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‘Need for Speed Payback’ tries too hard to look like ‘The Fast and the Furious’

Need for Speed Payback looked great onstage during the 2017 EA Play keynote presentation, but many of the explosive features that make it resemble a Fast and the Furious movie also serve to distract and detract from its actual gameplay.

There may not have been an official Fast and the Furious game in recent memory, but EA clearly wants Need for Speed Payback to be the next best thing. The high-octane racing series has often featured the kind of adrenaline-injecting high-speed-chase antics that fans love, and Payback is no different. But there was just something about the specific gameplay EA showed off ahead of E3 2017 at its EA Play event in Los Angeles that smacked of riffing off the popular film franchise.

That isn’t inherently a bad thing. Fast and the Furious-style action, with character-driven car chases and high-stakes heists, could pair well with Need for Speed-style racing. But this section of Payback, which was first revealed earlier this month, failed to impress for a variety of unrelated reasons.

The demo, which mirrored the part of the game EA showed off during its keynote presentation Saturday, takes place toward the end of the game’s second chapter. Two characters — Tyler and Jess — chase after a semi-truck on a narrow freeway in an arid desert environment. With Jess egging you on from the passenger seat, you control Tyler and try to catch up with the truck so you can steal a car inside its trailer. The mission is heavily reminiscent — you might even say derivative — of any number of similar scenes in the Fast and the Furious movies, not to mention other similar franchises.

Payback rips control out of your hands, jerking the camera around for five excruciating slow motion seconds

Need for Speed Payback looks as gorgeous as you’d expect in this day and age, with just the right amount of motion blur and other subtle effects to really let you feel the speed at which you’re driving. The demo EA showed off onstage looked as explosive as any scripted movie car chase. But a number of factors that contribute to that polished, exciting veneer onstage backfired when I actually got my hands on the game.

For example: Any time you successfully take out one of the enemy vehicles accompanying the semi, Payback rips control out of your hands, jerking the camera around for five excruciating slow motion seconds of metal-shredding highlights from your opponents’ wipeouts. It looks great in a demo or a trailer, but in practice, when you’re trying to play the game, it is pure frustration. Haven’t we established that rule zero of action games is minimizing how much control you take away from the player?

The same applies any time you catch up to the truck you’re chasing. Taking the truck is entirely scripted — No matter how many times you blast the nitro out your rear end, you’ll never catch up to your target until you’ve slow-mo wiped out its entire entourage. When the game finally lets you catch up, it triggers a cutscene as soon as you get remotely close. This happens twice in the demo; the first time you’re meant to get up behind the truck, and the second you have to pull alongside. But instead of mixing up the gameplay even slightly by challenging you to keep pace while Jess hops out and boards the truck, the whole scene takes place in non-interactive cutscenes.

The demo ends with Jess bursting out the back of the flaming semi behind the wheel of your prize car. Your team whoops and congratulates one another, getting about as close to verbally high-fiving as possible as she tears off down the freeway in the opposite direction. The camera whips around behind her, and a character icon in the screen’s bottom left corner swivels to show you’re taking control of her car. After about ten seconds, however, Payback rips control away once more as several cop cars and a helicopter appear on the horizon. And with that it’s over.

We can’t know right now whether the gameplay EA showed here is representative of the full Need for Speed Payback experience, but for now it’s what we have to go off. EA has previously confirmed that the game features an open-world environment, possibly similar to what we’ve seen in the excellent Forza Horizon series, but none of that was on display. There will also be a focus on fixing up and upgrading old junker cars, which wasn’t present in this demo. Even with all of those potentially satisfying elements, though, the game will never feel right if its missions sacrifice gameplay on the altar of cinematic showiness.

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