Need For Speed Payback: Review

I hope you like the car you choose in Need For Speed Payback. You’ll be spending a good long while with it.

For me, almost six hours into the story, I was still driving the Honda S2000 I had picked as my first ride in the opening of Payback’s story campaign. The unrelenting challenge posed by brute-force AI racers prioritizes making upgrades to a single vehicle over acquiring new rides, much less personalizing them. Cars, parts and all of the customization options that have given the Need For Speed franchise its variety and glamor are bought with the same in-game currency, forcing an unpalatable choice: Drive the same car in different races, or drive different cars in the same races, to grind out currency and diversify my holdings.


Need for Speed Payback
Ghost Games/Electronic Arts


It’s a shame because there’s a strong arcade racer under the hood of Need For Speed Payback. Notwithstanding the lunkhead competitor AI and trivial pursuit vehicles one encounters, the handling and power inside the cars made the strongest invitation for me to explore Payback’s open world — vacant though it is. The wild oversteer and braking power takes some acclimatization, but it’s there to help users of all levels through the game’s wild drift-racing events, and to whip through right angle turns in getaway chases.

The problem with Need For Speed Payback is that the cars aren’t really the stars. Neither are the humans, in a hackdraft story that is pure expository dialogue and cornball reversals. Sure, there are three main characters with three specialties — the street racer, the drift/off-roader, the wheelwoman. But to give any of them a new ride — Mustang, Lotus or Charger — is to effectively start over, grinding through low-level races one has already beaten for currency, “speed card” upgrades and other items to then fashion the vehicle into something competitive.

To give any driver a new ride is to effectively start over

And competitive it must be. Each story mission in Need For Speed Payback helpfully gives a recommended vehicle rating to beat it. A car that matches that rating, or is even 15 points better, is still going to have a hard time on the first try or two. Cars south of that number by more than 5 points will be left in the dust, particularly in technical events like drift racing on pavement.

I don’t mind a stout challenge, even in an arcade racer where I know the AI is going to race a perfect line and hit each corner at top speed. And the progressively better handling and higher performance of unlocked vehicles in Need For Speed Payback did feel like a reward for learning how to gut out white-knuckle laps with shaky rides earlier in the game.

It would be a lot different if the story’s detours from street racing to the drag races and getaways paid off with better cars on the spot, or resources to apply toward ones sitting idle (speed cards awarded in these events are applicable to the class of car that raced them). Cars may be unlocked after beating questline events but they still have to be bought with the same in-game currency used to tune up everything else you race. Somewhat to the game’s credit, you can’t just buy a tranche of that currency for real-world money. But it is part of the “shipments” that are available for “speed points” which are available for real dough. So while the road between real cash and in-game currency isn’t direct, it’s still paved and waiting for those who wish to take it.

Need for Speed Payback
Ghost Games/Electronic Arts


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
Ghost Games/Electronic Arts



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. 
TechDomes® Score





Categories: Gaming

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