Ghost Games are no longer the new kids on the Need for Speed block. Payback is their third game, and there can be no more excuses. They've been given ample time, resources and the studio is mature. Everything is in place. Could Need for Speed Payback be the injection the series needs after years of fairly indifferent releases that failed to capture the imagination of the racing audience? Maybe, but that's not to say that those who came before were without merit. They just didn't capture the zeitgeist like the first couple of Underground titles from EA Black, or Hot Pursuit from Criterion Games managed. Need for Speed has to be current, then, it needs to have something you don't find in games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport (or perhaps even more so Horizon). Is a cinematic narrative and Hollywood vibes that certain something?
First impressions do count for a lot in video games and Need for Speed Payback and its faux Vegas (Fortune Valley) does something right with the visuals, the light and the dust of the desert. The art direction is on point and the Frostbite engine is put to good use.
"We wanted to expand on that foundation [from previous Need for Speed games]," said creative director William Ho. "So we chose the location of the southwestern US so that it has a wide swath of a city, with a glamorous side and a gritty side, you've got the canyons which are gorgeous, we've got mountains which give you that fresh feeling, and then we've got this massive desert in the middle that connects all of these different districts."
While at EA Play in Los Angeles we lined up to play the cinematic demo shown at the press conference. The mission saw us smash a few of The House's muscles (Burnout Takedown style), then catch up to a trailer and steal a Koenigsegg and drive off. You could see it during the presser and it became all the more apparent as we played it that the mission was heavily scripted. Drive a few metres off the side of the road and you're promptly told to get back inside the mission area. Naturally the cutscenes were not dynamic (at least as far as we could tell), which is a bit disappointing, but it also makes sense given what Ghost Games are trying to achieve here.
There's a life bar on each car and when these are whittled down, you initiative a metal-twisting takedown. As you'd expect these moments are satisfying, particularly when you set in motion a chain of events that eliminate the competition. Of course, you can also score these takedowns through some fault initiated by the AI, where their "life" is running out and they smash into a barrier or another car and finish the job off on their own, which happened while we were playing. Although it gave us a good chuckle, it's not nearly as satisfying as taking care of business yourself.
The story missions will see players switch between the three main characters, Tyler (race driver), Mac (stunt driver), and Jess (delivery missions), and you'll switch between each of them. Narrative in racing games is something that has proven exceedingly difficult to nail in the past, and it remains to be seen if Payback succeeds in delivering something that's fitting.
"You'll participate in various missions and races for each character," Ho told us when asked about the story, "and what they do is they all contribute to that central goal, right, that central storyline. So you'll see them collaborating in certain what we call "blockbuster missions" - and you've seen that in Highway Heist and played it - and so you saw those characters working together to achieve a goal together. And then they separate, they go their separate ways and they do their various individual quests, and then they come back together and collaborate again."
After this, we were being given a proper presentation of the game and it's rather involved customisation options. Clearly, this is seen as an important area of the game, and perhaps Need for Speed does enough here to rival Forza in terms of freedom and options. We were shown some neat pre-sets that allow you to really tailor your car to what sort of event you want to race, reminiscent of how The Crew had classes. We were shown a Beetle as an example and how you could kit that one out to very different specifications (off-road, dragster, street racer, etc.). The Beetle also takes us to another area where Need for Speed Payback has looked to Forza for inspiration, in particular, the Horizon games. Derelicts are equivalent to Forza Horizon's barn finds, with the distinction that the customisation options are clearly more involved so the process doesn't end with finding it, and therefore it expands a little on the popular concept.
After having played the cinematic mission with its scripting and cutscenes we were also given the chance to sample a standard race. Here we got a better idea of the driving itself and, as you'd expect, Need for Speed Payback is very much a game that behaves as you'd expect from an arcade racer. Drifting is easy to put in motion and it feels very forgiving even if those few seconds we got to drive with the Koenigsegg did tell us that the true beasts in the Payback garage aren't tame. Presumably, you'll have some settings and assists to tailor the experience, but at its core this is arcade racing on open roads.
Need for Speed Payback is getting its release after we've seen Project CARS 2, Forza Motorsport 7, and Gran Turismo Sport (presumably) hit the roads, but it's a very different game than each of these track based experiences, so perhaps there's a chance for the franchise to return to its former glory in 2017.