EA's Ghost Studio gets us back in the driving seat with Need for Speed Payback.
Taking more than a cue from the Fast and the Furious films, the latest entry in EA Games' veteran series plunges us head first into the murky world of underground street racers and racketeering.
The game is set in a huge, open-world, fictional reproduction of Nevada called Fortune Valley, featuring its own Las Vegas-inspired sin city, Silver rock. Players take on the characters of former street racer, Tyler “The Racer”, off-road show-off, Mac “The Showman” and getaway car driver, Jess “The wheelman. The "Payback" in the title refers to the protagonists' single-minded mission, to bring down “The House”, the criminal cartel that runs Fortune Valley, and specifically their double-crossing former colleague, Lina Navarro.
Taking turns as one of the three protagonist you must scour the landscape entering races. A few times I needed to grind away, re-entering races to win again in order to get my car up to a decent level in order to proceed on to the next. In keeping with the Vegas stylings, you can also bet on your performance in an upcoming race with wagers, ranging from simply winning the race to performing drifts or smashing objects during the race.
Each section of the game is punctuated by a heavily scripted multi-race action sequence with each of the playable characters teaming up during the event, which also serve to push the narrative along.
At first, I found the car handling took a bit of getting used to. I'm not sure if it is due to me playing a fair bit of Gran Turismo Sport on the PS4, but it is very sensitive. After a few hours, though, I began to see why. As your muscle memory starts to kick in, that initial sensitivity morphs into the ability to control your car with surgical precision.
The return of a day/night cycle is welcome. As nice as the night races were in 2015's Need for Speed it's great to cruise about in the sunshine again. The game's lighting makes for some beautiful-looking scenes especially as the sun start to fall below the horizon, and again as day breaks.
Unlike before, your car isn't restricted to the road. The best way from point A to point B is often a straight line. Taking the off-road option can often lead to discovering interesting jumps, shortcuts and billboards to smash.
There's most definitely a feel of Forza Horizons 3 with the game. The open-world, driving to races, jumps and speed cameras are all very reminiscent of Playground Games' incredible racing games. And why not. I don't doubt for one moment that Playground looked towards the Need for Speed series when first concocting their racing games.
There's also more than a little Burnout DNA in the game. The dramatic slo-mo cop car takedowns hark back to Criterion's racing series that shares the same EA Games stable with the Need for Speed games.
There are tons of collectables, ad-hoc races and activities scattered around the vast open-world. Again, borrowing from Forza Horizons 3, Payback has pinched that game's barn find idea and turned it into a treasure hunt for special derelict car chassis and their components. With only a photo and a crude map I wasted a fair few hours trying to track down all the car bits, the reward being a hyper-customisable super-car.
Autolog, which has been with us for a number of iterations, returns, once again, recording your successes which you can compare with other players. For a more traditional multiplayer experience, Speedlists give players the opportunity to race head-to-head with similarly-skilled online opponents.
The vehicle upgrade system is a card-based affair called Speed Cards. These can be obtained as a reward for winning a race, purchased or won in tuning shops or found in Shipments. Yep, paying to win rears its ugly head again. Shipments are Payback's loot crates. Whilst you can obtain them in-game by levelling up etc., they can also be purchased using Speed Points- which equal real cash. Only the Base Shipments are available as an in-game reward. Premium Shipments, which are intended as a timesaver, can only be purchased.
Overall, Need for Speed Payback is a very polished game, echoing that which has gone before, but not afraid to borrow good gameplay ideas from competitors. I only has a couple of niggles, which I hope get patched out in due course. A few times I found some of the AI cars driving in the background pausing and stuttering. It didn't affect my game, but was a bit jarring. I also found myself totally stuck some a few times, having to fast travel to get out of the jam.
The visuals at 1080p look impressive. Upscaled to 4K on a vanilla Xbox One the jaggies become more apparent. Payback is a game that's all set for 4K enhancement on the Xbox One X that sees the 1080p/30 fps upgraded to 4K/30fps .
Need for Speed Payback is unashamedly Hollywood, offering spectacle over any sort of realism. The result is a high-octane romp that doesn't take its self too seriously- a welcome change from some of the recent batch of dour racing sims.