Republished on Wednesday 30th September 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of October's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
We’re not sure about The Fast and the Furious, but Need for Speed Payback sure will make you furious fast. Ghost Games has spent two years tuning up EA’s flagship racing brand following 2015’s disappointing reboot, but it hasn’t made much progress – in fact, an abhorrent monetisation model means that it’s actually gone backwards. You’re left with a bang average racer that’s been banged up by businessmen.
The affably awful live-action cut-scenes from the Swedish studio’s previous effort have been canned, replaced instead by a plain awful CGI storyline featuring skinny jeans and pop culture references. Fortune Valley is the domain of rich playboys betting on fixed street races, and you play as a gang of rookie everymen looking to bring down ‘The House’ against all odds. It’s forgettable nonsense, but it gets the job done.
More problematic is that the gameplay never matches the stakes of the movies that it’s so clearly inspired by. Missions see you hijacking souped-up supercars and outrunning the cops, but the title wrestles away control every time things get interesting, so you’re left with a point-to-point arcade racer set in a fairly empty open world. The game’s eye-rubbingly ordinary, despite all of the hollering that goes on.
To be fair, the handling model is fun in an old-fashioned kind of way. You can kick cars into corners by stabbing the brakes, and there’s a decent sense of speed as you burst through tunnels or motor past glittering city streets. But the visuals as a whole are rarely better than above average: the game world feels far too desolate for it to truly be memorable, and it lacks the meaningful monuments that give good sandboxes character.
The gameplay is at the very least varied, with a generous selection of disciplines, ranging from out-and-out street races to offroad events and police pursuits. The cop chases disappoint, however, as they adopt the format of checkpoint-based sprints, rather than Grand Theft Auto-esque hunts where you have to break the line of sight in order to escape. In truth, it’s utterly bizarre how the local constabulary will simply give up on you once you reach a designated checkpoint.
But all of these problems pale into insignificance compared to the title’s progression system, which does its very best to channel Ultimate Team in all the wrong ways. Essentially each race you win will reward you with a Speed Card, which can then be attached to your current vehicle in order to upgrade its stats. You’ll need to ensure that your ride’s pimped appropriately otherwise you’ll struggle to succeed, and thus the grind comes in.
There are various types of card, and collecting full sets will give you various perks and bonuses. You can trade three cards for one mostly random new one, or you can sell them for in-game currency. You only get a new card when you successfully complete an event, or you can buy them from tuning shops using in-game currency. Stocks rotate every 20 minutes, so you can never be certain whether what you want will be in stock.
Your other option is to buy Speed Points from the PlayStation Store with real money, which you can then exchange for Shipments (or loot boxes) containing one random cosmetic item, a hunk of in-game currency, and some tokens which can be traded for a new card. And if this doesn’t sound bad enough already, we can’t find a way to transfer cards from one vehicle to another, so (to the very best of our knowledge) it looks like you have to start from scratch with each vehicle that you own.
Ultimately, it’s exploitative at worst and just plain annoying at best. The game will give you a drip-feed of loot boxes while you play, but it’s clear that it expects to extract real cash from your wallet eventually. Online play doesn’t level the playing field, so anyone who’s played enough to fully upgrade their car or coughed up for loot boxes will have an advantage. And sometimes you’ll hit a brick wall in single player, forcing you to either grind for a better vehicle or simply pay up.
To be honest, it’s so unfathomably bad that we’ve had a hard time believing that the game even shipped in this state. The most mind-boggling thing about it all is that the title simply isn’t good enough to justify the extensive time or monetary investment. There are likeable aspects – like the drag racing or the car customisation, which goes as deep as allowing you to change the colour of your tire smoke – but it’s nowhere near enough to make up for all of the bull the game forces you to wade through.
Need for Speed Payback is a real-world example of microtransactions gone wrong. As an open world racer, the game’s inoffensively average – but when paired with its bafflingly bad progression system, it’s frankly an embarrassment. It’s scary to think that publishers are quite literally sabotaging their own games in pursuit of a bonus buck or two these days.