Two years after the Need for Speed reboot, the franchise returns with Need for Speed: Payback, an entry clearly inspired by vehicle-heavy action movies like The Fast and the Furious. Available for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, we tested the game’s PC version.
This year has seen a great selection of racing games, but between Forza 7, Project Cars 2, Dirt 4 and F1 2017, the emphasis has been firmly on the sim racer. I enjoy them, but I definitely tend to tone down the realism a bit to make the games more accessible and arcade-like. I grew up playing Outrun and the Lotus series, and later on I enjoyed the Burnout franchise a lot on my Playstation. There are a ton of arcade racers available on Steam, but few of them are AAA experiences – so imagine my excitement when Need for Speed: Payback was announced.
Upon playing, that excitement was definitely justified as well, because Payback has its arcade racing fundamentals down very well. The handling is a great mix of control and the ability to corner very liberally – without resorting to the floaty kind of cornering that you see in Ridge Racer every now and then. The game has you playing through missions with a large variety of styles (from getaways to regular races), and of course you have nitro available as well for a bit of extra turbo speed when you need it.
The shiny wrapper around all of that arcade racing is a story-heavy campaign mode that’s all about getting revenge against those who betrayed you. This betrayal is shown in the game’s opening moments, where a heist goes wrong and you and your crew are left with almost nothing. Plotting to take back what’s yours brings you ever closer to the ones who sold you out, but it also puts you in the way of a major crime organization called The House.
To get anywhere in the game, you’ll have to play through a series of races and challenges – switching between your crew’s characters and cars as you go. Tyler might be excellent when racing, but you’ll want to switch to someone else when it’s time for tight cornering or the odd dirt road section here and there. This translates to the story when you look at getaway scenarios, which is where Jess is at her best. Looking beyond the story also reveals a large array of little challenges here and there that will certainly appeal to completionists, and these include jumps or high speed challenges.
But even though there’s plenty to do in the game outside of the story, it’s the action movie-like sequences that are at the heart of the game. From straight up racing to scenarios that feel much more like a stunt scene, the adrenaline level is high and that’s something I find hard to achieve in the more sim-oriented racers out there.
Being something of an open world title, the one big drawback with Payback for me was how long the game would keep me away from the racing action I enjoyed so much – or how long it kept me from progressing to something new. Buying new cars, or upgrading existing ones, requires you to fork over serious amounts of cash – and that’s a commodity which is hard to come by in Need for Speed: Payback. Winning a race doesn’t even give you enough cash to buy a single Speed Card (which represent car upgrades), so you quickly end up replaying previous levels just to get to the next one.
I completely understand the need to stretch the storyline out a little bit so gamers don’t complain about a campaign that’s too short for their liking, but if it ends up hurting the campaign’s enjoyment then I’d rather just have this extra content used in some other way – as either optional or post-campaign content.
Although this unnecessary grind did hurt my enjoyment of the campaign, I can’t help but remember how awesome the actual arcade racing is as well. Despite its shortcomings, Need for Speed: Payback sits proudly among my 2017 collection of racing games as the go-to choice when I need an adrenaline fix.