Last year's Need for Speed tried to return the franchise to its original name and vision. It was a celebration of racing culture, with real cars and real aftermarket parts, alongside a focus on nighttime street races. On paper, it sounded great. In practice, it was the first Need for Speed in a while that simply didn't land with me. (Jaz enjoyed it though.) I played it once or twice and never went back.
Need for Speed: Payback sees Ghost Games attempting to take another shot at bringing the franchise back to its place of prominence in the industry. It doesn't quite work out, but this year's entry is better than the last. Need for Speed: Payback's problem is one of serving too many visions.
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Payback continues the series' focus on open-world racing, this time in the faux-Las Vegas environment of Fortune Valley. It's spread between four different major regions. You begin the game proper in the Liberty Desert, a land of sand and scrub, where off-road racing is king. There's Silver Rock, the city where the game's version of the Vegas Strip lives, an area perfect for street races, drag contests, and police chases. There's Mount Providence, where the winding mountain roads offer excellent courses for drifting. And finally there's Silver Canyon, a decidedly rural region where folks off-road in vintage rides.
Ghost Games has built a solid open-world. The roads feel just right and there are some decent landmarks dotting the landscape to give you something to visually anchor on. I think the game could do bit more in the latter area; last year's Venture Bay felt stronger from a visual standpoint and Forza Horizon 3's Australia blows it away. Depending on your car type, there are race events, speed traps to blow through, drift areas, billboards to destroy, collectible chips to find, and roaming racers to take on. When you're in one of your tuned rides, just driving around the world, Need for Speed: Payback is at its best. That's not all the game is though.
RPG Might Mean "Racing Performance Game"?
You progress through Payback in a few different ways. The most straightforward manner is through Reputation and cash. Like most arcade-style racers, you gain Rep by winning races, driving at high-speed, going against the flow of traffic, and drifting. You net cash by winning events and betting on your performance during each event. Betting offers up a small sum for different challenges, like lengthy drifts or drag-racing wheelies. Gain enough Rep and you increase your overall Reputation Level. Cash is used to buy more cars, aftermarket parts, and speed cards.
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Speed Cards represent the soft RPG progression for individual cars. You get them by winning races or gaining Shipments (read: loot boxes) for leveling up your Rep and completing daily challenges. Alternately, you can buy them at Tuning Shops, trade them in for money or parts, and use those parts to craft new cards. These cards come in six categories across a number of different manufacturers: Head, Block, EDU, Turbo, Exhaust, and Gearbox. Higher level cards offer stronger improvements in their respective categories. Cards occasionally come with perks like Acceleration, Nitrous, or Brakes, offering additional boosts in those areas.
It's an odd and interesting system; races have recommended car levels, and you boost your car's level by equipping these Speed Cards like gear in an RPG. There are even set bonuses if you have three Speed Cards equipped from the same manufacturer. Having your car at a matching level as your opponents gives you a fighting chance, and being below means you're going to have some difficulty. (Especially in the straight up drag competitions.)
I honestly don't have a problem with the Speed Card system on the face of it. It works for the most part. The issue is the part hidden in the beginning two paragraphs ago: the Speed Cards are for individual cars. When you unlock a card, it only exists for the current car, so there's no way to move that card to another vehicle. Imagine not being able to move older gear over to another character in an RPG. I understand perhaps limiting cards to a specific car type, but this per car limitation creates a needless grind and incentivizes the player to stick with one car per race type. Sure, you'll unlock more cars as you play through the game, but you'll pick your go-to vehicle in each category because that's the one with best Speed Cards equipped (and buying further vehicles from the dealership costs cash).
I assume the idea was to make the players prize a single, small set of vehicles. Your garages, a series of home bases around the map, can only hold five vehicles and a derelict car at a time, which reinforces this idea. While that is how I play many racing games, that's a choice and I still prize the ability to collect a whole showroom of vehicles. A more cynical me thinks it was this way to push monetization, as Speed Cards and Parts to craft them come from Shipments, which you get in-game, but can also be purchased with real money.
For The Streets
This all brings us back to the other vision Ghost Games wants for the franchise. Need for Speed: Payback has a fully voiced storyline that weaves in-and-out between the normal race events. You play a trio of characters—racer Tyler, wheelman Jess, and drift/off-road king Mac—who used to be a part of a single racing crew. One night, the crew enacts a heist, only to be betrayed by a secret organization called The House, which controls most of the city.
It's definitely presented like The Fast and The Furious, but more like the early films (or the Need for Speed movie), not the later entries. The problem is it takes itself a bit too seriously. "You'll be the ace, but I'll be the one who holds the cards," states a character who calls himself the Gambler. (He has a name, but that's not important.) "What I do, I do for the streets," Tyler intones when a colleague informs him that he's crossed The House. This extends to the street gangs that you have to race against to prove your dominance over the racing world. The dialog is so oddly serious that it's to the point where I wonder if the B-movie writing was the earnest point of the story, not the accidental height of it.
At its most Fast and Furious, the story offers unique car chase scenes and challenges. These are actually pretty cool, but I feel there could've been a few more over the course of campaign. They really sell the feel Ghost Games is aiming for here, since the characters can't carry that weight. People tend to forget that the Fast franchise was straight B-movie until we had achieved enough films to have some love for the characters built-up. Tyler, Mac, and Jess can't accomplish the same over a single game.
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Shift Into The Right Gear
If it's feeling like I'm ragging on Need for Speed: Payback, I'm not. As I said earlier, there's a core here that's very good. The arcade handling is fun, the cars are beautiful, and it's great driving around the open-world. I'm even fine with Speed Cards as a concept. But Payback keeps stepping away from what it does best to do other things, like useless cutscene banter or forcing you to grind out Speed Cards for a new ride. Those choices dilute what the game could be.
Need for Speed: Rivals was my jam. Need for Speed (2015) was not. Need for Speed: Payback sometimes hits all the right notes, and sometimes it falters. I think Ghost Games is on the right track and a few cuts, tweaks, and improvements will lead to a much better Need for Speed experience in the future. When I'm just racing around the world, it feels great. Just get out of my way and let me ride.
Need for Speed returns with another flawed entry. There's the core of a great racing game here and when you're just driving around the open world, it's wonderful. The progression system encourages grinding and the basic story is delivered with B-movie seriousness, taking away from the racing pleasure. There's a better game inside of Payback, but you have to go through everything else to get to it.