Racing's so much more fun when there's less in the way of rules. Who has time for GT Sport and F1's no bumping, no corner cutting, no ramming rules - give us a fender bender any day. Well down the rough and ready end of the spectrum, Need for Speed Payback is a game that at least attempts to offer everything we want - hard fought, up close and personal races, random police chases, spectacular crashes, and plenty of time to trade paints with your opponents. But a few dodgy design decisions mean Payback falls somewhat short of the lofty heights it could so easily have reached.
Set in the not so glamorous world of underground street races, and taking obvious cues from the Fast and the Furious, Need for Speed Payback tells the story of a group of cookie cutter racers looking for revenge after being betrayed when attempting to steal a supercar (meaning they're not exactly the heroes of the piece). While the game at least looks like it might offer a decent story and a good cast of characters for the first hour or so, channelling the spirit of the old Driver games amongst others, things really quickly fizzle out, as the game turns into just another open world racer.
After choosing your first car (for us, an old Land Rover Defender), it's up to you to set off around the game's vast, and mostly empty world, in search of races and events. While the races themselves are marked on your map, any other side challenges, like jumps (which ask you to leap a certain distance), speed traps (which ask you to pass through them above a certain speed), or average speed challenges (which... you get the picture), aren't actually marked on your map at all until you've not only found them, but attempted them too. When it comes to things like the game's billboards, which you have to smash through in order to "collect", that can be particularly annoying, as you could well find a billboard, not be able to figure out how to get through it, and move on, only to have the game completely forget you ever found it in the first place.
The races themselves are actually much, much better, with the game giving you carte blanche to drive like a saint, or ram your opponents like a devil. While cars themselves aren't usually all that drifty (bar when you take them offroad), some of the sharper bends on the game's tracks can be difficult to take, giving you the choice between applying your brakes (which usually stops your car on the spot and leave you losing five places), or attempting to try and get the game to realise you want to drift by "steering harshly", which only sometimes seems to work.
That said, once you've got the hang of the unusually sticky handling, you'll soon be powering your way to the front of the pack, and applying that last bit of nitrous, only to nudge the back end of the guy in first place out, and watch as they go barrel rolling down the street (or even better, go flying off a cliff) never fails to raise a smile. It's just how you get your car to be good enough to get to first place that's the biggest issue.
Like so many other EA games, Need for Speed Payback has a random loot system built into it, which in turn is tethered to - you guessed it - microtransactions. Each and every race you try to attempt has a recommended car performance level tied to it - when you're starting out, this could be 130, 160, etc - and the only way to upgrade your car is with something called speed cards. Each of these speed cards has a level, along with some other random effects associated with it, and could upgrade your ECU, exhaust, gearbox, or one of half a dozen parts. And as you'd imagine, having stronger cards is the key to upgrading your car - and upgrading your car is the only way you'll be able to be competitive in races.
That's why it's a bit of an issue that decent cards are so tricky to come by. If you manage to come in first in a race, you'll earn a single, random card, which may be great, or may be a dud - there's no way of telling what you'll get. And while you can replay the race again to earn new cards, you'll only actually get a star card if you come first - which can make the long grind to getting a decent car one of pure frustration.
The only other (free) way to get cards is to go to one of the in-game upgrade shops, and spend your hard earned virtual currency. And again, this would be fine, were it not for the weird restrictions on card availability. Rather than certain shops stocking certain items, but everywhere essentially offering a full range, the stores in game will instead only stock a random selection of cards, which refreshes every (x) minutes. If you stop by and all the cards they have are crap then, well, you're out of luck - you just have to wait for them to restock.
What this means is that getting anywhere in Need for Speed is incredibly tedious, as you're forced into either replaying races multiple times in the hope of eeking out a first place finish, or simply pinging to each of the card shops, which are scattered miles away from each other on the map, in the hope of lucking into finding a card that's better than the ones you have. With racers that put up one heck of a fight even if you're ten performance points clear of them, and a difficulty level that in all honesty doesn't seem to make one jot of difference, these cards are absolute requirements for getting anywhere. And of course, where there's a progression barrier, there's a microtransaction.
If you end up with duplicate - or rubbish cards - you can trade them in to get a single parts token. Through a lottery style system, you can then choose to exchange three part tokens for one new parts card - and while the game will still choose it randomly, you can at least set it to be either a party type (ECU, etc), part brand, or performance boost (like acceleration, braking) that you're looking for. However, as you can likely tell, these parts tokens are hard to get your hand on - but there's a microtransaction for that. Handing over real cash will let you buy a loot crate style package that contains anywhere from 4 part tokens upwards, which in turn will let you spin the wheel at least once more in the vague hope of ending up with a decent part for your car.
The worst thing is, we were actually having fun with Need for Speed until we hit the progression brick wall. It's not much fun finding your car constantly not up to scratch in races, and not being able to make it any better thanks to a system that's been actively designed to force you into handing over more cash. For all the effort that was put into the great customisation system (which lets you design elaborate skins for your cars), the police chases (which are actually a lot of fun), and the racing physics that make it so evily satisfying to smash your opponent into a brick wall and take first place, it was all for naught, as Need for Speed Payback is a game that drags itself down to the very bottom of the ocean by a progression system that's been actively designed to stop you from getting anywhere, in an attempt to force you into paying yet more money to get through a game that's already cost you £40+. If you like the idea of repeating races dozens of times in the hope of getting a card that might potentially be good enough to make your car go slightly faster, then Need for Speed could be the game for you. For the rest of us, this is a textbook example of how utterly terrible it is when an attempt to squeeze every last penny out of players takes preference over any semblance of other game design.
Format Reviewed: PC