Games Review: Need for Speed Payback (Xbox One X, 2017): Grind before fun

If I can communicate anything to you about Need for Speed Payback, it’s this: when the game first asks you to pick a car, choose wisely. Choose wisely, because you’re going to have that car for a really, really long time.

Of the game’s three starter cars — a 1987 Buick Grand National, a 1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI and a 2009 Honda S2000 — I chose the Buick for the hell of it. It’s shaped like a brick, it looks like it weighs a million kilos and I thought it looked like fun. Seven hours into the game’s campaign and I was still driving the hunk of junk. Less a car and more an anchor around my neck, I found myself trying to shove as many upgrades into this useless machine as possible because it’s the more efficient way to get an edge on the aggressively stupid racer AI. Simply buying another car won’t cut it because then you’ll have dropped a chunk of the in-game currency it took you hours to grind out for a very minimal boost in performance.

I’m really bummed by this design choice because it’s kind of the only thing keeping Need for Speed Payback from being a solid arcade racer. If you can cut through the meathead racer AI and irrelevant police vehicles trying to pull you over, there’s enough going on with the cars to push you into exploring the game’s open world (mildly deserted as it is). There’s a few control quirks that take a bit of getting used to but it’s easy to see the Why of it — it’s the best way to consolidate regular racing, frequent drift events and the need to perform a jackknife turn when a fast getaway is required.

The biggest trouble I’ve had with Payback is that I don’t know who’s supposed to be the lead here. It’s not the cars, and it sure as shit isn’t the three jabbering idiots that comprise your racing team. The story is profoundly underwritten, every line white noise exposition delivered with barely concealed bewilderment. While your team members each grant specific buffs to suit different races — drift, off-road, etc — to give any one of them a new ride is to find yourself back at square one, forced to grind basement tier races to upgrade their rides so they can be in any way competitive.

Competitive seems to be Payback‘s watchword. The game illustrates the difficulty of each race by giving each race a rating. If your car can match that rating (or even if it sits as many as 20 points above it) you’re still going to have a fight on your hands if you want to place even in the top 3. If your car is as few as 5 points below the recommended rating, you will be instantly and conclusively dusted. If its an event that requires technical skill like a drift comp? Don’t even think about it unless you’re 30 points up at a minimum.

This is not to suggest I’m cranky about being challenged. This is an arcade racer at heart — I know that everyone I’m up against is going to stick like glue to the perfect racing line and hurtle through every corner at speeds that make physics cry, I’m ready for that. It does also make some of the cars with better handling or performance you unlock later feel like you’d earned something after paying your stressful dues in the early-game scrub tiers.

In most racing games I’ve ever played, the payoff for winning specific races is access to better cars, upgrades or currency then and there. Gives you a nice reward loop for doing well. Here, cars only unlock after beating specific races and you still have to buy them with the same currency you’ve been desperately grinding for upgrades. So again, sacrifice the upgrades to start over, or just stick with the shithouse ride you’ve already got. At the very least, EA didn’t draw a direct line between the in-game currency and microtransactions, you can’t just buy a ton of it with real money and be on your way. Instead, they made it part of what are called Shipments. Shipments can be purchased with Speed Points, themselves paid for with real money. The path to microtransaction hell isn’t immediately obvious but it is there. Oh, you’d better believe it’s there.

You’ll get a Shipment every day when you log in and they’ll drop you a bucket of in-game currency, some parts tokens and a vanity item you can flog for more cash. It’s not terribly exciting but it’s not nothing either. Still, between the deliberate grind, the loot boxes and the multiple currencies, it leaves Need for Speed Payback feeling like a very expensive F2P mobile game, openly inviting you to spend real money in order to get the chores done that little bit faster. It’s pay-to-win in the truest sense and try as they might, EA can’t tapdance hard enough to distract from that.

This F2P approach saps a great deal of the joy out of the game. There’s nothing fun about grinding for hours for minimal return, and the closest Payback ever gets to feeling like there’s a halfway decent economy is when you’re nippy enough to get through a whole storyline — the Getaway story at the top of the game is a good example — without needing to spend on more than two or three upgrades. This will allow you to potentially buy a higher tier vehicle, but it’ll leave you in the poor house and back to limping.

The impression Need for Speed Payback left me with was that it didn’t particularly care if I liked it or not. At no point did it feel like my enjoyment was its top priority. The endless grind and the rote story about climbing to underground racing stardom are at odds with one another, never allowing you to feel like you’ve accomplished anything despite the game insisting that you have. Between this and Star Wars Battlefront II, it seems EA have some work to do where monetisation is concerned.

Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: A solid arcade racer at heart
Lowlights: Constantly prods you for cash while pretending it’s doing nothing of the sort
Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One X.