Need for Speed Payback marks the return of EA’s racing series and despite there being a passable game hidden somewhere in this offering, it is smothered by corporate decisions and the general expectations of their shareholders. A lot of the problems that the game has are issues that are swamping the AAA game industry. While most of these can be characterised as greed, apathy, and laziness, let’s have a look at some of them in greater detail.
Homogenisation is where you make everything similar or the same. Electronic Arts are big offenders of this charge. The way it is most prevalent in Need for Speed Payback is through the use of DICE’s brilliant Frostbite 3 game engine. The Swedish master developers have crafted a game engine that creates stunning visuals. One of the most impressive things about the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II is how the game makes some of the destinations from the Episode I: The Phantom Menace look better than they do in the film. The recreation of Naboo in Battlefront II is far closer to photo-realism than was featured in the movie. All of this is possible thanks to the power of the Frostbite 3 engine (as well as what I assume must be some sort of witchcraft by the team at DICE).
This is a game engine that has been in development for over 10 years (it was first debuted by 2008’s Battlefield: Bad Company) and is one of the premier game engines . . . for first-person shooters. While it is an engine that is perfectly adaptable for things like third-person shooters (Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2) and action RPGs (Mass Effect Andromeda), a racing game is a different beast. This game engine makes everything look pretty, but it lacks the real depth that a racing game requires. I understand why Electronic Arts would want to use an existing game engine, as they are one of the most expensive things to develop. However, if you want a premier racing game, you probably want to use a premier racing game engine.
Annualisation and sequelitis
The Need for Speed franchise reached its lowest point when Electonic Arts were forcing out a new entry each year. This aggressive business practice may work with its sports entries, but they don’t need to have the same fresh creativity that a story-based racing franchise requires. Fans of the FIFA and Madden franchises are happy with slightly better graphics and updated rosters. Racing game fans are not so easily placated. The thing with Need for Speed is that it seems to be getting sequels because Electronic Arts are hoping that they will make another hit like Most Wanted or the Underground games. They seem to just be throwing ideas at the series to see if anything will stick and become a hit. With Payback, they seem to have tried to emulate The Fast and the Furious movies. Last time, simply called Need for Speed, they tried to focus on some legends in the community. The time before that was Rivals which tried to capitalise on the meagre success of Most Wanted by basically doing the exact same game all over again (just not as well).
I understand that a big company needs to make money for its shareholders, but if you’re just releasing sequels for the sake of blindly continuing a franchise you will ultimately kill that franchise. The point of a sequel should be to either continue a story or provide something fresh to the franchise. Ultimately it is in a publisher’s best interests to carefully curate a franchise and not rush out half-baked sequels. The way a game becomes a franchise is through creativity and consistent quality. This is the way you have to continue a franchise as well and somewhere along the path the Need for Speed franchise has lost its way. EA needs to put the series in the hands of the developer, let them brew a new idea and then release a game when it’s ready, not on an annual or bi-annual timeline.
You didn’t really think I wasn’t going to bring up Need for Speed Payback’s heinous use of microtransactions, did you? I have said multiple times on this website that I don’t believe microtransactions have any place in full-price games. Payback doesn’t so much offer microtransactions as prostitutes itself so that people will buy them. Upgrades have always been an integral part of the Need for Speed franchise and the same is true here, yet instead of purchasing specific parts with in-game currency, you now have to buy Speed Cards to improve your vehicle.
You can have one active Speed Card for each different part of your car, e.g. engine head, engine block, turbocharger, engine control unit (ECU), gearbox, and exhaust. As well as earning one random card at the end of an event, you can purchase them from a tuning shop. The issue here is that to improve your car to an effective level you need to add around 2 good cards between each event. The money you earn from an event is about half of what you need to buy a single card from the tune shop. What this means is that to advance your car at the level suggested by the game you will need to run each event 2-4 times as well as trying to complete some of the other random events and collectibles around the world.
All of this grinding appears to be forced on people with the sole purpose of forcing people to take the easy option of dropping some real-world cash and purchasing a “premium shipment” which will contain a wedge of money to spend in the tune shop (or car dealership) as well as a visual customisation item and a couple of other bits and bobs. This really is one of the most cynical cash grabs I have seen by microtransactions in a game. It seems to be the EA way though, with Star Wars Battlefront II already under fire for the way gamers can pay-to-win.
I had high hopes for Need for Speed Payback to be a return to the halcyon days of the franchise. Instead, Electronic Arts have mired the game with disgusting microtransactions, past their best handling and progression models, as well as a game that appears rushed out because the shareholders require more money. These sort of business practices might not spell the immediate end of Electronic Arts or the Need for Speed franchise, but the fat lady is warming up and the villagers are getting their pitchforks ready.