Whether it be driving through metaphoric slippery slopes, literal rocky roads or vice versa, the Need for Speed franchise hasn’t transitioned terribly well into the new generation. For what was once a highly anticipated and much beloved street racing series, it’s struggled to find its feet, albeit wheels, in a genre dominated by much more serious simulators like Forza or Gran Turismo. However, if the Fast & Furious franchise and their 5 Billion dollar worldwide grossing has told us anything, it’s that serious street racing is out, and that over-the-top ‘action racing’ is well and truly in; so surely our racing games should follow suit right? Ghost Games return to consoles with their take on the cinematic, action packed racing adventure, and though it looks like it features the same bells and whistles as its inspirational material, does it share the same velocity and ferocity? Strap yourselves in guys; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Need for Speed Payback is the latest and 23rd entry into the street racing franchise, which once again is being driven by Ghost Games, the team behind 2013 and 2015’s titles. Seemingly leaving conventional street racing in the literal dust, Payback takes on the form of a cinematic summer blockbuster with a concoction of fast cars, delightful explosions and betrayal sitting comfortably behind the wheel. Set in the Vegas-y land of Fortune City, players take control of Tyler, Mac and Jess, 3 cohorts and colleagues who have been wronged and robbed of a high profile heist, and through trials and tribulations take back the streets to deliver, yes you guessed it, vengeance. Each member of your crew specialises in a different breed of racing, so during your quest for, yes you guessed it, revenge, you’ll be cruising on road as a speedster, off road as a powerhouse and smashing your way through the streets battling the Fortune City police department like a badass. Following in the skid marks of your favourite RPGs, Need for Speed now incorporates a loot box system, which upon winning an event will net you a ‘Speed Card’, a piece of kit that will not only upgrade your vehicle but allow you to put up a fair fight against your rivals. Need for Speed Payback certainly looks like it has the props to capture the high octane and testosterone of its cinematic inspiration, but how does it actually drive? Well, about as good as you’d expect a Fast and Furious direct to DVD sequel would do.
Need for Speed isn’t a bad game, or even a bad entry into the franchise, however there are a fair few loose engine parts that stop it from being a really great racer. First of all, Need for Speed is an open world racing game, if only to an extent. Whilst driving from race to race, event to event, even billboard to billboard, Fortune City and its surrounding deserts and woodlands are free range and waiting for your chassis, however come race day it unfortunately becomes a linear, checkpoint arcade racer. Despite the vast untouched dirt tracks and winding roads either side of your vehicle, to win each race you must follow the rules, ie concentrating to drive through each impending checkpoint rather than carving your own track, dismissing the freedom to drive as dirty or as clean as you please. Checkpoint racing doesn’t necessarily have to be a downside, but here the lack of freedom makes the surrounding countryside barren and otherwise unexplored, making even the most action packed, explosive race feel strict and frustrating; checkpoints also make the police chases predictable and irritating, especially considering that you can only escape them on a pre determined path opposed to one of your own devising.
I may have stated that the Fast & Furious franchise may have inspired the Payback in narrative and cinematic set pieces, but in some ways it’s also a spiritual successor to Burnout Paradise. Scattered throughout Fortune City and its neighbouring terrain are dozens upon dozens of speed related challenges, little side quests that encourage you to drive as fast and furious as you can, whether that’s by hitting a particular top speed, completing a course in the best average speed, or my favourite, how far you can soar through the air from the edge of a strategically placed ramp. Completing these tasks will reward you with stars, which when built up will unlock special drop boxes containing a variety of vehicular goodies; revisiting these challenges with better cars will see you hitting higher targets and netting more stars, unlocking those precious care packages at a much faster rate. Fortune City isn’t just home to the most notorious street racers in the land, but it’s also home to a number of billboards in need of smashing, casino chips in need of collecting and derelict cars in need of finding, so however you chose to deliver payback you’ll not be short of competitive challenges and crazy activities along the way … oh and those campaign races, coz you’ll be completing them again and again and again.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the purpose of incorporating the loot box incentive into a racing game, I mean where’s the fun in only having to complete each race once, however on the flip side, where’s the fun in having to complete each race half a dozen times to get a worthwhile reward. Winning each race will not only give you cash and kudos, but also a random ‘Speed Card’ that corresponds to a specific component in your car (nitro, brakes, exhaust etc), and it’s imperative to constantly upgrade these if you want to progress in the career. Displayed above each race will be your current vehicle rating as well as the recommended vehicle rating, so if you don’t come close you’ll have to either spend your in-game currency, or get them for free by winning the limited races available to you, but even then you’re not guaranteed to get one you actually need. Sure, it does give Payback a huge amount of replayability, but make no mistake, no one is happy about it. At the time of writing, Ghost Games have said that they aim to make changes to how the game distributes fair and worthwhile rewards, meaning that potentially they’ll rethink how ‘Speed Cards’ are won, and honestly, with a bit of spit and shine, this system could genuinely feel challenging and rewarding, because currently it’s like breaking the land speed record at the cost of having dog crap smeared on all of your windows.
Having to furiously replay every race aside, for just shy of 20 hours I was pretty engaged behind the wheel, at least in regards to the maniacal, high speed racing and not in the nonsensical plot. I find that by trying to create a narrative simply around owning cars ends up turning every script into an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, a tale of how having the fastest car in the land makes you an unstoppable and powerful god, opposed to the high speed douchebag you tend to control. Payback’s story isn’t a particularly enjoyable one, packed so much with tired stereotypes and narrative devices, that you’d rather sit through the long loading screens than expose your senses to another generic chat about cars and baddies. Character wise you’ll be stepping into the shoes of cinemas tamest and overused crash dummies, an American bad boy hungry for revenge, a cockney who left London to follow his dreams, and a no nonsense tom boy who won’t let you forget she’s no ordinary girl. Ignore the fact that they are illegal street racers, I mean who on earth playing this game can relate to that, but these characters aren’t even likeable, and they’re banter is disjointed and painful, so you can’t even relate to them as humans.
Despite the cringey dialogue and general over arcing storyline, Need for Speed Payback is a pretty enthralling 4 wheeled crusade. It may contradict itself by featuring linear, checkpoint ridden roads on a wide open, treacherous continent, but the races themselves are slick, chaotic and heart pounding for the most part, and with numerous secondary objectives and challenges to complete, there’s certainly a lot to keep you and your car occupied. Though the Speed Cards should work, they really don’t in their current form, but honestly with a bit of re-wiring they can absolutely become a worthwhile reward. In a world plagued by serious racing sims, it’s great that the sillier and more explosive end of the garage is still churning out new rides, but perhaps now it’s time they put their own stamp on the genre before the franchise rusts completely.