‘We don’t attempt to be too serious’ – Need For Speed Payback has some comically overblown car chases

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I couldn’t tell you exactly why the truck in front of us has started dropping explosive red barrels out of its container doors, but I am now keenly aware of the fragility of my own speedy car, which is giving chase behind. The oil drums explode and leave firey trails all across the motorway. Innocent drivers swerve and crash to avoid the flames. Then the goons show up. They have taken the form of large black muscle cars. In Need For Speed Payback [official site] everything is a little crazy.

“We’ve always made our fans driving heroes and racing heroes,” says William Ho, creative director, “now we want to make our fans action movie heroes.”

That should signal, as clearly as the exploding barrels, what Ghost Games are going for with this sequel. As has come to be expected with Need For Speed, this is arcade racing, far from the down-a-gear-up-a-gear sensibilities of Forza and the like. Like Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Most Wanted before it, they’ve built an open world to cruise around in, picking up missions as you go. There are drag races, off-road races, drifting challenges, collectibles and everything else you can probably already guess. But the focus in Payback, according to Ho, is very much on the pre-set “missions” like the one I’ve been playing, and the surrounding story, a tale of revenge against a criminal cartel called “the House”.

Missions follow the story. For example, says Ho, you might be employed as the driver for a bank heist, or tasked with driving a VIP to safety. On top of that there are certain “blockbuster” missions which will bring together the three main protagonists of the story (a boy racer called Tyler, a stunt fella called Mac, and a wheelwoman called Jess). In these the player will swap between characters at key moments for added vehicular lunacy. It’s a scripted process, unlike the car-hopping powers of Driver: San Francisco or the murderer-swapping of GTAV.

This is exactly what happens during my playthrough. After dispatching the muscle motors by bashing into them in a classic Burnout fashion, I’m instructed by the chattering of the characters to get alongside the truck. The treasure we’re after is inside. Then a video cuts into the action – Jess, the wheelwoman, clambers out of my passenger seat window and leaps to the truck, which starts to swivel and catch aflame. She shimmies her way inside and the truck starts to falter. It’s going to explode.

Then, a car bursts forth from the truck’s innards like a wheeled xenomorph. It’s a sequence that makes me laugh out loud. It’s not the laugh brought on by a clear comedy moment. It’s that strong bark of laughter you can’t help when you watch an action movie that’s so over the top it could be in no man’s land. This is where the game finally grants me control back. The camera swishes around and I am suddenly controlling Jess as she speeds away into the sunset with her new stolen supercar (or “hypercar” to use the game’s parlance). Then, as Need for Speed is wont to do, the cops show up (“people love cop chases,” says Ho to me later). Naturally, that’s where the demo cuts off.

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The word Ho keeps using is “cinematic”. It’s clear that’s the driving force here. The game is channelling The Fast and the Furious in both an idolising and accurate way. But why does he feel there’s a need for a racing game to be tailgating Hollywood? Isn’t having a blur-heavy game where cars go fast enough for the player?

“I think it’s because we’re not strictly a racing game,” he says. “When you hear ‘racing game’ you think: people who are gear heads, people who are motoring enthusiasts, F1 aficionados. And that’s not who we mainly appeal to now. Need For Speed has become such a huge franchise that we attract a lot of fans who don’t know how to tune cars, but they want to drive cars fast and they want to drive them in beautiful places and they want to experience that adrenaline rush but they don’t want it to be difficult. So we use our story and our characters in Need For Speed to provide motivations that are very relatable. So when you hear that Tyler is an aspiring street racer trying to work his way out of his poor neighbourhood, people kind of get that struggle.”

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Those characters are on “a quest for vengeance against The House, a nefarious cartel that rules the city’s casinos, criminals and cops”. It just so happens the best way to do this is drive unnervingly high-powered machines down long stretches of exploding freeway. It’s as ludicrous as anything Vin Diesel gets up to in his Dodge Viper, or whatever. Most viewers of those movies accept that the Fasts and the Furiouses have long become knowingly daft, winking at the audience between each bonkers stunt, but Ho doesn’t necessarily believe the same of Payback. He sees it more like taking the middle path.

“We don’t attempt to be silly. We don’t attempt to be too serious either. We just want people that our players will relate to, you know, people who honestly have desires and honestly have their weaknesses [but] they’re out to watch each other’s backs… which is basically what we need videogame characters to be in general, to motivate and encourage and reward you for doing cool things in the game. There’s a very sincere ambition behind that, it’s not like ‘oh, we have to hit this tone to mimic that movie’. What we want is to guide our players to do well in our game.”

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But judging from the small portion I’ve played, the blockbuster style missions seem laughably overblown, and will likely be interpreted as knowing stretches on action movie logic whether the developers mean it to be or not.

As for actually driving the car, it has a small camera problem. When you bash a foe and turn their car into a flaming write-off, the view switches away from your vehicle and focuses closely on the crash of your victim (the legacy of Burnout 3: Takedown continues). But the problem with that feature remains: in this moment, you feel blind, momentarily out of control, because you can’t see your own car. You can revel in spectacular crashes with all the sparks, smashing glass, crunching metal and slow-mo sound effects, but the part of your brain that’s focused on the race is confounded and panicked – where’s the road? Was that bollard ahead on the left or the right? Your thumb instinctively alternates between steering the car to one side, then the other, as if the race were still occurring at the original pace. Finally, when the camera returns to normal, you’re not where you thought you were. An enemy car is alongside you, fishtailing you into a wall, or a highway railing has come up faster than you’d expected. Going at this speed, those brief seconds or milliseconds of attention diverted from the task at hand are a significant loss. I don’t remember how Burnout solved this problem (if it ever did) but I also don’t recall the problem being as pronounced as it feels here.

But I also had a go at a straight-up race – a vanilla, storyless dash in a BMW M5 across the dusty plains of Fortune Valley, the game’s fictional setting. Without the distraction of voices and cinematics and baddies and scripted events, the road racing feels more competent. It’s still arcade racing. Drifting is a big part of it, but not overly stressed. And you can still bash and harass your opponents without veering wildly off the road too easily. Most importantly for an arcade racer, the physics didn’t feel too over-bearing. Maybe it was all the noise of the convention centre and the result of being over-stimulated for 48 straight hours, but I far preferred this more “easygoing” mode. And as someone who only dips into the racing genre from time to time, it does seem to hold to Ho’s idea of making their cars’ handling and controls simple to learn, but he insists there’s more to it once you get further down the road.

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“We’ve taken our classic Need For Speed ‘pick up and play’ handling,” he says. “You’re succeeding, you’re going fast in a hot car, but we realised our fans have been asking for a lot more depth and breadth. So once you pick up a car and get the vibe of it, what do you do to upgrade it, to cater it towards one type of racing or another, one discipline or another? So, it starts out being very accessible but then through customisation, through upgrades, through having to build cars for different types of races and missions it becomes very very deep.”

That process of customisation, wrestling with the steal guts and chrome skin of your car, has always been a part of the genre’s appeal, says Ho. And as far as he’s concerned Payback has “the most car customisation of anyone in the business”. I wasn’t able to see any of that first-hand in the demo, and it feels like a big boast to me. But Ho insists.

“But we have a lot… People have such vivid memories of customising their cars in previous Need For Speeds that that is sacred to our games and our brand from here on out. All of our cars that we’ve chosen have the same or similar customisation [options], there are no ugly ducklings in the batch, plus we’ve made the performance customisation much more in your face this time… I think people are going to be thrilled with the sheer amount of variety, familiarity and new stuff we’ve included in the game.”

I’m no closer to understanding why the truck we were chasing had many more explosive barrels in its container than is normally prudent for a fast-moving transportation vehicle, but I do feel like I know more about Payback. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t seem to be trying anything very new. Previous games in the series, such as Need For Speed: The Run, focused on story but in a way that some reviewers said always felt throwaway or even “nonexistent”. And sometimes, during my truck chase, this felt like it was in danger of going too far the other direction, actively invading your racing game with cinematics and narrative that, while fun and good-looking, was nevertheless an interruption to the flow of the game.

A lot of folks might find that absolutely fine, if they are playing for action first and speedy racing second, treating this as a stop-gap between the Fasts and the Furii. But having been unable to see how the open world feels (the most appealing part of the previous game, Most Wanted) and without more time spent at the wheels of various cars, I can’t say for certain if Payback’s balls-to-the-wall action is laughable in the good way, or the bad way. I’ll wait to see where the barrels fall.

Need For Speed Payback is due out via Origin on November 10

17 Comments

  1. Ariurotl says:

    I wonder how many people other than me want a Most Wanted 2005 remaster more than anything out of this moribund franchise…

    • Troubletcat says:

      Me, for one. Underground 2 and Most Wanted (the first one) are easily my favourite games in the franchise, with a slight edge to Most Wanted. Car handling was perfect, customisation was perfect, storyline existed but didn’t get in the way, feeling of progression over the course of the game was great…

      I haven’t been able to get into many of the recent ones. Handling feels wrong. Too much focus on online features. Trying too hard in basically every respect. I liked Shift, but that was a very different kind of racer.

      I think the really big problem is with the handling. The classic NFS games (For example, NFS3:Hot Pursuit) were arcadey, but not to the point of ridiculousness. They weren’t realistic, but they felt believable. Underground 2 and Most Wanted were the same. Modern iterations took the fact that the franchise wasn’t trying to be a particularly serious simulator and ran with it to the point of absurdity (Criterion’s entries being the worst offenders in this respect). That’s not what I want, and I think it’s also not what most older fans want.

      • Ariurotl says:

        The handling has been one of the main issues for me as well! MW2005 and Underground (I prefer the first one though) got it so right, and exactly, I just can’t get the same feel in other arcade racers somehow!

  2. internisus says:

    That looks like a lot of fun to me, especially the bit where there’s fire and spun-out vehicles and debris all over the road and you have to dodge around it. It does remind me of Burnout Paradise, which is always a good thing.

    But, for crying out loud, stop interrupting my driving with cutscenes all the time! When I drive up behind the truck, let me experience the truck slamming on its breaks and me crashing into it. When the other character jumps onto the truck, let me have to hold the car steady alongside while she does it. And the slow-motion enemy crashes last too long. I do love the idea of the game going slow-mo and switching to another vehicle to continue the story as a different character, though; that’s pretty cool.

    (Note: I have not experienced Need for Speed since Underground on the original XBOX, so my perspective on the series is obviously lacking.)

  3. haldolium says:

    While the basic gameplay does look fun and the racing seems on track with previous NFS titles (as far as I played them, HP2010 was my last) all the stupid framing through cutscenes, pathetic and horrible blabbering from NPCs no one ever asked for in a racing game that mutes the actual sound you DID ask for, makes me sick.

    ” “When you hear ‘racing game’ you think: people who are gear heads, people who are motoring enthusiasts, F1 […]”

    lol. No.

    • foszae says:

      The main thing that keeps me from picking up any/every racing gamer that comes along is that they cram in such ghastly plots and cinematic effects that i just can’t enjoy the racing anymore.

  4. Kamestos says:

    Two questions :
    -Can you pause in this one ?
    -Can you immediately restart your event without a loading screen ?

    For the crash cinematics in Burnout, I remember the games did put your car in invulnerable auto pilot during the sequence, so when you got control back you were in the middle of the road without any immediate danger. It worked well I recall.

  5. Freud says:

    Seems really annoying with those cutscenes and slowdowns in the middle of gameplay.

  6. dontnormally says:

    Is it Underground 3? No?

    Well, get on with it then. I need me some arcadey neonchrome racing rpg.

  7. Mecha_Rocky says:

    *reinstalls Porsche Unleashed*

    • Papageno says:

      Yusss! NFS Porsche Unleashed was the bomb. Most Wanted 2005 was pretty great as well, although I thought the driving model of PU better.
      Still, the running and hiding from the cops in MW2005 was sublime.

  8. jonahcutter says:

    Dunno if it would work well without trying it, but for the action cam thing they could actually use some film technique for it and still leave the player always in control (essentially).

    Film editing often loops back in time a few moments to emphasize an action from different angles, especially in action sequences. Do the same thing in the game.

    So you ram a car and it flips over or something spectacular. Cut to the action cam to give you the visual payoff and you see the few moments of action from a “cinematic” angle. Then cut back to the player driving, but also loop time back to the moment of impact so no actual time while in control of the car is lost and it all just happens in the rearview mirror while the player continues on actually playing.

    Make it a toggle feature so players who find it too disruptive can turn it off.

    • Landrassa says:

      Personally I’d prefer if there were actually an oversized rearview mirror(think a window in window in the corner or something) to view the explosions/crashes in, with optional slow-motion, but without taking the attention away from the driving that is happening.

      Basically taking you out of the action for a slow-motion crash cutscene is a dealbreaker though.

  9. ZedClampet says:

    Until they get back to the roots of Carbon or Underground, I’ll be skipping all the increasingly terrible NfS.

  10. Phantom_Renegade says:

    First and foremost: Fix your godsdamned log-in system.

    Secondly, nothing I’ve seen from Payback is actually inspiring. It looks like they tried very hard to be Burnout, but managed somehow to forget all the fun.

  11. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    I logged in to echo this “fix your goddamned log-in system” sentiment.

    It really is atrocious, and I don’t understand why it still is the way it is.

    Also, Need for Speed.

  12. atrupelador says:

    EA, please, forget Ghost Games. Forget the arcade enthusiasts. Go deep into the simulation side! That way, the chance to save the franchise is so much bigger. Or at least, at least, ressurrect the soul of the firsts need for speeds. With lots of videos, photos, and the feeling to own and drive those cars. Thanks and good luck!

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