Need for Speed: Payback looks like it has some promise

Can the 'CarPG' overcome its open world drudgery?

Developer Ghost Games wants you to know Need for Speed: Payback is not a racing game.

More precisely, executive producer Marcus Nilsson and studio have carefully dubbed the title an “action driving” experience. "We're making the game we think is the most fun to play,” explains lead designer Riley Cooper. “Racing games are great, but they demand one hundred percent of your attention just to navigate a course. Our priority is a broader experience.”

In terms of the driving alone, Ghost Games has nailed that accessible experience. I’d never played a Need for Speed game before, but I felt completely in control of the action from the first minute of my eight-hour session last week. Drifting into tight turns and correctly timing boosts were exhilarating and intuitive. And it doesn’t hurt that like most modern driving titles, this game is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, soon after leaving the comfortable linearity of the prologue, this thrilling “broader experience” starts to break down. It becomes unexpectedly muddied by a grinding-reliant progression and tedious repeated treks across its open world.

Payback wastes no time introducing its main cast. We’ve got Mac, the sassy showman; Jess, the hyper-competent “wheelman;” and primary protagonist Tyler Morgan, a sentient jar of mayonnaise with a little too much stubble. After this crew is betrayed early on, it’s Tyler’s bumbling and his… need to go very fast… that brings the trio back together. To be exact, he wins a criminal-run street race he’d agreed to lose without inquiring how those criminals might retaliate. When pressed on why he’d endanger himself and those who vouched for him, he clarifies, “What I do, I do for the streets.” Sure, man.

Moments later, his house is blown up by said criminal organization known as “The House” (themed for the Vegas-inspired setting of Fortune City). This was the only moment in my eight hours with the game in which I sympathized with Tyler: neither of us expressed much emotion when his home exploded.

Following another satisfying string of missions full of racing and cop-evading, Tyler and crew get their first real taste of the open world. Here they can tackle multiple questlines, each revolving around one of five car types. Payback’s core loop is also introduced here: winning races rewards a character with a random upgrade and some “Bank” (money), while losing the race awards a smaller amount. Bank is then used to buy better gear. Each successive race in a questline ratchets up the recommended skill rating by roughly ten points, which is less of an increase than you’ll get from one piece of loot.

Herein lies Payback’s biggest stumbling block: there’s little side content with which to raise that skill rating. Unless you scour the map for tiny rewards that come with collectibles and micro-challenges, you’re left with only two options to level up.

Your first choice is to simply replay old races. Payback outright tells you to do this if you’re having trouble winning. Despite obvious repetition, it’s the most exciting way to earn enough income to level your car, because your second option is an even worse one: you can repeatedly lose at that difficult race, saving enough consolation winnings to purchase that necessary upgrade. So, really, your two options for maintaining a competitive level are to grind… or to grind while losing over and over. Oh, and the Tune-Up Stations where you purchase and equip those upgrades? They’re inconveniently located across the map instead of accessible from your menu.

Once each questline string is complete, the player gains access to more explosive, larger-scale missions which star the whole crew. The one I played (or at least, the one I can talk about; thanks, embargo) was largely the same level we saw at E3 this year. Still, it was my favorite mission of the many I played. Like in those early minutes, without grindy leveling and tedious open world traversal, I understood why Need for Speed is such a massive franchise. Its fundamentals -- namely, the production values and how the turning is tuned for novice hands -- are an intuitive blast to play with.

Payback also gives players the option to scour the world for “derelicts,” which are chassis and car parts that become the game’s most upgradable vehicles. I didn’t hunt these down because I didn’t have time to see their upgrade paths through, but that doesn’t make their presence less intriguing. Given that the developers say acquiring them requires a slower, puzzle-solving approach -- and even some platforming -- this type of discovery and distraction could be a much-needed addition to an otherwise tedious open world.

So, it seems Ghost Games is right. Need for Speed Payback isn’t just a racing game. It’s an open-world “action driving” title with clunky RPG progression layered on top (they even cheekily used the term “CarPG”). And that action sings where action games typically do: during its most linear, explosive, expensive-to-produce sections. I have no idea how many of these moments fill the game, or how long it will take to finish, but players can be sure they’re in for a whole lot of grinding.