that have embraced a more cinematic vibe, particularly the Undercover and Most Wanted entries. With most racers going for either straight simulation or arcade racing, having something a bit more film-like and action orientated will help to set the game apart. One of my favourite racers on the Xbox 360 was Split/Second and that truly embraced the crazy action you would expect in big blockbuster movies. It included the sort of carnage and over-the-top (yet with some semblance of things like gravity) that the Fast & Furious films have come to be known for. If Payback can channel this, I will be a very happy gamer.
After the misstep of 2015’s Need For Speed, this change of direction feels right for the franchise. The game can once again carve out a niche for itself in the deluge of racing games that are available. The only racing game that has born the Fast & Furious name was Forza Horizon 2 Presents Fast & Furious which was a stripped down version of Forza Horizon 2 with some of the cars from the movie alongside a voiceover by Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. If Payback can channel the action, teamwork, and love of the car culture displayed in the Fast & Furious movies, Need for Speed could be back to its best.