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Need for Speed Payback

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Ghost Games
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2017


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Xbox One Review - 'Need for Speed Payback'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 10, 2017 @ 12:00 p.m. PST

Need for Speed Payback is an explosive action/adventure driving game filled with intense heist missions, high stakes car battles, epic cop pursuits and jaw dropping set pieces.

Buy Need for Speed Payback

Racing games need to have an identity. With all of them doing basically the same thing, there needs to be something that's easily recognizable as a signature piece of that game or series. The Forza series has the rewind feature, the Dirt series has careful handling, and the Project Cars series has strict rules and wide assortment of cars. By comparison, the Need for Speed series has been struggling to find an identity in this console generation. Rivals aimed for the classic Hot Pursuit feel while the self-titled 2015 version tried to channel the Underground series mixed in with the 2005 Blackbox version of Most Wanted, and both titles met with mixed results from critics and fans alike. After being absent in 2016, the series returns with Need for Speed Payback, a game that takes its influences from two of its rivals: Ubisoft's The Crew and Microsoft's Forza Horizon.

The Crew's influence comes through in the story. You play as a motley crew of thieves that consists of a getaway driver, an aspiring street racer, and a daredevil looking for the next thrill. Everything seems to be going well for them, and one big heist could set them for life. However, the mastermind behind the heist decided to double-cross the team, forcing the crew to disband and lay low. Enough time has passed that they've decided to get their revenge, but it turns out that the person who crossed them is working for a major criminal organization known as The House, who tends to rig races and casino odds in their favor. The trio's best means of revenge is to partake in the country's biggest underground racing event and upset the expected winners.

At times, the story can feel like it was ripped from the more recent entries in the "The Fast and The Furious" film series. The opening heist is reminiscent of what you'd see in that movie series, and the subsequent action sequences achieve that same feeling. There are plenty of risky stunts being pulled off, like jacking a big rig and landing a moving car into said truck. Loads of cars are flying through the air at high speeds at almost any given moment. At the very least, the game pulls off this aspect rather well, something few games have even attempted.

What kills all that positivity are the characters. No matter what you think of the film series, what keeps people interested in "The Fast and The Furious" are the characters. They may not be the brightest crayons in the box and are completely unrealistic people, but they're a likeable bunch with clear motivations. Your trio of Jess, Mac and Tyler are the polar opposite of this. Throughout the game, they're one-dimensional people with no clear purpose other than revenge. More importantly, you're given no reason to like them. The same can be said for the antagonists, who are meant to be unlikeable but also come off as rather boring. Even the radio deejay who tries to emulate the one heard in The Warriors doesn't evoke any sort of emotion beyond reminding you of that film. This is a game where you'll want to tune out anyone when they speak.

As far as gameplay goes, the majority of it feels like it was ripped from the Forza Horizon series. It takes a little while, but you soon have free rein of Fortune Valley, the open world where you can travel from the casino city of Silver Rock to the canyons and mountain areas, with plenty of desert in between. During the events, you'll get XP for things like drafting someone or bashing into breakable objects, and you'll do it with a system that's much more forgiving of mistakes, so you can level up quickly. Outside of the events, you'll run into speed traps and stretches of road where you need to maintain a set speed to get ranked. Billboards can be broken, stray racers can be flagged down for an impromptu race, and you can even wander the world for broken cars that you can fix up into fully functional rides.

Despite the aping of the Forza Horizon series almost wholesale, Payback still maintains some of the hallmarks of the Need for Speed series. The events are generally straightforward affairs, with off-road and standard road racing accompanying drag races and drift events. The handling has arcade sensibilities, so you'll need to brake on curves, but you'll be completely fine if you use the gas most of the way and thrown in a little bit of nitrous. Drifting is pretty easy to execute, so those races won't pose much of a challenge. Most people will be able to pick up the controller and get into the racing without much trouble.

Thus far, Payback sounds like just the thing needed to reinvigorate the series. The freedom to mess around in the world was always appealing for a racing game, and that sense of exploration and making your own fun isn't lost in this title. As hokey as the story is, it gives you a purpose for the racing. Some of the drawbacks of having to be online all of the time are now gone, so you can pause and restart a bad run anytime you want. Customization is still rather limited compared to the competition, but at least you have the ability to download other people's designs and upload some of your own. Don't expect to re-create your favorite character on the side of your car, but you'll have a good starting point. The chance to place side bets is a nice way to spice things up.

However, you'll start to see some things that you wish could've been fixed or done better. While the AI can be a pushover most of the time, there are spots where it'll get too aggressive and actively mess up a good run at the last possible moment. Since this is a Need for Speed title, the collision can be overly sensitive, so hitting a small corner of a tree planter will stop you dead in your tracks. Customization also sees some oddities, as you'll have to accomplish some tasks before you get to even look at the limited selection of rims and side skirts, let alone purchase them.

Those flaws don't measure up to some of the other misgivings, though. The first issue is with the police chases and, to a larger extent, any action scenes. Players who hated the police chases will be thrilled to know that they're restricted to scripted events, so you won't have to deal with them when roaming the environment. Those who loved the chases will be disappointed to learn that the cop AI is incompetent. Most of the time, they'll try to bump you off but end up crashing into a barrier. While it feels good to see a Burnout influence when taking out a cop, it ultimately has no effect on the chase. The most disappointing aspect is that the chases are merely dressed-up checkpoint races. You can't get caught if you slow down long enough near a cop, so the game has no concept of getting busted. Make it through enough checkpoints, and the cops lose track of you, giving you more than enough time to hit the last few checkpoints. Without the need to get creative in those chases, the mode is severely neutered, and the same can be said for the big action scenes. If you need to hit a ramp to enter a truck bed, you just need to get near the ramp, and a pre-rendered cut scene takes care of the rest. It quickly turns what should be the most exciting part of the heists and chases into the most boring parts of the game.

The second issue is the upgrade system, which eventually leads to bigger issues with the overall game. To start off on a positive note, the upgrade system is now card-based. Divided into six categories, the system favors giving novices a more clear-cut understanding of which car part affects which statistic. The cards are also responsible for giving the vehicle some extra boosts if a vehicle only contains parts from a single manufacturer.

Things go downhill from there. Winning races gives you a chance of picking one of three randomly selected part cards. There's a good chance of getting duplicate cards, and while you can store them in your garage for later use or to sell them for in-game cash, you'll likely want to trade them in for part tokens. Gather at least three tokens, and you can use it to take a spin on a slot machine for a chance of getting a different or better card. While it fits the Las Vegas theme well enough, it feels rather dirty.

This is further compounded when you take loot crates into account. Leveling up and accomplishing certain feats gives you a chance at a normal loot crate, which can contain cash, part tokens or part cards. Of course, you can also spend real money to get premium loot crates, which increases your chances of getting better-quality ones and decorative pieces for your car. There's no other way to pay for the premium loot crates, but you aren't even guaranteed anything good, so that nullifies the pay-to-win argument but in a very bad way.

If you wanted less randomization in this area, you can hit a tune-up shop. Here, you can see which cards you can get and tune up your car according to the stat you want to be improved. However, the cards have some pretty high asking prices and that can be detrimental if you're saving for a new car. The tune-up shop can't escape the idea of randomization either, as the lineup of available cards in any shop gets rotated every 30 minutes. The high cost means having to replay races and other events to grind out the cash you need, but since none of the events can be considered short and the extra winnings aren't bountiful, you can't effectively plan for buying a specific part that catches your eye unless you get lucky and see it randomly appear in the shop.

Even worse is the fact that all of the cards you earn are only good for that specific car. You can't get cards for use on a future vehicle unless you get the vehicle first, so it's useless to stockpile cards. Once you get a new car, you'll have to gather new cards to give your new ride a fighting chance, so you're stuck in a seemingly endless cycle.

All of this random upgrade nonsense comes to a head when you realize that the upgrades are necessary in order to progress in the game. There's a decent number of cars available in this entry, but their prices are high enough that it isn't feasible to buy the right stock vehicle to get into a particular race. Should you try and enter a race slightly under the recommended car level, you'll instantly get smoked by the competition when the AI racers burst into the lead and never relinquish it. As a result, grinding is the only way to get anywhere in the game, and it instantly doubles the amount of time you'll spend in the campaign, showing a lack of respect for the player's time and making the game feel like a chore.

While the crux of Payback is the campaign, there is some multiplayer as well. You can take on up to seven other players in any race type, but the difference is that you're competing in up to five different events instead of one. Complete one event, and the losers have more power to vote on what the next event can be. There's some good variety, with around 48 different events, and the online performance is rather stable right now, with no instances of hitching or lag. Interestingly, only player matches are available unless you get a car with a rating of 275 or higher. Considering how you want matches with fierce competition instead of someone trying to joke around with a low-class car, this barrier to entry isn't a bad idea.

Graphically, the game isn't a high watermark for the series. Going by the cut scenes alone, the people look like they came from a previous-generation game despite not being rendered with the in-game engine. The environments lack the "wow" factor of the 2015 edition, so while you have a functional day-and-night cycle, it doesn't amount to much. Colors look washed out, and the cars lack the expected amount of polish. At least the game runs at a solid 30fps, which is understandable given the decently sized open world, and the particle effects when a cop car crashes remains somewhat impressive.

The audio ranks below the 2015 effort. We already touched upon how bad the characters and the script are, but the acting is pretty low-rent. Everyone sounds bored or doesn't know what kind of inflections to invoke, making each cut scene even more cringe-worthy. The soundtrack is quite good, with a nice mix of rock and rap, but much like the previous entry, the selection isn't wide enough. Instead of having those same songs on repeat, the game uses some of that airtime for silence instead. It's a weird choice that feels more like a bug since you can have a song play, followed by a good bit of silence, and then another song begins out of the blue.

Need for Speed Payback is a game with some good ideas and more than a few bad ways of executing them. The story gives you a good basis for a non-traditional racing game, and aping Forza Horizon isn't a bad way to go about it. The handling is purely arcade in style and fun to play, and the environments can give you some pretty good racing areas. However, even if you discount how bad the story plays out, you'll hate the fact that you'll never get to play the more exciting segments. Worse, the promotion of grinding makes the game drag on far longer than it should, making you want to put it away without even finishing the campaign, let alone try the multiplayer. It isn't the worst racer on the platform by any means, but it's certainly not worthy of the full asking price.

Score: 5.9/10

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