As first and third person shooters have become more and more cinematic over the years, racing games have been left behind. Sure, your sim racers like GT Sport and Project Cars don’t really need more drama than what you get out on the track, but for arcade racers that delve into the underworld or counterculture, there’s definitely an opportunity to add a bit of story to wrap around the racing. It’s something that Need for Speed has tried a number of times over the years, to varying degrees of success, but Payback is easily the series’ most cinematic attempt yet.
There’s more than a few shades of the Fast and Furious to it – or a little bit of the Need for Speed film, if you prefer – with audacious heists and action scenes. Tyler Morgan is the Racer, which the game tells you on a number of occasions is the best racer in town, Jess is the bruising Wheelman who’ll batter the cops on the gang’s trail, while Mac’s there for the more audacious side of things as the Showman, putting the ramp in place for Morgan to jump over, taking you off road and so on. Unlike with the 2015 game, they’re all rendered in engine, meaning there’s no strange real world to game transitions, as impressive as they were at the time.
These blockbuster moments jump from character to character, dragging you along on a whirlwind of racing, chases and action, and in that regard they’re great, if feeling a little too directed when the cops are on your tail and you need to make an escape – in fact, all cop chases in Payback have a clear point of escape that you have to reach, as opposed to the endlessly escalating chases that appeared in previous games and other open world titles.
That first audacious job all goes wrong though, and after being double-crossed, the gang don’t make it out with the ultra rare Koenigsegg Regera they were expecting to steal. Instead they’re fractured and divided, with Tyler stuck running errands for Marcus Weir to pay off his debt to him. What he really wants, though, is revenge against The House, and so he starts running street races in his beat up rust bucket of a classic sports car. Even though he complains about not having enough money to pay the rent, it’s still got nitrous…
It’s not too long before you’re getting the gang back together though, and there’s some great knowing cliches and, I’m hoping, entirely intentional cheesy dialogue in the game. Going up against The House, which runs all the street races in the city, you’ve got Weir as The Gambler. Tyler is his “ace in the hole”, the words “The House always wins” are uttered, and my favourite is when Mac talks about growing up in Hackney, boosting cars and learning to drift so he can drive fast.
These scripted blockbuster missions bring the spectacle, but underneath it all this is still an open world racer, much like the last few entries in Need for Speed. Those three characters lead to a trio of racing archetypes and different kinds of cars, and Mac in particular brings something new to the game with his penchant for off roading as well as the series’ staple of drifting.
Allowing for off roading for the first time has seen the team at Ghost Games bring the physics engine entirely in house, and there’s a good shift between racing on tarmac, racing on dirt tracks and heading into the bushy scrubland of the deserts. Not all cars can handle it, and so you could find some rather tasty match ups where your 4WD rally car is able to take those dirt road shortcuts while your opponent has to stick to the road.
Alongside the arcade styled handling, which has a certain weight and heft to it, the game still has a great sense of speed with its mixture of motion blur and effects, as well as the dynamically shifting camera. It really emphasises the corners you drift through as the car swings out to the side of the camera.
The one thing you’ll struggle for at the start of the game is nitrous. There’s the same kind of time and reward based recharge for nitrous, but you simply don’t have a lot of it on your first few cars. Upgrading your cars is a key part of the game, and you do so with Speed Cards, picking one from three at the end of a successful race, and then applying those car parts to boost its speed, acceleration, airtime and so on. Initially, you’ll just slap whatever you want on there, but eventually, you’ll be picking and choosing particular parts to twist that car in a particular direction with its performance.
It feels a little strange in some ways, but the very best cars in the game will actually be the wrecks that you find in the world and then work to restore, bit by bit. The simple reasoning being that, not only can they be boosted with these Speed Card rewards, they can be boosted even further than, for example, the Golf GTI or Subaru Impreza that you might pick for your first car. There’s a lot more range to them, and there’s also the flexibility to customise them for the different racing disciplines.
There’s also an impressively comprehensive livery editor, letting you add all manner of symbols, icons, designs and just words to all parts of the car. It can be as simple as adding a pair of stripes along the length of the car, as intricate as layering dozens of elements and colours, or as ridiculous as blocking out the entire windscreen with a Union Jack.
Payback brings something to the table that we don’t get anymore: good, honest arcade racing. We’ve seen its bombastic blockbusting action at E3 and Gamescom, but it comes alongside the kinds of open world racing the series has built itself around in the last decade and even ventures into new territory with off road racing. It might be Need for Speed, but it might also have a few surprises in store for you.