It seems unlikely that the primary demographic Need For Speed: Payback is going for is eight-year-old girls. Nonetheless, my daughter enjoys this an awful lot more than I do. Having ensured that driving around in the open-world hub wouldn’t expose her to any naughty words or otherwise unsuitable content, I let her drive around (under my supervision) so long as she stays away from the missions. She loves it. The freedom to go wherever she likes, often at a fair speed, appeals to her enormously; as does the consequence-free crashing, which results in a little aesthetic damage without affecting performance in the slightest. She’s very pleased.
Me? I’m not impressed.
Things don’t get off to a great start. And I don’t mean when I load the game up for the first time; I mean every single time I start the game. Each time I attempt to play Need For Speed: Payback, I have to twiddle my thumbs through a preposterously long loading time which exceeds that of any I can remember enduring in any other game. Ever. And that’s just loading the bloody title screen. When I want to actually play the single-player, there’s more loading to sit through (though thankfully not of so epic a length). Need for speed indeed.
Gameplay itself is… okay. It’s suitably smooth but, in order to achieve this, it seems that the developers have had to settle for graphics that look like a semi-remastered Xbox 360 game. Much worse is the fact that I discover, to my horror, there is no cockpit view. A selection of camera views, but not one where you’re actually sitting behind the wheel?!? Jiminy cricket. Handling is hilariously unrealistic – which I have absolutely no problem with – but it’s not the sumptuous arcade silliness of Ridge Racer, either. It’s the turn-on-a-dime drifts and wiggly handling of a small child playing with a toy car. It is, basically, what you’d expect from Need For Speed.
There’s a story; a dull, uninteresting story. Let’s not waste any time on it.
The general setup is heavily influenced by Forza Horizon, with a sprinkle of Burnout thrown in. As previously mentioned, there’s a free-roaming (or free-rolling… okay, it was funnier in my head) hub. Each story mission is activated by driving to the relevant spot on the map, and tapping the right bumper to enter into it. On the way – or if you just fancy a break from The Fast Losing Interest In This Furiously Terrible Story – there are many challenges to be had. Speed traps, average speed routes, jumps… I’m quite sure you get the idea. Oh, also, you’ll have to enter into loads of side-races and activities, because your cars in effect need levelling up.
This being an EA game, there are of course some sort of loot boxes in play. Known here as “shipments”, you earn or buy (ka-ching!!) them to improve your cars in what is, quite frankly, a very bizarre manner. It’s totally understandable that a game like Need For Speed will involve customisation and under-the-hood fiddling, as you young people seem to enjoy that sort of thing. However, there’s no tuning of differentials or choosing of tyres. No tweaking of brakes or modifying bodies for aerodynamic benefits. Each loot box – sorry, “shipment” – contains some in-game cash, a visual customisation item, and what is in effect currency to buy a randomly-generated card to improve your car.
You improve your rides not through technical know-how and carefully considered balancing between risk and reward, but by applying magical automobile cards. You can earn them through missions and online races but, in order to more effectively keep up with the requirements of the offline game, you’re going to have to a) buy some with in-game cash, and b) generate random ones via the tokens that are earned and supplied in loot boxes (three tokens gets you one card). The improvements applied to your vehicles is definitely noticeable, but it’s a rather disjointed and ugly way to go about it.
There are races, checkpoint races, drift challenges, drag races, big jumps, and – of course – many a story event where you need to smash and/or outrun police cars or ‘enforcers’. There’s loads to do, but – quite apart from the uncomfortable upgrading system – the blunt truth is that I could quickly draw up a (long) list of racing games on the market more worthy of your time and money than this.
Did you notice earlier how I didn’t mention multiplayer when talking about the loading screen? Well, guess what? If you want to play online, you have to sit through a second preposterously long loading time before you can play! Even the online racing itself is screwed up. You have to play five races in a row in order to reap a reward whether you’re playing ranked or unranked, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the cars you use online are the same as the ones you use offline.
The cars used by your opponents are the same ones that they are using offline, too.
Do you see where this is going? The more time and/or money you’ve put in to upgrading your cars, the bigger the advantage you’ll enjoy online. It’s ridiculous. In desperate need of a break from the uninspiring offline experience, I first ventured online while my street racing car had scraped up to a rating of 180. I came up against multiple players with cars rated over 300, against whom I had literally no chance (they would often finish the race soon after I started the final lap, and I’m not that bad). In every race I played, the person in last place would unerringly have the lowest-rated car. I could beat players with a slightly higher rating, if I was lucky, but that’s it. It’s dangerously close to pay-to-win territory.
As I type this, after the mistakes of Battlefront II well and truly kicked them up the arse, EA have started to introduce changes that will reduce the game’s reliance on loot boxes. Unless they dump them and the stupid card system entirely, however – which they won’t, of course – I can’t in good faith recommend this to anybody.
What’s the bottom line? A dull, predictable, and tedious story is married to a game that apes Forza Horizon without understanding what makes that series so great; and, of course, an unwanted loot box system.
Review written by Luke Kemp. Thanks to Xbox for the review code!