Need for Speed is my favorite racing franchise, and I was really excited for NFS: Payback after seeing some of the improvements they made. The story details looked interesting from the trailers we saw, and the police chases looked both high speed and intense. These, unfortunately, were cinematic smoke and mirrors as Need for Speed: Payback changed so much of its core that it’s hardly even recognizable anymore.
I liked Need for Speed: Rivals when the original Xbox One launched in 2013. The cop chases were completely random, the upgrade system was easy to use, and you could switch from racers to cops at will. Need for Speed 2015 expanded on Rivals by adding a story mode with a setup that was basically a reboot of Underground. It was never a big deal to me that you couldn’t technically pause the game as you could always find a garage or dark alley to hide in for a few minutes. Need for Speed: Payback added an even longer story mode and let you pause the game, but they unfortunately forgot about every other aspect of the franchise that players love so much.
Let’s start with the story. You ever take a car trip with someone and they just. Never. Stop. Talking? That’s Need for Speed: Payback. There is constant chatter nonstop throughout the entire game. I want to play a racing game, not read a book on tape. The story characters never stop talking. This wouldn’t be too bad, but what they say is usually pointless and unrelated to the actual game story. The police radio is always going off, but it’s also hardly ever about you. The radio guy sounds like one of those sleazy mega church televangelists that’s trying to convert you to his side of the cause – whatever that may be. Just when I thought I was going to be able to play the game and just cruise around, my character starts monologuing. It got to the point where I literally said: “Come on, shut up already!” Of course, as I said that, my wife tried to enter the room to ask me something at the same time. So, yeah, that was fun. Basically, just as in real life, the moral of the story is to just shut up and let me drive. I just want to drive around and race, and it’s distracting to have all these voices all the time.
The missions themselves leave you asking “How is this a racing game?” As you would think, many of the missions require you to jump off ramps, speed around curves or NOS boost right out of harm’s way. For some odd reason, Need for Speed: Payback doesn’t let you actually see this happen though. I used to love getting in random cop chases in Rivals, only to follow it up by flying off a cliff to escape. The visuals of the car flying through the air and crashing down were awesome. That’s not happening in Payback. Instead, you get a cut-scene when this happens. Car hits the ramp – cut-scene. Turbo boost away – cut-scene. Payback literally takes the payoff away from us.
At first glance, Need for Speed: Payback may seem like the prototypical NFS game. You race missions, crash into stuff, jump off stuff, etc. When the mission is over, you drive around and crash into stuff, jump off stuff, etc. This all helps you level up your car and upgrade its parts. Status quo, right? – Wrong. Need for Speed is about escaping from the cops in a racing game. That’s it. There are literally zero cops while driving around not in missions in Need for Speed: Payback. None. They don’t exist. No more finding random police cars to challenge, waiting for you heat level to go down or driving through everything imaginable to escape them, sorry. Even the story missions nerf the cops. In fact, the chases are so lame that it almost feels like Ghost Games was about to publish the game and thought “Oh, wait! Crap, we forgot to add the cops”. There’s no skill in eluding cops – in a Need for Speed game – no joke. The chases are basically glorified time trials. All you need to do is a hit a checkpoint under a certain amount of time and get to the end. Once you hit the finish line, the cops act as if they have amnesia and simply turn around and drive away – even though you’re still right there in front of them. Like seriously?
Now comes the upgrade system. I shouldn’t feel like I’m playing Hearthstone in a racing game, but that’s exactly what it was like in Need for Speed: Payback. Remember the good ole’ days of upgrading your cars in racing games? You know, where if you wanted to upgrade your engine you would just click it and use your points? In other words, what a normal racing game is supposed to do? Yeah, that ain’t happening in Payback. Instead, Ghost Games and EA thought it wise to go to a full on RANDOM card drop in order to upgrade any piece of your car whatsoever.
Here’s how it works. Every car in the game has slots for six upgrades called speed cards. They don’t just deal with speed per se, but things like NOS, transmission, handling etc. You can get these cards by doing story missions, races or buying them with your points at the tune-up stores. Here’s where it gets completely counter-productive. The tune-up shops have completely random items that switch out every half hour. So, you’ll need to come back if that turbo boost upgrade you want isn’t there. The speed cards you earn are also completely random drops. If you have one you don’t want, you can trade it in for a speed token. When you get three tokens, you get one shot at getting a speed card from the in-game slot machine. I don’t know why they chose a slot machine to be honest. Maybe it’s because the game is set in Las Vegas, or maybe EA and Ghost Games are just trolling us with the whole microtransaction gambling thing. What I do know is that it is an abysmal system. Look at it this way, you get three tokens for changing in the three random cards the game gave you. You then exchange these tokens for one slot machine pull. That slot machine pull gets you – you guessed it – ANOTHER RANDOM SPEED CARD! It’s not even like they let you swap three random cards for the card of your choice, no no. Instead, EA and Ghost Games play fuzzy math and decide that three of their own cards are worth one of the exact same cards. What the hell?
One would think that, since this is EA after all, that this illogical upgrade system was simply a way to make you say “Screw it” and buy one of their real money loot boxes. Yes, there are real money loot boxes in a Need for Speed game. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case either. You can spend real money to get speed points. You can then trade in these speed points for premium base shipments. These shipments still give you random speed cards as well. You get other items like some undercarriage neons, but it doesn’t make any sense. The upgrade system is completely random and takes total control away from the player. Even if you want to try and skip this to pay real money, you’re still getting a random card. Sure, you may get a pink neon instead of the green one you have, or maybe even a different sounding horn, but it is that really worth it?
Need for Speed is supposed to be a franchise that offers freedom to its players to do what they want. Drive how you want. Escape the cops how you want. Upgrade your car how you want. There is none of that in Payback. Even if you say “Oh the hell with it” in the missions and go off road to avoid the cops and have some fun, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still need to loop back to hit the checkpoint. There is no online multiplayer free roam either. This was the best part of Need for Speed: Rivals. Having the freedom to engage some random player or just drive by and ignore them on your way to do something else is what makes the Need for Speed franchise great. EA and Ghost Games removed everything allowing players to think for themselves from Payback and replaced it with a bland, repetitive system that makes it seems like you never really accomplish anything.
The only part of the game I really enjoyed was the car handling. Need for Speed is an arcade racer after all, and the handling does remain true to form. You can drift around corners for days, pop the E-brake to spin around into reverse, all of that. It’s fun the first few times you do it, but the lack of variety in free roam makes it get old really fast. On the contrary, I guess it’s better than nothing.
The graphical quality of the game was a bit underwhelming, especially compared to the 2015 version. Being set in a desert didn’t really help, as the environment was often shown desolate and bland. Even the newest feature, finding derelict cars and fixing them up, was too much of a hassle. This is something I was really looking forward to. I really wanted to find some POS truck and jack it up into a full-on racer. Unfortunately, the game’s upgrade system took this away from me and acted as a counter-balance to its most intriguing new feature.
I honestly have no clue where the Need for Speed franchise is heading after Payback. Rivals added really cool features. The 2015 reboot added a very short but ok story mode while taking away a number of features. Need for Speed: Payback this year seems to forget what the franchise is all about. It has removed or changed to the point where it’s unrecognizable everything we know about the franchise. I love Need for Speed. It’s my favorite racing franchise. After all, I drive a police car for 11 hours a day. I’m all for change and not against loot boxes if they’re done the right way. Need for Speed: Payback, however, flips all of this on its head to the point where I have to ask if EA and Ghost Games want the franchise to fail.
EA announced they are changing the upgrade system in Battlefront II based on player feedback from the beta. Hopefully, they do this with Payback, because it’s unacceptable to change a racer like Need for Speed that offers you the freedom to do what you want when you want it into a completely random, linear, drawn-out and forced experience. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what EA and Ghost Games did, and I don’t see how it can succeed this way.