There’s something about picking your dream car, customizing its looks, and drifting it through the mountains like Sean Boswell in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Finding the corned on a windy-back road or timing your shifts in a drag race down the boulevard feel rewarding and badass. It’s only when you take a deeper look at that customization that you realize you’re not driving around your dream car, but rather, a bucket of bolts–or in this case, speed cards. Welcome to Need for Speed Payback.
Need for Speed Payback starts out with the done-in, albeit title-deserving revenge story of Tyler Morgan and his crew. But from the beginning, lines of dialogue are cringe-worthy and none of the characters seem to be based in any sort of reality. From the moment I loaded on, I could not suspend my disbelief. While a story about twenty-something-year-olds hijacking cars and attempting to somehow supplant a casino doesn’t sound real to begin with, I found myself immediately uninvested in the characters I was playing, the enemies I had to crash my car into, and the Seattle/Vegas hybrid I was trying to save.
To begin, Need for Speed Payback‘s central characters – Tyler “Ty” Morgan, Sean “Mac” McAlister, and Jessica Miller seemed bound together by nothing more than the opening mission. Everyone gets in trouble and their Mechanic gets shot. This insufficient stand-in for an instigator for “payback” did not entice me to like the game’s trio, nor the antagonist. Betrayal doesn’t work at the beginning of a game when you’ve invested nothing in the characters other than driving around a hypercar and crashing into some enemies. While maybe the idea of a multi-million-dollar car may be stake enough to warrant revenge for some, I was looking for a lot more.
What compelled me was the thought that I could take a rad Honda S2k and turn it into the drift machine of my dreams. Though as Need for Speed Payback branched out and I began having to take on different leagues with different builds, I realized that there is little-to-no incentive to build up any other cars than the one you start with.
That brings us to Speed Cards: a Destiny-esque loot system that is based on sets, numbers, and brands. All of these defining traits, however, have no real-world mirrors. I had no idea why one transmission provided break-time and the other provided handling. I couldn’t remember what the brands were until much later on in Need for Speed Payback, which made trying to match them (which is necessary for bonuses) needlessly difficult. And I could not understand why a progression-based racing game was making me rely on luck to improve my car.
Seriously, upon completing a race the player is given the chance to pick from three cards, which will then randomly turn over a speed card that has a number that may not even be higher than the one you had. It also might not give you the necessary car level to progress in the next race. The system is seemingly based on the current level of your car, and as such, your rewards will only accommodate your best car. This meant that buying a brand-new drift car and having to work it up from the car’s base level was time-consuming and cumbersome.
Instead of experimenting with different builds and stances, I took my Honda S2000 and Subaru Impreza WRX STi throughout the entirety of Need for Speed Payback. It was only when new league types were introduced that I got to build a new and interesting car.
But even something as simple as visual customizations were locked behind a nonsensical barrier. While one could expect to have to pay heavy sums for that big wing or Rocket Bunny set, the reality is that certain vehicle customizations, including bumpers, fenders, spoilers, etc. require the player to complete arbitrary challenges. The spoiler, for example, required me to drive at 175 MPH for 3 seconds to even be able to purchase one. While these seemed to work themselves out in the latter half of Need for Speed Payback – as my car grew faster with higher speed card numbers – I felt frustrated that customizing the visuals of my car was, in itself, locked behind the speed cards.
These racing leagues, as I mentioned before, introduced drag racing, drifting, and time-trial-type races into Need for Speed Payback, which added a nice mix of gameplay. Their stories, though, were all over the place both literally (on the map) and figuratively. Some leagues were headed by characters who seemed to be from an even crazier reality than the one the game presented.
The “Unknown Soldier,” who heads Shift-Control, seems like a failed attempt to conduct the Anonymous mythos into Need for Speed. On the other end of the spectrum, Tyler meets up with the leader of another league who he appears to have a history with from high school. Even this short snippet of a narrative is able to be more interesting than the game’s main story.
Interesting too is the addition of Derelicts. These car carcasses are rewarded as hints after beating Need for Speed Payback‘s bosses and the maddening hunt for all five parts rewards the player with a classic car, with a classic personality. These cars are the best cars in the game as they can be upgraded beyond the average car, but their limitation lies in the player’s inability to change the car’s build after they select one. A beautiful 1965 Mustang, for example, can’t be turned into a race build, after you superficially lock it in as a drift build. This turned me off to the idea of the Derilect because I could spend an hour finding all the parts only to turn it into a build I would end up not liking.
It was only when I began driving around the world looking for these Derelict parts that I realized how empty the world I was playing in was. Sure there are cars on the roads and beautiful scenery, driving from point A to point B was only made bearable through challenges that the roads gave you. Some roads challenged you to hit a certain speed, while others required you to drift up a certain score.
While these provided momentary relief from the monotony of traversing the open world, the moment I began ignoring them, because they only awarded shipments (Need for Speed Payback‘s loot box equivalent), I had nothing to do outside of the leagues and missions. I was building my car faster and better only so that I could improve the drudge from one side of the map to the other. Once I realized I could fast travel that’s all I did.
Need For Speed Payback is the perfect example of one step forward, two steps back. While the world is more beautiful than any of its predecessors, it feels empty in much the same way that the game does. All of the systems seem to be their own worst enemy. Want to build a car? How are you going to upgrade it? Want to customize its looks? You’ve got to complete unnecessary challenges. Want to progress the story just to see if it gets better? You’ve got to make sure your car is the appropriate level. All of these things, combined with an unimaginative and frankly boring story result in a racing game that makes it frustrating to race. While there’s still the rush of pushing past second place a few meters before the finish line, that rewarding experience is not due to any innovations that the series has made here and the innovations that make this entry in the series unmemorable and unattractive.