Once a true force to be reckoned with on the arcade racing front, the Need for Speed franchise sped its way into the hearts of many whilst enjoying its heyday in the mid-2000s. Flashforward to 2017, though, and the series appears to be cast in a shadow of its former glory, with more than a few flawed entries among its vast repertoire. The series' 23rd entry (!), Payback, arrives off the back of 2015's self-titled reboot, which had developer Ghost Games take a step back to rethink future instalments. A Hollywood-inspired setting, story-driven action, and an all-new upgrade system are among headlining features this time, but is Payback the return to form that many fans have been desperately clamouring for?
Payback's action-racing storyline sees you take control of three characters and seek vengeance after being double-crossed by The House, a shady gang that rules the streets of the Vegas-like world of Fortune Valley. The three tag-team protagonists are speed freak Tyler Morgan, Mac, an off-road racer from the streets of London, and Jess, a flippant and hot-headed getaway driver. Each of these characters all have their own dynamic and you'll find yourself flitting between them during missions in the campaign. Gone are the FMV sequences seen in 2015's Need for Speed in favour of much more natural in-engine cutscenes, putting to rest one of our largest gripes with the previous game's story.
There are five main event types (Drift, Drag, Off-road, Race, and Runner) that form questlines that you'll undertake between each of the three characters. New to the series are heist missions which pack in many intricate set piece moments and see you steal expensive sports cars and take on police helicopters. These sequences are the highlight of the story, especially when watching all three protagonists work side-by-side and having the option to control them at different predetermined intervals. The main problem with them, however, is that most of the action seems to take place in cutscenes and not during the actual gameplay, and chases and the like do slowly become repetitive. That being said, they do provide a welcome break from the events we've come to expect from Need for Speed titles and work to propel the story forward.
Outside of story missions, however, things feel a little too similar to Forza Horizon, as there are speed traps, jumps, drifting challenges, and thematic collectibles, which are all good for an extra bit of cash. Perhaps the most striking similarity is with regards to derelicts, which require you to find parts of rundown cars across the map. These feel largely like the barn finds in Forza Horizon and see you partaking in a huge scavenger hunt to get your hands on rare new rides. Bait crates also provide a fun distraction, as they require you to race through checkpointed police chases for big cash rewards. All in all, these activities do provide an extra dose of fun, if not for being a little too familiar.
Tying in with the Vegas-esque setting are side bets, which allow you to place a wager and earn additional cash for completing specific objectives. These can vary from remaining in first place for a set amount of time to destroying a number of objects, and your reward will depend on the probability of your success. We particularly liked how these tied in with the identity of Fortune Valley and they worked to make the early portion of the game more interesting, where we usually ended in first. There are also Autologs, which present you with cash bonuses for beating a score or time set by somebody within the community. These certainly encouraged a competitive element and will surely provide replayability for those who are destined to be the best.
Perhaps Payback's biggest offence, though, is the inclusion of speed cards. Instead of simply purchasing upgrades from your garage like in the previous title, you'll need to use speed cards, which represent each component of your vehicle. In order to stand a chance at doing well in races you'll need to hit a recommend vehicle score and this is done by assigning better cards. This makes for a tedious slog as the garages that provide these cards take a long time to refresh their inventory. Another issue is that by purchasing a new car it feels almost like you're right back to the start of the upgrade ladder. This ultimately put us off purchasing new vehicles and left us to grind through completed events in search of better cards. We get it: the idea is to fit the Vegas theme with these cards, but the system seems a step backwards from what we've seen in past entries. The slow grind started to kill the fun for us, and while we didn't spend any real-world money to speed up our progress, we can see why other people might feel the need to do so.