‘Need for Speed Payback’ Review

'Need For Speed Payback' is a faithful homage to street racing and a damn good time

Need For Speed Payback feels like stepping into the latest Fast and Furious, and it's a great ride.
Need For Speed Payback feels like stepping into the latest Fast and Furious, and it's a great ride.
Need For Speed Payback feels like stepping into the latest Fast and Furious, and it's a great ride.

Highs

  • White-knuckle racing still feels as tight as ever
  • Cinematic camera and visual effects sell over-the-top action
  • Solid, simple upgrade paths matches game's tone
  • Scavenging parts to soup up your ride adds a fun twist

Lows

  • Hackneyed writing
  • Nitrous mechanic doesn't work well

Need For Speed Payback just wants to be the Fast and Furious. It’s enamored with the pomp and bombast of white-knuckle racing in the films, and their ability to make you care about its tight-knit family, built up from a loose collection of rejects and outlaws and bound together by crime and camaraderie. It wants to embody these things so much, that every moment in this adrenaline-fueled romp feels just like a scene from any one of Vin Diesel or Paul Walker’s fare.

You follow a trio of protagonists — Jess, Mac, and Tyler — as they bet, race, and tune some of the hottest turbo-charged rides around. All to take revenge against, and ultimately bust up “The House,” a clichéd Vegas-themed gang that rigs local races and rips off anyone who doesn’t do things their way (subtle, no?).

Along the way, Payback plays every trope, every street-racing film cliché you’ve ever seen. There’s the cocksure mechanic, the getaway driver, insanely talented but hopelessly boring white guy, and everyone else you’d expect to meet. It has all the major moments, too: The big heist, getting the gang back together, and plenty of turf challenges to work your way up through the ranks of Las Veg… Excuse me, “Fortune Valley’s” criminal underground. It’s a monumental juggling act that spins a few too many plates, but, as we lay out in our review, Need for Speed Payback still comes together.

The Boys are Back in Town

Everything in Payback goes down in “Fortune Valley,” a Vegas analogue with plenty of arid deserts, neon lights, and vice. A few months before the game starts proper, Jess, Mac, and Tyler get the chance of a lifetime — to get their hands on the $2 million Koenigsegg Agera — one of the world’s top hypercars. But, Lina Navarro, a middle-man for The House’s leader, steals the Agera and sets Tyler on a quest for revenge. Tyler gets a deal — work for a new boss or go to jail — and he takes the safer route, splitting his gang up in the process.

Flash forward a few months, and Ty’s eager to get his old people back together, convinced he can bring down The House, make a fat stack, and get his revenge on Navarro all at once. But, predictably, he can’t do it alone. He tracks down Mac and Jess and their gearhead, Rav, to get things back on track and make a run for the Outlaw’s Rush — a showcase street tournament for the best illicit drivers in the country.

It’s a basic set-up, and also the worst stretch of the game. The introductions to the major players, plus the heist, double-cross, and reunion span the first couple of hours, and they drag hard. Tyler’s about as charismatic as a board, and has a habit of saying the dumbest thing possible at every point. He doesn’t make a lot of sense, either, flipping between cool-and-collected gang leader to brash idiot in seconds, but things pick up once the rest of the gang gets a bit more airtime.

Payback looks like a director is framing the game live as you play.

Jess is cool and condescending — mostly because she’s had to clean her fair share of blood and gore off her Audi‘s leather seats. Mac, on the other hand, is an English expat in love with the open roads and haughty engines of America. He’s infatuated with everything red-and-white-and-blue, though he drops the jingoism for wide-eyed ardor. Rav, too, gets some screentime, mostly to playfully point out how dumb their whole plan is.

Once the revengers have assembled, you flip between them to compete in whatever street races you can find to start shoring up support and cred for your bid at Outlaw’s Rush, and that’s where things start getting good.

The Family

While Tyler’s been doing odd jobs for the well-to-do to keep from prison, his local reputation has all but evaporated. Navarro and her boss control — and rig — every race in Fortune Valley. But, they weren’t expecting you. And yeah, it is just as eyeroll-y as it sounds, but, like Payback’s spiritual forebears, there’s a surprising amount of heart under the hood.

Need for Speed Payback review character phone

For starters, races all feel distinct and exciting — no small feat given just how much driving you’ll be doing. That comes in part from a clever five-way split for car and race types. Much like in Forza or Gran Turismo, not every car will be suited to every contest. The deserts around Fortune Valley would grind the bearings and liveries of finely-tuned Lambos and Ferraris to dust. So you’ll need to bring rally cars and off-road legends like the Subaru WRX. It also means you’ll have to switch to Mac, as these hellions are his specialty. Jess and Tyler have their own fields of expertise, too, and you’ll need all of them and their array of cars to compete in the many bouts around the valley.

Pushing you to swap characters is brilliant, in part, as it doesn’t leave you stuck with Tyler the brick for too long, but also because lets you try out some radically different styles of driving. Some competitions will force you to get the most out of high-speed jumps, while others will have you snaking down a mountain pass, struggling to keep control of your souped-up hatch.

You don’t necessarily earn wins because you’re the fastest, but because you’re the smartest.

Throughout it all, Payback looks like a director is framing the game live as you play, finagling the camera and throwing out a dizzying array of visual effects to highlight your coolest moments and your best stunts. When things heat up, the game wipes away the speedometer and racing stats to let you appreciate a few breathless moments before you’re shunted back into the action. When you flip on the nitrous, your engine burps flames, pauses, and then blazes forward. And every single time, the blend of audio trickery and special effects sell it as a moment where fortunes are won and lost — regardless of what you’re actually driving.

It can be a bit much, at times, and some of the more critical moments throughout the story wrench control from you for the sake of a cool shot, something that you may increasingly resent as the game goes, but it’s far from a constant nuisance. Instead, the pedigree of the Need For Speed franchise shines through most of the time. Games like this are all about feeling just barely in control of two-ton steel block as it rockets through city streets.

Hot Pursuit

The emphasis on the criminal underground comes with a few other shifts. For starters, cars don’t follow the regular upgrade paths you might suspect. While you can absolutely turn a junker into terrifyingly powerful beast, you do so largely by winning parts from other gangs or finding abandoned vehicles to strip down. You won’t be able to max out a car’s stats with money alone: You have to scrounge and work both for and against other factions in the seedy underbelly of Fortune Valley. It’s a satisfying system that injects the game’s narrative into your moment-to-moment play, and it makes the game feels like a tighter, more cohesive whole.

It also makes for surprise moments, like cops interrupting you mid-race, which suits the theme and keeps each run feeling fresh. When they show up, the cops become mobile obstacles that will desperately try to shove you — and your competitors — off the road.

This dovetails well with the open-world structure, too, as the environments are vast and they encourage lots of probing. Driving around, even just for fun, will yield familiarity with the environments as well as their many shortcuts, stunt jumps, etc., which you can then leverage in your tournaments.

It all comes together and gives you a genuine territorial vibe. You don’t necessarily earn those wins because you’re always the fastest, but because you’re the smartest. You’re willing to play a little dirtier, you’re willing to take bigger risks. And to be sure, they are risks. While Payback still plays fast and loose with physics, if you mess up a turn mid-race, or fail to stick your landing, you’ll likely lose.

Races are short and fast, both to keep the pace moving briskly ahead, and to maximize consequences of failure. That, combined with side-bets that you can opt into at the start of each race, gives the whole game a feeling of constant stakes. You can lose too, and when you do, you’ll have to pony up — just like everyone else does when you take gold.

Rubbernecking

Payback is one of the better entries is the long and storied Need for Speed franchise.

That’s not to say Payback doesn’t have its share of problems. The A.I. can plays a bit wonky, giving you wins when you didn’t deserve them and unfairly snatching them from you just as often. The game’s approach to Nitrous also feels a bit weird: It can take a while to build, and doesn’t really seem to be there for any reason other than that it’s something that’s in the movies (contrast with the role of boost in the now-dead Burnout series, for example), but these issues are largely minor and don’t detract much from the total experience.

More importantly, Payback forces too much story on you at certain points, and the narrative loses its luster in large doses. Clichéd though it may be, Payback’s street racing underworld is a fun, campy adventure in quick spurts between races. When the story becomes the game’s primary focus, like in the intro, the incessant slog of requisite missions, the spotty writing, plus Tyler’s nothing personality can grate quite a bit.

Despite these issues, Payback is one of the finer efforts Electronic Arts has put forward in quite some time, with a cohesive, interesting open world that has plenty to do and explore at 150 mph.

Our Take

Payback is one of the better entries is the long and storied Need for Speed franchise. It hews to its Fast and Furious inspiration well, blending camp, action, tight racing, and an entertaining world to drive way too fast in. If you can get over the obnoxious introduction, you’ll have no trouble getting comfortable at the wheel.

Is there a better alternative?

Whether or not Need for Speed Payback works for you will depend on what kinds of racing games you tend to play. If you’ve been watching Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport fly by, hoping for a bit more of a campy, arcade-style romp, this is your game. That said, parts of it still fall well short of classics like Burnout Paradise.

How long will it last?

Payback has an extensive campaign that can run you well over 20 hours, plus loads of collectibles and unlockables and other challenges if you’re a completionist. If you’re more competitive, it also has solid online multiplayer.

Should you buy it?

Yes. This is the best arcade-style racer we’ve had in some time, so if you’re looking for that, it’s definitely worth a purchase.