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Written by: A TOMATO
Published: 30th September, 2022



The House always wins…

In a world where racing games weren’t striving hard enough to one-up cheesy blockbusters, one franchise steps to the plate... and most notably replaces the word “family” with “crew.” 


Need for Speed: Payback touts quite the adventurous story themed around vengeance, and an expansive scope.  But how much of all this is any good?

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-Not bad, Tyler, but you’re still gonna lose.
-I already won. You just don’t know it yet.

After a disastrous heist attempt on a high-tech hypercar, and the subsequent splitting of his gang, resident boy-racer and self-proclaimed best driver in faux-Las Vegas Tyler Morgan re-assembles his crew: rejoining him are overly-happy British™ person Mac, and straight-faced Jess. Helped by a group of slightly less insane characters - one of whom being the victim of the prologue’s attempted heist, go figure - the protagonists seek out vengeance against the one who sabotaged their heist, and save Fortune Valley from a tyrannical cartel, the only way they know how... By beating a bunch of gangs at street racing.

A totally ridiculous premise where any genuine tension is broken, as racers trash-talk each other with weak and unconvincing lines such as “gonna CRUSH you”. What's left of that broken tension is then totally vaporized and nigh-impossible to take seriously, because the leagues are pretentious butts who are “mistreated and outcast” for literally performing illegal activities.

But of course, this is a racing game. Gameplay is king, and story is merely set dressing; what does it matter in the grand scheme of things if the synopsis is as ridiculous as it appears here? Let's find out if the rest of this title holds up better.

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I see myself… winning it all.

At its core, Need for Speed: Payback is a thoroughly arcade-like racer. Forget strategically braking, and carrying the optimum speed through the apexes; the best lines are taken by drifting through corners at absurd speeds. This, on paper, is fine - quite fun, even. What’s less fine is the handling model’s specific details that undermine this.


Instead of throwing your car’s back end out, the handbrake sooner makes you understeer for a good while. Drifting response, stability and turning circles are, at best, vaguely communicated. You won’t know if a car is a boat to drive until you invest some good time and money into upgrading and tweaking it. The worst part about this is that the cars generally drive the same, though some weird choices remain dominant over all others – as the likes of the Porsche 911 RSR can attest in online play.

Being a modern entry into the franchise, customization and player expression are a big deal. Thankfully, you can bet that most every car on display has at least some body parts to pick through. Wider fenders, different rims, aftermarket front and rear ends, and a couple generic rear wings with the occasional unique spoiler – not a bad showing. I must give particular praise to the livery editor, which is not only powerful and host to some high-quality wraps, but all can be applied to any car at will. Add some vanity tyre smokes, a lower stance and neon lights, and you can really stand out from the crowd.

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The cards are coming down!

Yet while visual customization is fine, upgrading your ride is frankly terrible. A logical system where stock parts are swapped for sports or race components is nowhere to be seen. In their place are performance cards, abstractions of said car systems seemingly designed just to frustrate both the casual and enthusiast demographics. High-level cards provide better speed and acceleration stats - notice a lack of real handling stats. Meanwhile, combining brands and getting perks per card boost your remaining stats, such as nitrous capacity.


Buying from in-game stores yields only higher-level cards, with at most one bonus perk. The ways to get good cards are by either repeatedly grinding out events, or rolling a literal slot machine to get the right combo of stats boosted. Live Tuning, which is independent of performance cards and can be done at any time while in a car, makes too little difference towards a better-performing or better-handling car. Basically, don't expect the most responsive driving or the most rewarding strategies.


An artist can turn any scrap into a supercar.

Players will cover a sprawling map, open for exploration immediately after the surprisingly-lengthy prologue. Featuring perilous serpentines, wide highways and a grid-like major city, it seems like it's just ideal for racing. Yet while its size and scope are on the larger side, in practice you don’t really need even more boring desert and to off-road through. Seriously, the desert itself takes up around half of the map, and barely changes in appearance until you get to the canyons and mountains on the edges of the play area.


Events are split across six different disciplines, which means you’ll have to upgrade at least six different cars, independently of each other. Some discipline-specific gripes include Drag events also including straight-up races and time attacks. This being in cars that pop wheelies even when stock. On the other hand, one has to contend with the Off-road cars being very eager to go airborne, yet which also have a bizarre speed limit enforced the moment they actually drive outside of the tarmac. Slow down, buckaroo, you can't be blazing at 200mph across dunes.

Meanwhile, another franchise staple – police pursuits – are sadly locked away in either linear-course events or as part of open-world “bait crates”, where you drive to a nearby destination without getting busted. Their lack of escalation and predictability are a huge shame, when considering how solid the pursuit gameplay itself can be. Dodging oncoming Rhinos and shunting cops out of range of their ECMs are a proper rush.

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I have to say, Frostbite 3 might not be the smoothest game engine around, but it sure is pretty... or at least, it looks good sometimes. Garage close-ups of cars and vibrantly lit downtown areas are some of the best views one will get here, with great shading and model quality. As long as you look at the bigger picture, everything seems alright. Compromises are apparent when you look closer to your usually shiny car: reflections are toned down or even absent, no matter if you’ve wrapped your ride in chrome. Daytime looks visually flat, in spite of the pleasantly exaggerated saturation. Human animation is a weird mix of bad and good, with nice facial details yet poor posing and timing.

Just one notch below the highest graphical settings, my Ryzen 9 3900X, 64GB RAM, 1070 Ti, Windows 10 Pro system runs the game at 60fps and 1440p resolution, with occasional dips to the 50s when passing through dark tunnels for some reason. Gamepad controls are unrebindable and you have to make do with just two presets… This is how I also realized keyboard controls are customizable. In fact, I dare say the game is perfectly playable with the keyboard.

Onto the audio front, and... oh boy, the dialog is just awful. It might’ve banked on the cheesy presentation of mid-2000’s street racing movies... but come on now. Awful delivery, repetitive self-congratulatory statements from the main characters, forced lines and a generally obnoxious feel to it. Trust me, one would hardly be missing out if dialog were entirely muted. Maybe it has that unintentionally comedic quality, but I could only roll my eyes at almost all speech.

Air Mac!

Sound design is a little better, thankfully. Aside from being on the quiet side for some reason, even with all sliders at the maximum, you have decent car noises and environmental effects. Finally, music is mostly harmless: a few really good tracks are buried in a sea of generic rap, country and rock. Some standouts are the composed pursuit soundtrack and the Speedcross-exclusive songs. There’s an attempt to reduce repetition by “theming” the score based on time of day and location, but in practice it achieved the opposite. A modest selection of songs being split in such a way that I have to listen to only a couple while cruising somewhere, and no ability to skip to the good stuff? No thanks.

The main story takes about 20 hours to complete at a leisurely pace, taking the player through five chapters and several blockbuster-caliber heists along the way. Past that, exploration is incentivized via collectibles and score-attack sections on the map, which reward cash and rep, and unlock visual customization categories. Rep grants you shipments, from where you unlock vanity customization and get a massive influx of cash and card parts – the Deluxe Edition’s free shipments can actually turn the atrocious upgrade system into mere tedium. Meanwhile, defeating street leagues gives clues on finding derelicts scattered around the world. Catch ‘em all from generally obvious map indications, and you’ll have another set of free cars to customize and upgrade to your liking. Roaming racers are but a momentary distraction; and finally, multiplayer is actually still alive, if quite limited. Open-world activities in this mode generally revolve around simple impromptu drag races, with no one bothering to do much else.

Final verdict

...well, not tonight, it didn't.

Peak cinematic flair and minimum substance, charm and consistency make Need for Speed: Payback difficult to recommend in general. Due to its almost predatory car upgrade mechanics, and tedious progression systems, it's best to steer clear.

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