There have been a lot of racing games boasting new editions this year. Every major franchise from Dirt to Forza and Gran Turismo have rolled out their shiniest cars, their rockingest soundtracks and their prettiest tracks in advance of the holiday season. Need for Speed is the latest in the long line to do so, with the November 10th release of Need for Speed: Payback, a Fast and Furious-esque street racing extravaganza developed by Ghost Games and published by EA. Believe it or not, while Need For Speed has mostly been more arcade-like and therefore the least realistic in the world of racing games, it’s also the oldest of the current racing franchises out there, with 23 titles over 23 years.
I’ve been playing the Need for Speed series since its debut. It was a type of popcorn game my brother and I would sink hours into just for fun. We played every game from the original through the glorious cat and mouse game at breakneck speeds that was 1998’s Hot Pursuit – one sibling played the racer while the other tried to catch them as the cop. Years later, I’d pick up Need for Speed Underground and spend hours with its mini-goals and performance customization. Need for Speed: Payback isn’t perfect, and it’s not an example of the series in its most glorious form, but it is quite enjoyable and, for the first time in a while, feels like the Need for Speed I used to know. Some of the best elements from the classics return, and fun new elements brought in.
I’ll admit here that when I played through the tutorial I was hating it. The story takes front center stage, and I didn’t mind this obvious homage to the glut of recent street racer flicks, but the overuse of cutscenes and wrested controls was not a good first impression. I’d happily be driving one car, then inexplicably be tossed into a cutscene and out again, not knowing when I’d gain or lose control of the car. I was also yanked from one car and driver to the next without warning and given no choice. Finally, as that segment of the story culminated in a car chase and the police were zeroing in on me, I was all lined up for the final getaway, a daring jump into a moving semi. And, you guessed it, they took my fun away and replaced it with a cinematic of the character I’d just been controlling doing the fun part. Again, terrible first impression, and it was one that immediately had me worried for the rest of Need for Speed: Payback.
Once you’re past the tutorial, though, you’ll find yourself in a diverse open-world- and not just the mostly bland cityscapes of Need for Speed 2015 It’s harder to tell if you’re in a cutscene or not because this Need for Speed has grown up its graphics – it’s really pretty. It still entertains conceits like the otherworldly paint job sparkle, but the environments and terrain you’re driving on have a much more real-world appearance. There’s also lots to do, with elements like time trials, speed traps, speed runs and more littering each area- gaining you points and reputation which you’ll then use for customization and loot boxes.
Yes, those controversial loot boxes exist in Need for Speed, and have for a while now. EA is one of the most infamous purveyors of these beastly boxes. At first, I thought these would present more barriers than they actually did when playing. The bite comes out of these beasts though, since you can earn the lesser “base” shipments for things like reputation level changes, and customization can be unlocked through gameplay. I didn’t feel compelled to purchase premium loot boxes, since it only offered one or two more bank or vanity items per box, and both were blind pulls, so to speak. It’s possible there are vanity items I can’t access without these premium boxes, but if there are I’ve yet to run across them. You must open these boxes online, but after opening them can go back offline- a simple detail, but the resolution to a main complaint from 2015’s Need for Speed.
New for Need for Speed: Payback was offroad racing- and it’s the most fun I’ve had with the game overall. My sporty purple Subaru and I drifted, zoomed and flew through the southwest landscapes and when I finally finished the main story in the area, I didn’t want to leave. The Need for Speed player community has complained a lot about the grind involved in customizing cars’ performance levels in order to be able to compete in the story mode’s races, which are some of the hardest in the game, and the quality of upgrades in the game’s tuning shops. Ghost Games has responded to these criticisms and put out a few patches since to try to reduce these pain points, but this too was something I didn’t much mind. Need for Speed games have always been games I play with no real agenda, so running a few more races to build up my cars for the next stop isn’t a big deal. On top of that, there have been several instances where I’ve managed to take a car that’s at least 10 levels under “recommended” for an event and come out on top on Medium difficulty, where the AI seem quite capable.
As you progress, you’ll unlock more modes and more story. By the time you reach the city, the story begins to branch out in three directions at once, and each character will have a different role and a different racing specialty. Mac, the Brit, will take you through drift races and offroading, while Jess handles courier missions and “Runner” races, in which you’ll take an oftentimes wanted person and ferry them at furious speeds to a safer location. Tyler, the dopey frat boy, handles the straight up street races, as well as drag racing. There are plenty of cars you can buy from multiple dealerships scattered throughout the open world, and you’ll earn cash even if you lose a race, as long as you finish. The more activities you do like speed traps and jump events, the faster your reputation will go up, and this is a primary way to earn “base shipments” which contain currency and customization items.
There are also a lot of collectibles to be found. Smash through billboards, collect poker chips, assemble derelict cars from parts scattered throughout the world and reassemble them into supercars – you won’t find yourself wanting for things to do. There’s even a police element. This is another area that could have been great but went south as quickly as the tutorial. Runner mode usually has players running from the cops, or ramming them with their heavier, slightly slower “runner” cars. This can be a lot of fun- as you’ll sometimes run straight into a road block and have to cleverly reverse course and thread the needle through them to avoid being busted. You can also choose to ram the cruisers out of existence. This adds a bit of a combat element that would’ve been enjoyable- except for, you guessed it- the cut scenes. Every time you “destroy a pursuer” you must sit through an overly dramatic cinematic of said car or cars being wrecked, which takes you out of the race entirely and is just distracting.
Need for Speed: Payback is far from perfect, but it’s also not a total wreck. The overall feel of the best Need for Speed games is there, as are the fun customizations and events. The open world feels more well realized and the story, though cringeworthy, can be fun in a campy sort of way. It’s a game that’s fun enough to come back to and even to recommend, but if it’s ever going to reach great heights again, it’ll have to drop some of the baggage EA has pinned onto it over the years. Need for Speed: Payback is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows.