Shipments still come every day for logging in, and they include a chunk of in-game cash, a batch of parts tokens (exchanged on a 3:1 basis for a speed card) and a vanity item that can be exchanged for the aforementioned money. It’s not an extravagant bounty but it is a help. Still, Need For Speed Payback’s punishing grind, loot boxes and multiple currencies offers a tacit encouragement to spend money to bypass its automotive chores while holding a fig leaf over the bad PR of a true pay-to-win scenario.
A more user-friendly system would allow drivers, as they tackle one branch of the street racing series, to put what they earn from it into a new vehicle for another. But in every race I felt I had to bring a car with optimum performance to the starting line. The closest I came to a real economy of scale is where I plowed through the initial getaway storyline with few upgrades to the car (a really smooth Audi SS Sportback), because none of the events were against a racing field. I used everything I earned from that — currency and speed cards — to acquire a suped-up Honda NSX Type R and easily pass the first two events of the drift-racing storyline.
But then I was still quickly out of dough, feeling forced to push money into the braking and nitrous upgrades that sustain the long power slides that win those beauty pageants. There’s a live-tuning option (for attributes like vehicle stance, brake bias and the like) that I appreciated because it didn’t require me to fast-travel to a garage. It’s particularly useful for the drifting cars, but it took a lot of trial-and-error to get it to a point where I could feather the brakes and gas (or hit the NO2) to keep a long slide going.
Loot crates, multiple currencies and a punishing grind make for a user-unfriendly upgrade system
The driving events are well connected to the story of Need for Speed Payback, but the story isn’t much richer than movie theater popcorn. Tyler, the leader of the good guys’ alliance, got screwed on a deal. He and his friends, drifter Mac and getaway driver Jess, are gonna, race-by-race, take apart the super uncool organization called The House, which is fixing races in their Vegas-like paradise of open highways and wide boulevards. All of the characters are outrageously hip; my favorite was the Underground Soldier, leader of the Shift-Lock crew, described as “that anarchist-hacker-drift racer.” They all gave me lively banter during boss races and a respectful nod after taking them down. Payback splurges on the glamor of the street racing scene, and it’s all in good fun, but the narrative is always a garnish, not an really an edible item on the plate.
The big set pieces felt like reformulations of events I’d finished before, where the really unusual maneuvers, like pulling up next to a big rig with my teammate hanging out a window, were largely managed by quick timer events. The boss battles supporting the story arc, though, raced through well designed courses that demonstrated the boss character’s driving specialty while allowing for a good stretch to get past them with old-fashioned muscle. So even if the opposing drivers pose a formidable challenge, the game usually leaves room for a lesser-skilled driver to keep up and win.
Need For Speed Payback doesn’t do many favors for itself. It’s a fun racing game whose flashy story would be fine if I felt like I was building a blinged-out career worthy of it. Instead, I felt driven toward pure stats upgrades, heedless of what the car was or what it looked like.
Coupled with a desert city and countryside that feels lifeless despite being packed with racing challenges and collectibles, it’s the equivalent of a bland paint job surrounding a high performance engine block. Considering how little I customized my cars in Need For Speed Payback, much less wanted to, that’s the best epitaph I can give it.
Need for Speed Payback was reviewed using final “retail” Xbox One download codes provided by Electronic Arts.