Need for Speed Payback's Biggest Sin? Competency

Need for Speed Payback's Biggest Sin? Competency

After playing the EA Access trial for three hours, I think Need for Speed Payback is totally fine.

"But the lootboxes! The microtransactions! How could you think this garbage is fine???"

Uh. Because the game doles out parts pretty easily, and over the few hours I've played, I've had a really fun time?

Yes, they made some tweaks to the progression shortly after launch. And I think whatever those were, they worked.

The lootbox/progression system is not the game's biggest problem.

The game's biggest "problem" is that it's like playing a really good game... from 2012.

 Guess that Carl's Jr. Deal didn't work out? I'll just have to go to Star Hamburgers instead.

Guess that Carl's Jr. Deal didn't work out? I'll just have to go to Star Hamburgers instead.

Remember Forza Horizon?

In the Fall of 2016, I finally blasted through the original Forza Horizon thanks to the Xbox One backwards compatibility program, shortly before Microsoft killed off the game's online content.

Need for Speed Payback is a lot like that game, but with more of a story.

And I mean...a lot like that game.

 If you took away the interface, and the 2017-era blur effect...I'd probably believe this was an upscaled Forza Horizon screen at a glance.

If you took away the interface, and the 2017-era blur effect...I'd probably believe this was an upscaled Forza Horizon screen at a glance.

Both take place in a large, sort of desert-focused open world. Both games have sweeping vistas to behold as you drive around long curvy roads. Both games have a smattering of random collectibles. Both games have an extensive car upgrade and leveling system. Both start to feel a bit samey after a while, even though they offer multiple racing disciplines.

This is all fine and good...but open world racers have moved on in the last six years. The Crew added a vast scope and scale unlike anything seen before. Forza Horizon 2 and 3 further refined the handling model and the graphics, to make those different disciplines truly different. The Hot Wheels content for Horizon 3 brought back the sense of arcade fun not seen since the late nineties.

 This is Jess. She's the most competent and least doofy member of the crew. She probably should have been the protagonist of the game.

This is Jess. She's the most competent and least doofy member of the crew. She probably should have been the protagonist of the game.

Where Need for Speed Payback tries to stand out is in its story content and writing. This game has a ton of writing in it. Like, a shocking amount. At first, I thought the dialogue and character moments would fall by the wayside a bit, but they just kept going and going. There's a surprising amount of voice- over work, and interplay between the different characters. And most of it takes place over cell phone calls.

All of this writing is...totally fine?

I get it. It's hard to write a compelling story about driving around a desert and a city for 20 hours where you can't show much action that takes place outside of cars. But Payback's story is the definition of B-grade writing.

It follows three characters: Tyler, Mac, and Jess, as they...try to steal things? In the opening of the game, it's made clear that they're some sort of racing crew, but it's never made clear if they're thieves or if they're just people that like to race cars. Each of them has a favored discipline, and the game does a cool job of transferring your control between them at appropriate points. Saying more would spoil what little nuance the game's story has, but as you might expect, you eventually need to get Payback against someone.

 The game takes place in the desert around a fake Las Vegas that I don't remember the name of. Even though I was just playing the game this morning.

The game takes place in the desert around a fake Las Vegas that I don't remember the name of. Even though I was just playing the game this morning.

The problem is that Mac and Jess are likable, and Tyler is the most hilariously generic dude I've ever seen in a video game. And of course, he's the main protagonist. He even gets to awkwardly say the word "Payback" early on in his story.

I love it when characters say the title of the thing they're in.

These characters are constantly talking, both to each other and to the game's surprisingly big cast of supporting characters. The story is always presenting itself, and giving you just enough push to continue forward through the game. I actually appreciate this compared to other open world racers. The story might not be the best, but there's an impressive amount of it.

The game is also largely seamless, and on Xbox One X at least, the few pauses for loading are very short. You can happily play the game for as long as you'd like...at least until you hit a spot where you might need to grind to level up a car. Though so far, over a few hours, that hasn't been a big deal.

The multiplayer mode that meant the last several Need for Speed titles couldn't be paused has been siphoned off into its own option on the menu.

 This particular shop always has a different product placement truck parked in front of it. I think that's really funny.

This particular shop always has a different product placement truck parked in front of it. I think that's really funny.

The Lootbox and Slot Machine in the Room

Yes, this game has loot boxes. And yes, this game has a slot machine mini-game you can use to earn new parts for your cars.

I'm that horrible guy: I think both of these mechanics are kinda fun.

There. I said it. Maybe it's the result of the balance tweaks, but I've actually enjoyed earning parts and upgrading my cars this way.

Why?

Because I can actually feel the differences.

 The world geometry is a little simplistic, but the car models and the lighting work are uniformly excellent.

The world geometry is a little simplistic, but the car models and the lighting work are uniformly excellent.

There's nothing worse in a loot game than not being able to tell the difference when you've equipped something new. But the differences in Need for Speed Payback are sharply apparent. If you're underleveled for a race, prepare for a huge challenge. And when you're overleveled, it's quite easy to zip by everyone.

It's a wonderful, intoxicating feeling just like getting good new gear in Borderlands and Diablo III. Even just equipping one part, I can usually tell the difference right away.

 Here's that same shop later in the day with a Castrol truck in front of it. And at night, it's easier to see the dumb bumper I put on this car.

Here's that same shop later in the day with a Castrol truck in front of it. And at night, it's easier to see the dumb bumper I put on this car.

Will I keep going?

When I downloaded the EA Access trial of Payback, I expected to hate it. And some aspects of it are doofy. The main character is instantly forgettable, the world is a little bit bland, and the writing is all over the place in terms of quality.

But the graphics are beautiful on the whole. The game is fun to play. And the loot collection system has that insatiable grind that I can't give up. And yes, that's there to try and entice me into maybe spending more money on the game. But I'm earning stuff fast enough that I probably won't.

So sure, Need for Speed Payback is like a nicer-looking competent game from 2012. I realize that's extremely faint praise. But sometimes, competent is what I'm looking for. I'll probably buy the game when my trial expires, and I won't feel bad about it.

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