Where exactly to start with Need for Speed Payback, Ghost Games’ third take on EA’s long-running arcade racer series? Let’s go with Tyler Morgan, the figurehead of the three-strong crew you take control of in your attempt to win back the streets of Fortune City, an expansive caricature of Las Vegas that stretches from a city that bustles with casinos out to the dusty wilds. This is Tyler – or ‘Ty’, to his friends.
He is an indistinguishable smear of a human, and after a dozen hours in his presence I can’t think of a single defining characteristic of his barely written personality. I think perhaps he’s a bit rebellious, because his t-shirt says so, but really it tells you everything that EA decides to lead its return to a more narrative brand of Need for Speed with this complete non-entity of a character. It is, in so many ways, an indistinguishable smear of a video game.
How swiftly this series has fallen from grace, and how long ago Criterion’s brief yet wonderful stint on Need for Speed now feels. All that, and its premise promises so much more – a playable spin on Fast & Furious, that glorious series where Buicks and the high-wire stunts of Buster Keaton combine, Payback should be a slam dunk. It’s obvious quite early on that it isn’t, when you’re playing one of its handful of cinematic missions and control is rudely wrestled from you just as things get interesting. In Need for Speed Payback, cars will make daring lunges for speeding cargo trucks, or bring down low-flying helicopters. And all you can do is sit back and watch.
It makes for an exceptionally dreary opening 90 minutes, in which you’re essentially reduced to driving between blue loops in-between cutscenes – inviting unwelcome but not entirely unwarranted comparisons to Superman 64, another infamous video game dud. Things do get better once introductions are out of the way and you’re allowed to enjoy Need for Speed Payback’s expansive playground. At that point, it shifts up a gear, elevating itself from a dreary disaster towards a grossly unremarkable open world racer.
There’s an element of levelling up your car, though progression is slow and matched to an unsatisfying card collection game that makes little sense. You could always speed things up by buying a loot box, of course, which may well contain in-game currency.
The open world itself is absolutely fine, and it’s most certainly on a grander scale than what’s gone before in the Need for Speed series. Its city, a tangled knot of freeways and sidestreets that work their way through the neon chaos, brings to mind Most Wanted, while further out in the desert the long open road recalls the highs of Hot Pursuit. It’s certainly filled with things to do, as well; there are billboards to smash, speed traps to trigger and derelict vehicles to discover. Need for Speed Payback does all that you’d expect of a modern day open world racer, though rarely does it do any more.
And more often it marks a significant step back from its predecessors. Handling is noticeably dumbed down, that languid sense of momentum that Criterion introduced and Rivals maintained lost to something much blunter, and much less enjoyable. Car combat is in, nominally, but there’s none of the weight or chunky sense of connection when taking down a pursuer. You can only ever do so within events, too, seeing as the open world seems entirely absent of the police force, and given how the more interesting mechanics that saw you escape their attention in past games has been ditched completely.
It’s a series of downgrades, and the only area in which Payback can claim a categorical victory over its 2015 predecessor is in how its single-player mode is now completely partitioned from its multiplayer, meaning you’re now able to play offline. Even then, there’s a catch – the multiplayer takes a hit, with free roaming essentially a thing of the past as you’re reduced to taking part in a series of casual or ranked races.
The focus feels like it’s firmly on the single-player, then, and there’s certainly a lot of it to get through. Missions are threaded together by a story that essentially boils down to One of Our Koenigseggs Is Missing, with various disciplines catered for by events. There are straight-up races, drift events and missions in which you must flee aggressive pursuers (though sadly it’s a watered down form of car combat, with success mostly coming when you reach a set point rather than when you’ve outwitted or shut down your opponents).
There’s a button for your horn. That’s nice, I suppose.
Need for Speed Payback even has some decent ideas of its own. Well, it’s got one – Sidebets, in keeping with the Vegas theme, allow you to gamble on the outcome of an event, and push you to engage with events from different angles. Lay some money on being able to lead an event for a whole 90 seconds, or for holding a drift for a set amount of time. Or, even better, lay some money on sitting down in last place for the best part of a race before surging through to the win.
It’s never quite enough to rescue Need for Speed Payback from mundanity, though. Its open world is a little too vast, its events too thinly spread and the sense of progression is slow enough to make it all feel like an absolute slog. There’s vehicle customisation here – enabled, performance-wise, by a card system that’s been sloppily and unwisely appropriated from the world of mobile, while cosmetic enhancements are now locked until you’ve managed a number of in-game achievements – but it takes an age to achieve anything, and well over half a dozen hours until your garage begins to flourish. Latter events require a soulless grind, and given the presence of loot boxes and microtransactions it’s easy to be cynical of why exactly your progress feels wilfully stunted.
But it’s hard getting angry at Need for Speed Payback when instead a more fitting reaction seems to be one of complete apathy. I feel for developer Ghost Games, and after its promising debut with 2013’s Rivals this clearly talented studio’s spirit seems to have been crushed by the sheer weight of Need for Speed and the corporate burden it carries. In its hands the series has gone from accomplished to flawed to this, a joyless obligation of a game.