Need for Speed Payback Review: Grindin’ Across the Finish Line

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Need for Speed Payback isn’t a bad arcade racer.

Go into it expecting a poor man’s Forza Horizon with some additional story missions and it’ll serve you well, but there’s one aspect of it that threatens to ruin the fun every step of the way: Speed Cards.

Coming together due to a mutual hatred for The House – a shadowy organisation that wants to control Fortune City – Need for Speed Payback has you flitting between three protagonists as they find out more about the enemy they’re up against while gaining allies. It’s little more than a gimmick, but each protagonist has their own racing strings to their bow. Ty, for example, is an ace street racer, and also pretty hot at drag racing too, while Mac likes going offroad and drifting. Jess, on the other hand, is more of a straight-up thrillseeker who likes to run rings around cops. Together they form a formidable trio, and some awful dialogue aside, they’re pretty likeable too.

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Progression through the game requires you to tackle questlines for multiple racing disciplines, which are book-ended by a story mission or two that play out like scenes from a Fast and Furious movie. Once you’ve completed them more questlines are then opened up for you to repeat the process again, and… well, you get the idea. It’s quite a formulaic structure but it gets the job done, and the story missions are usually action-packed and tense enough to feel like a just reward for completing what can sometimes be busywork.

Problems arise, however, when you go to tackle new questlines and find that your current line-up of vehicles just don’t cut the mustard any more. In any normal racing game, and indeed, past Need for Speed instalments, you’d simply tune up your vehicles with your hard-earned cash to keep them competitive, but in Need for Speed Payback things are unfortunately a little bit different.

While you still earn cash for completing events and making bets on the side, adding more challenge should you wish to take the risk, to improve the performance of your cars you need to acquire and equip Speed Cards. There are a few ways to gain them; completing events is one of them, and you can run the same events time and time again if you want to. Buying them using in-game cash is another option, as is taking a gamble at creating your own by exchanging three part cards which can be collected by breaking down unwanted cards or opening “shipments”. The problem is, the benefits that Speed Cards provide are random.

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There are multiple characteristics to Speed Cards that determine how useful they are to equip to your car. There are six part types, for example, and you can only equip one of each part type at any one time. Then you have the card level, which determines just how much it improves your car’s performance. Most cards feature branding of some sort, with a bonus being awarded for equipping three cards with the same brand. And finally, there are perks, offering valuable boosts to one or more stats. As a result, getting the right combination of cards to reach the required performance level of events is completely down to luck; something which can quickly suck the fun out of the experience.

Of course, you can buy shipments with real money if you want to accumulate Speed Cards quickly, but even then it may take a while until you’re happy with your deck. Most players will probably just stick to re-doing already completed events and hoping for the best, and lowering the game’s difficulty to easy can enable you to complete events with a performance level some 30-40 points than what’s recommended, but it does little to compensate for what is a poorly devised and heinously implemented upgrade system. You can’t even share Speed Cards between cars, even if they’re in the same discipline. Cards earned, crafted or purchased while using any particular vehicle are tied to that vehicle.

The Speed Card system isn’t Need for Speed Payback‘s only problem, either. Graphically it’s inconsistent, and the handling model isn’t wholly reliable, but it’s the Speed Card system alone that prevents it from fulfilling its potential. Aside from completing (and probably grinding) events, there’s a great deal to do in its well designed open world. Taking a note of out Forza Horizon’s book there are speed zones, speed traps, jumps and drift zones to complete, as well as billboards to destroy and credit chips to collect. A steady stream of Derelict clues are unlocked, allowing you to put your brain to good use to locate and unlock a range of special cars. And there are even daily challenges for you to complete, awarding you with shipments that can come in useful. You’re always less than a minute away from something to do, which does go some way to make the grind a little less arduous.

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So, Need for Speed Payback is a pretty good arcade racer that’s essentially ruined by one mechanic. Many will probably see it as a predatory move to try and coerce players into buying Shipments with real money, but I don’t know if I’d see it that way. I’d maybe see it more as an hackneyed and unnecessary way to extend the game’s length. Whichever way you see it though, it’s not good, and unless it’s changed further down the line only those comfortable with the knowledge that they’re going to have to grind to get the best out of Need for Speed Payback should pick it up.

Need for Speed Payback is at its best when you’re completing story missions, speeding through thrilling set-pieces and battling against cops and criminals. It’s even highly entertaining when you’re just belting around its open world, completing activities and engaging in events. But when you hit that brick wall and have to put a halt to your fun for hours at a time in order to raise your car’s performance level, your patience will be tested, and many will decide to simply not bother at all.

Need for Speed Payback is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the Xbox One version.