Need for Speed Payback (Xbox One Review)
There’s a reason why we use ‘high octane’ as a descriptor for excitement. It’s the peak of speed, adrenaline, and exhilaration. But what we don’t usually equate is the exponential threat of it blowing up and damaging the core of an engine. If high octane fuel is left unchecked long enough, there will be irreparable damage. Now, why are we discussing this in relation to Need for Speed: Payback? Well, that’s obvious isn’t it?
For years, as early as 2003 and as late as 2017, Need for Speed soared to blistering heights of popularity. The nitrous oxide-fuelled racer saw millions of impressionable players all dream of their perfect car. From the neon green 350Z of Underground 2 to the steely M3 of Most Wanted (the good one), each game built upon the very idea of street racing and tied perfectly in with The Fast and the Furious’ speed-over-safety aesthetic. Now, 23 years later, Need for Speed is still chasing after the Fast and Furious movies, but failing. Poorly.
Tossing aside the fact that the F&F series is built upon relationships over several movies and countless hours of character building, Need for Speed tries to capture that magic in about 10 minutes. NOSing through each character at blinding speed. There’s a generic white American dude, Tyler, with a raglan for every day of the week. Then there’s Mac. Mac’s from London and escaped a tortured past. Then there’s Jess, the staple tomboy female driver with no real exposition. There’s also the mechanic Rav, some insidious white dude called “The Gambler”, and Lina Navarro. Lina will eventually betray you, but it’s never clear why. If the story of Need for Speed Payback were a race, it would be a drag race. A one dimensional trip from point A to B that takes a lot of resources, but inevitably falls short of expectations for anyone watching.
In fact, the story might just be the most straight forward aspect of Need for Speed Payback. From the word go, every player is asked to juggle a series of five different types of car; Drag, Drift, Race, Off-Road, and Runner. If you are able to distance yourself from the fact that Race is a type of car when in fact nearly every class of car, bar Drift, is a racing car. Each of these cars purport the idea that they are truly unique and require their own builds, but the reality of the situation is a startling realisation that Need for Speed Payback splits the car types because it was designed from the ground up to support microtransactions.
Each car starts at a base level, usually somewhere between 100 and 150, and can attain a maximum car level of 300. There is a potential for cars to achieve a level of 399, but this is reserved for a rare few cars that aren’t accessible until the latter stages of the game. After your base level car is chosen, you then compete in your car’s respective category. After each race, you’ll be gifted a free car part. These car parts fall into the 6 different categories with 6 different manufacturers. Combining these parts see your car slowly climb the ranks required to win races. Match 3 or 6 of one particular manufacturer and you’ll net yourself an additional bonus. In theory, it’s a cool mechanic, but the reality is that this slow burner drastically hinders your ability to pick up new cars. In fact, if you looked beyond the rather lengthy and confusing upgrade system, the driving isn’t that bad.
As Need for Speed Payback’s story requires players to attain a certain car level for each successive event, you are often forced to stick with your first car. Or at least, you’re forced to stick with your original choice for each type of event until you’re forced to toss them all aside as they are unable to compete with the higher levelled events. It’s a kick in the tailpipe, to say the least, and forces you to start all over again with a new car that you may or may not have the cash to splash on. Alternatively, you can scour the land looking for the 5 components of a derelict car to build yourself.
So, as somebody that didn’t have any spare cash for a sparkling new shrink-wrapped supercar, I set off on a voyage to find the derelicts – accompanied by 30 dire songs on repeat. After successfully completing each of the initial series of races per car, you are presented with an abstract map of the area in game in which the derelict chassis of a specific car resides. Locate this chassis and you’ll be asked to repeat the same process for the 4 integral parts of the engine Rav needs to rebuild the car. It’s moderately enjoyable going on a treasure hunt, but it’s the equivalent of searching for doubloons and coming away with a few foil wrapped chocolate coins.
Each derelict is rebuilt as a level 100 car and the journey to 399 is not an enjoyable one. This means that a slow grind to repeat races over and over for marginally better pieces of equipment and enough spare parts to drop into a literal in-game slot machine. Depending on your car, you’ll be forced to repeat the same basic event until you slowly ascend the game due to a serious lack of extra races that exist out with the 50ish that make up the story.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: 50 races does seem like a decent amount. But these 50 races are split between story events and each car category, so it’s nowhere near as fleshed out as the words might seem. The only other option to generate new upgrades for your car or spare parts to drop dollars in the machine like an OAP in a Vegas casino is to venture online. The problem with using online to find new parts is that everyone online is already leagues ahead of you, almost like they paid for the advantage. You’re normally dropped into a series of 5 races and have the power to vote for each successive race. It’s a cool idea that, even in the casual modes, but I literally had no interest after my first race against a total uninhibited level 399 that finished the race with his other level 399 friends before I’d even sniffed the halfway point. So, it was back to the slog of offline to save face.
At this point I had decided that maybe I could grind enough of the extra activities, like going really fast or jumping really far to earn enough loot crates to get enough spare parts to pimp my rides. Just like in the real world, you’ll find nasty speed traps like those dotted around Richmond VA, cruising around the city you’ll find speed traps, speed routes, drift sections, billboards, casino chips to be found, and jumps, each offering up to 3 stars for performance. It seems good, right? Wrong. It’s literally impossible to complete these events at the highest level without having a souped up car. They are uninspired and incredibly dull; in fact Burnout Paradise achieved this years ago in a far better structure.
But it’s not just Need for Speed Payback’s structure that fails it, it’s a technical mess too. Cars will drop their collision boxes like they’re hot, and even on an Xbox One X, there are clear stability issues. I even had issues with the HUD just failing to load, the game crashing after opening the Xbox guide, and I was frequently locked out of my controls after exiting a tune-up store – something that you are encouraged to do frequently due to the progression system.
Need for Speed Payback is a travesty of a game. Between 9 minute cycles of waiting at a vendor refreshing so I could buy better parts for my car, flying about a map populated with enough meaningless activities acting as filler, and the atrocious ending, it’s hard to pick out a point where I could say genuinely say the experience was fun. There are a few moments that show the minimal amount of promise expected from a AAA game, like the sections that see the team work together to pull off a big heist, but they are rare and even when they do happen they remove all control from the player. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but this isn’t the Need for Speed of my youth, it’s Payback. What it is payback for, I am unsure, but it’s clear that I’ve done something wrong to deserve this.