Welcome to Need For Speed Payback. I would like to introduce you to the worst people in the world.
Worst of all, worstest person you could never hope to meet, is Tyler. Tyler is, well, he’s a Tyler. He’s the fastest racer there is! We know this because Tyler describes himself as the fastest racer there is, almost every time he opens his mouth. His personality is that he’s the fastest racer there is, and if his friends know anything about him it’s that he’s the fastest person there is. Tyler is the human equivalent of a Post-it Note.
Tyler’s always there with a witty comeback. You can trust him to retort on the spot. Like,
“The House always wins.”
“Well not tonight it didn’t!”
Tyler is, I guess, what EA imagines the entire audience for NFS to be like. An insipidly bland little boy who whoops at E3 press conferences. The sort of person who studiously observes the buzzwords his cooler friends are using and meticulously employs them as frequently as he can, in the belief that this will make him One Of Them. But most of the time he emits the personality of a cardboard cutout of a person.
“I’m not going to go easy on you.”
“Good. I don’t do easy.”
Next is Mac. Mac is the one who drives offroad and does skids! That’s his personality there. Mac, in a better universe than ours, would be here to offer a satirical representation of the most banal of over-confident stupid people – the sorts who speak exclusively in hackneyed aphorisms and think it’s making them sound novel and interesting. But here in this universe, hideously it appears to be the game’s writers who believe this. Mac says “Mac attack” a lot. Mac delivers all his lines in the sort of disappointing British accent that makes you want to change phone shop.
Mac says things like, every single time the game’s clock ticks past noon,
“The day’s half over, or as I like to think of it, half full!”
Which makes me want to be dead.
Another thing Mac says, in response to a baddy man at the beginning of a race no matter how many times you have to restart it after failing,
“No more playing nice. Let’s bury this loser in the dirt.”
“Yap yap yap, you keep talking, but I keep winning!”
Mac is really, really dreadful. Mac, when someone says, “Stay quiet, and don’t do anything reckless,” is someone who replies, “Reckless?! Who, ME?!?!”
Then there’s Jessica. Jessica is the girl one. She’s not interested in all this silliness the boys are into! She’s sensible, and a girl. She drives getaway cars and complains about driving getaway cars, in between saying how much she likes driving getaway cars. Jessica, the girl, says sensible things like,
“I’m not here for the thrills, Mac. I’m here for the job.”
Tsk, those boys!
There are some people out there who want Need For Speed: Payback to begin with a seemingly interminable number of tightly scripted missions in which control is incessantly wrested away from the player at all the most interesting moments, with cutscene after cutscene of the most unlikeable humans on Earth intoning cliches at one another (“Do I have a choice?!” “There’s always a choice.”). I think it might be the Tylers of the Earth. I still struggle to believe that they are numerous enough to warrant targeting a game toward. Because surely – surely – what most people want is to drive around having races, car fights, time trials and jumps to their heart’s content, in a free and open racing world?
Here’s the plot, as it unfolds at the start:
Tyler and his crew are about to pull of the job of the century, to steal a $2m car for its tech, and be set for life. But one of the crew betrays them, and Tyler has the choice of going to prison, or working for the guy from whom he stole the car. Because, um, that’s how the police works? Who knows, certainly not the developers. Six months later, he’s still working for the mean man, on the promise that one day he’ll get revenge – nay, Payback – on the crewmate who let him down so. But the betrayer is talking to the mean man! And so he’s sad. And on his way home, someone offers Tyler the opportunity to take part in some races. But he says no, because if he races he’ll have to go to prison. (You know, that legal system.) So the next morning you begin doing some practice races to be allowed to do the big race.
Good grief, it’s like it was written by a six year old. “And then the dog said to the man that the dog didn’t want to be a dog any more so he was a cat and then it was Christmas and everyone saw Santa and Santa had a nice owl called Owly…”
The result is you excruciatingly inevitably pull your crew back together, along with the lack of a person, Rav, your engineer, and start taking on races against various race gangs, in order to secure a place in the Big Race, where you can win and ruin the bet-fixing EVIL of your betraying former chum. Which is to say, you do a series of races in various car types, miserably strung together by the genital itch of a storyline. Each gang has a leader, who blathers diarrhoea in your head at the start of every race, and repeats it word for word every time you restart that race after failure or a restart because an AI car swerved in front of you at random and ruined your go.
So determined is the game not to offer anything close to an instant restart, in fact, that it also demands you painfully slowly say yes or no to a side bet on the race each time, and then just shows you which decision you made for about five seconds for no discernible reason. After this there’s maybe a cutscene to watch, followed by that HEE-larious banter from the gang member and your character, and then, after all that’s finally over, a countdown. How is this a thing in a game? Who is this for? Why did this ever happen? No one on the whole planet – not even Tyler – could want this.
I should probably mention the driving. My focus on everything else that’s so limb-amputatingly hateful about this dismal shit of a game is simply because it’s more interesting. The driving ranges from awful to mediocre, every car ludicrously floaty and chronically in favour of over-steer, and each tiresome in its own unique fashion. I won’t dwell on it, but will take the time to say that the most egregious feature of the game is your cars will handle wildly differently in and out of races.
Yes. Seriously. Take your Drifty cars, for instance. Out of a race, to drift you accelerate and then steer hard into a turn. It’s a much more simplified version of the form, and the game even has a try at a joke mocking the idea that drift would be assigned to a button. And then the moment you start a drift-based challenge, that doesn’t work any more. Now you have to, er, press a button to have the drift happen: the more familiar idea of tapping your brake and then steering into the skid. Which would be fine, if the game hadn’t gone out of its way to teach you not to do that, mock the idea of doing it, and even instruct you otherwise at the start of the first drift challenge.
Instead your car’s drifting is artificially inhibited, to make the process of accruing enough points to complete the task far more tedious than the general dicking around on the map, in a way that feels like some weird form of developmental revenge. You can assume something similar for each car type.
Almost all the cars you can buy are really horrible to drive, with the game occasionally letting you drive something good to remind you what you’re not enjoying. It’s almost as if… as if there were a way to improve things more quickly. But surely not?
Cars are improved by spending money on playing cards with unexplained car things on them, which allow incremental upgrades, occasionally at the cost of slight downgrades for other aspects. You need to improve your car to be able to compete in later quests in a chain. Cards cost around 15,000 carbucks, and you usually need about three of them to make a useful tune-up. The average race awards 7,000 carbucks, and one card. Can you see what they’ve done? Indeed, in order to make quite a piddly game drag out far, far longer, they force the player to grimly grind older, previously beaten races, to get enough cash to do the next.
It’s worth noting, if you do despise yourself enough to put yourself through this rope burn of mediocrity, that the game entirely fails to tell you what “Shipments” are, despite occasionally rewarding you with them. Buried in the god-awful pause menu (this is by Ghost Games, after all), is the Shipments section, in which you can open – yes, of course – these loot crates. They have spare money, tokens for upgrade cards, and vanity items.
And of course you can buy points with real-life money to open more of them. It’s odd just how hidden this feature is, but of course it’s an expensive way to get past all that misery-inducing grind.
It’s tempting to just keep listing all the other ways this game is a dickhead, but there’s little to gain from it. Just know that despite the hundreds of mini-challenges scattered around the impressively dull map requiring particular cars, there’s no quick way to swap which car you’re driving. You have to drive or warp to a garage, then pick a different car, then drive your way back to whichever random little bonus it was, which you’re obviously never going to do. Not least when quick travel often requires you pay one of the seventeen or so different in-game currencies for the pleasure. Instead you just feel a deep sense of despondency and wonder at your life choices.
I cannot fathom what Ghost are doing with the Need For Speed series. The introduction of smashable billboards (although not of course those with real-world advertising on them) seems like a hark back to the glory days of Criterion, but the repeated punch in the face that is the storyline and quest structure seems like something unwanted in either the Burnout or Need For Speed worlds. It’s such a ghastly game, not because of its weakly driving, but because of every single other thing it does to get in the way of it.
Need For Speed Payback is out now on Origin for a hilarious £55/$60.