Review: Need for Speed: Payback (2017)

Racing fans will lap up its sharp driving gameplay, but for those looking for a cut above the rest, this isn’t it.

The Need for Speed series has been going for an impressive 23 years now, evolving the gameplay for each entry culminating in this year’s Need for Speed: Payback. For this latest instalment we’re promised an expansion from just racing driving to action driving, with heavy influences from Hollywood films such as the latter sequels in the Fast and Furious franchise.

From the opening mission, where you take part in a heist to steal a car, through to the 2-dimensional protagonists and street racing, it’s a surprise NFS: Payback didn’t star Vin Diesel. You can feel the developers straining to jump on board the action driving movie craze and every now and then it achieves what it set out to do. The only draw back is, to get to these well choreographed set-pieces you have to grind out race after race which can become a chore. For racing game fanatics this will be more than serviceable, but for the gamer looking for variety in their gameplay it may quickly become tiresome. It reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed (2007) where you performed a series of repetitive tasks before you did something interesting. Normally I wouldn’t mind consecutive races, but I felt I was promised something else. The mission to steal a car from the back of a truck shown in gameplay trailers was beautifully handled and I wanted more of this constantly throughout.

NFS: Payback continues the style most common with contemporary video games of the large open world filled with story progression missions and side missions. Payback’s side missions include Speed Runs, Drift Zones, pretty much what you’d expect dotted around its Nevada inspired Fortune Valley. The most satisfying of these being Speed Traps, cameras located around the generous sized map each with a set speed, break the speed limit to trigger the camera and be rewarded. It’s never felt so good to trigger a speed camera. Specialised dealerships offer new unlocked cars and garages let you customise your ride from performance to decals. Nothing too alien here.

The story is nothing to write home about. It sees three characters (multiple protagonists the in thing right now) double-crossed after a heist. After given the opportunity to get revenge they set about recruiting the local race clubs (by beating them in a series of races) to give them information on the villainous criminal organisation known only as The House and their fixer, who betrayed the trio. So far, so simple. The story is light weight with caricatures rather than characters. The three protagonists in particular can be rather irritating most of the time with their snarky comments – the word ‘douchey’ comes to mind. To criticise the story of a Need for Speed game however is harsh as few are purchasing the game for a well-written narrative. The driving is where it’s at.

The vehicle handling is tight and each car type handles differently as you’d expect, each with their strengths and weaknesses that can be upgraded using Speed Cards obtained after completing races. These Speed Cards are offered in a ‘find the queen’ style, selecting one randomly from a set of three. Cards can be equipped or traded in for Speed Points – the currency of NFS. Speed Points are used to purchase cars and for the most part are easy to rack up meaning it shouldn’t take long to buy some of the more expensive vehicles.

There are five different race types to take part in; road, off-road, drag, drift and runner, each with their own selection of vehicles. Each are self-explanatory except runner which are getaway driver like in their execution and consist mainly of outrunning the cops. These are the most interesting in their variation and are by far the strongest NFS: Payback has to offer. The game can be very forgiving when driving, particularly on easy as you find npc vehicles stopping as you near to make easier to avoid and barriers keep you on the road in an almost Wipeout like fashion, this keeps the chase moving and really builds the thrills. My only gripe being the moments you wreck a pursuing car, causing the camera to spin and focus on the flipping mass of metal. As good as it feels, this can really screw up your driving as your eyes try to relocate your route as the camera spins back. Burnout did a much better job with its “takedowns”.

Performance-wise the game seems to handle the high speed chases with very little lag even when there are several police cars around you on screen. The smoothness is a relief allowing for error free chases. Despite it’s initial load time of around 20-30 seconds the game still struggles loading textures upon first booting, this also became an issue between in-game cutscenes. I also had several occasions where the in-game music played over cutscenes preventing me from hearing the dialogue, although judging by the story I doubt I was missing much.

Need for Speed: Payback is nowhere near a bad game, but at the same time it doesn’t do anything to set it apart from previous games in the series or other racers already on shelves. I was excited for a Fast and Furious type game throughout with almost Call of Duty style set-pieces on the road, but I was just disappointed to find myself taking part in a string of races before I was able to experience something like what I was hoping for and even then it was short lived. Racing fans will lap up its sharp driving gameplay, but for those looking for a cut above the rest, this isn’t it.

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