If you fancy playing the videogame equivalent of The Fast & The Furious, you’ve come to the right place. The film series’ flashy visuals, stupid stunts, and straightforward characterisation mirror the equally blunt arcade racing that Ghost Games have prepared for us this year. This is a game though that proudly announces it’s partnership with ASOS for the character’s wardrobe choices, but while it still hopes it’s going to be taken seriously, it’s clear that the whole experience is offering more style than substance.
Let’s start with storytelling, which is presented front and centre when you fire up the game for the first time. Aping Forza Horizon 3 – where a great deal of ideas have been cribbed from overall – the introduction gives you control over a few different vehicles as Ghost show off some of the different aspects of this year’s racer, including the exciting inclusion of offroad vehicles and jump ramps.
You’re introduced to the three main characters here, and you’ll be spending plenty of time with each of them through the course of the game. Tyler is the best racer in the city, though you mainly know this because he, and everyone else keeps telling you this as you play. Mac is a Brit who loves off-road racing and learnt how to drift cars in Hackney, apparently, while Jess is a steely wheel-woman for hire. Ty, as with many central character’s, is a bit bland, Jess is difficult and prickly, while Mac is the only likeable one amongst them.
I’ve admittedly always liked the cheesy drama of earlier Need for Speeds, from Undercover through to 2015’s blending of live action cutscenes with gameplay. One of the immense positives to Payback is that no one else is doing anything like it. It’s a shame then that it’s pretty hackneyed stuff, with cliché-ridden dialogue that’s delivered with no sense of irony whatsoever, laughable characterisation, an overall lack of real stakes, as well as a bunch of characters that you probably won’t give two hoots about. Worst of all, it doesn’t trust you to take control of the most exciting bits, taking the wheel from you just as it’s getting to the good stuff. Sure it’s cinematic, but you’ll feel more like a pizza delivery driver where someone else gets to eat the delicious food. And they don’t tip.
Need For Speed: Payback is, like every good open-world racer, packed with events spread across an expansive map, while extra tasks like speed cameras, speed runs, smashing billboards and jumps help to fill out your journeys from A to B. There’s literally nothing you haven’t seen before in the Forza Horizons, The Crews and previous open world Need for Speeds of this world, but it all works well enough, though annoyingly you have to actually slow down and stop more or less exactly where an event is to be able to jump in.
Each character has their own quest line, and winning these races progresses the narrative in some small way. Every race, no matter what it is, has a recommended level, and if your car is any more than ten or so points behind it you’re going to be in for a hard time, though things are worse in Drift cars and more lenient in Off Road racing. The last Need for Speed had a problem with cheating/inconsistent AI, and things haven’t improved here at all. It ensures drama, that’s for certain, and the heavy, drift-happy handling model ensures there is some white-knuckle racing fun to be had, but it becomes as much about learning how to beat the system as it is about learning how to drive well. At its worst it crosses into hair-tearing frustration.
Levelling up your car sees you offered random Speed Cards which hopefully include useful boosts for the car you’re driving. You’re able to sell or trade any that don’t fit the bill, but it’s a system that feels too indefinite, and with the game’s recommended level malarkey you’ll find yourself often repeating earlier races to grind out speed cards that boost your level enough to move onto the next part of the narrative.
There are Tune-Up Shops that give you more control, though not only are their stock levels pretty limiting, you’ll also find your hard-earned winnings swiftly disappear, keeping your progression slow and steady, and enforcing yet more grind. It’s probably in the hope that you’ll resort to spending real-world money in the store in order to advance at a more reasonable pace. If anything can be learned from the events of the last few days, it’s that this is bad for gamers and even the suspicion of this is deeply unpopular.
There are a number of car dealerships to be found, each of which specialise in a particular build type. There’s Race, Drift, Offroad, Drag and Runner type vehicles to find, buy, and race in their respective classes, while you can also find abandoned derelict cars out in the world, similar to the barn finds in Forza Horizon, and fix them up. Those derelicts need extra parts though, with postcard clues pointing you in their vague direction. It’s a nice change of pace searching them out too, and every attempt has been made to make the search user friendly, with an alert firing when you’re in their vicinity rather than simply hanging you out to dry.
There are some very odd design decisions though, starting with missions that have prescribed routes, and which you fail if you happen to drive past the turning, even though your sat-nav routefinder could easily redirect you back on track on block over most of the time. In an open world game it’s practically insulting, and even more so if those missions aren’t time sensitive. Alongside that, mission checkpoints don’t load in fast enough, so I was able to shoot through exactly where I was supposed to be and be half a mile down the road before being told I was going the wrong way. This does not make things fun.
From a technical standpoint Payback is a solid game, though your initial load time whenever you start the game is painfully long. There’s some mild pop-in to be seen too, but overall Ghost have fashioned a handsome, smooth visual style and while it’s not going to compete with this year’s racing giants for detail, the cars shine and sparkle pleasingly whether it’s day or night. The last Need for Speed probably still hangs onto the series’ crown for visual impact, but your eyes will still enjoy taking it all in.
You don’t have to do it alone either, as long as you have an internet connection. Autolog makes a return – remember how revolutionary that once was? – as does each event’s Speedwall so you can keep a track of how your friends have done. It doesn’t feel as essential as it once did, but it’s always nice beating a real person over computer AI any day of the week. There’s also ranked and unranked races to indulge in as well.
Despite it’s flaws, I still found Need for Speed: Payback quite a likeable arcade racer. Just having a narrative sets it apart from the other, more serious offerings this year, even if it’s not delivered with much panache. Sadly its attractive visuals, and alternate take on the genre, can’t disguise a gamut of poor design decisions, some of which serve to make the enjoyable racing less than enjoyable.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro