Need for Speed Payback review: A race to mediocrity

Credit: EA
Credit: EA /

Need for Speed Payback returns to the series with some marked improvements, but also a heavy and degenerative focus on micro-transactions.

Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed) Xbox One, PC
Release Date: October 10, 2017

I’m twenty minutes into Need for Speed Payback. The police are on my tail, and ham-fisted dialogue introduces me to Jess, a long-time expert in evasion. Then my game bugs, my mini-map disappears, and the entire PS4 interface stops working.

I restart and try again. Things are better. Better, but still not good enough. That just about summarizes my experience with the game.

Need for Speed Payback improves on its predecessor, yet somehow still manages to make certain elements worse. It’s clear that Ghost Games listened to feedback, bringing more customization, a longer experience and more to do. The sound of the car engines is impeccable, the world is large and beautiful, vehicle variety is solid. It has the makings of a good sequel.

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But Ghost Games also took a huge step back, and the reason for this is painfully clear; money. As EA titles are oft to do, Need for Speed Payback is built from the ground up with microtransactions in mind.

Instead of sticking with tried and tested upgrades, this game opts for a very different system. Each time you win a race, you’ll be presented a card. It provides stat increases to your vehicles, such as increased top speed, acceleration, or braking.

With some tweaks, it might not be a bad system, letting you save money to use solely on new cars. But there are also other ways to earn cards. Each time you do a race, you earn reputation. Level up, and you’ll receive a shipment, and that shipment is a glorified loot box.

Need for Speed Payback Slot machine
Credit: EA /

You can see where this is going. You either grind to level, or you can buy loot boxes with real money and progress much faster. The shipment will net you money, cosmetic upgrades, and most importantly, part tokens.

…If you don’t play racing games for the story, the actual driving aspect is fun.

Part tokens are the key to getting the best performance upgrades, and it works through a gambling system. You visit a tune-up shop and trade three tokens to spin a slot machine, choosing which element you want to hold. This way, you can easily get the upgrade you need, and they’re often far better than the ones obtained through races.

To progress in the story, you’ll need to upgrade your cars, and you’ll have to repeat the process for each new vehicle, as they don’t start with amazing stats. It quickly becomes a slog, and you’ll find yourself repeating the same races over and over.

It’s clearly not ideal, but if you’re okay with a little grinding, it’s not a terrible game. Sure, the dialogue is wooden and cringe-worthy, but if you don’t play racing games for the story, the actual driving aspect is fun. Cars handle a little strangely, perhaps worse than the previous game, but it makes drifting around corners immensely satisfying.

Need For Speed Payback introduces a few more modes with this release. The three playable characters each have different specializations; Tyler with race and drag, Mac with off-road and Jess with escaping pursuers. It feels a little unnecessary to separate the content and the cars required for them in this way, but it does make for an interesting variety. It’s necessary to maintain a larger collection of cars rather than just driving the same one around for hours.

Cosmetic customization is also a strong point, allowing you to significantly alter the appearance of your ride. The caveat is that those customizations are locked behind pointless, and sometimes difficult, achievements.

If you want to change your front canards, you’ll have to mash five billboards. To unlock different exhausts, you must reach 195 mph. Most of these are possible early on, but some will require massively upgraded rides to obtain. Still, you’ll only have to do it once, and then you can tweak to your heart’s content.

Of course, you can also decorate your cars with paint, and this is something that’s been improved since launch. Sliders let you choose any color or material, from matte, to gloss, or even satin. On top of that, there’s a layered decal system, which can be used to build complex artwork. It works well, though I prefer my cars clean.

When you’re done customizing, there’s still plenty to do in Payback’s relatively large world. There are tons of minigames, jumps, and collectibles. Derelict cars prove a treasure hunt as you follow clues to find parts and restore them to their former glory. Multiplayer provides a little more value for your money, despite its focus on races rather than free roam.

The story also takes a considerable amount of time to complete, and missions provide great, action-oriented fun. The more difficult stunts are thrown behind cutscenes, but there’s still plenty of value here.

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As a result, I’ll continue to play Need for Speed Payback despite its flaws. Its gameplay is addictive, and though it can be tense, it still maintains a casual feel. However, I still can’t recommend it at its $60 price point. It just has too many issues, and you’ll have to spend even more to fully enjoy the game.

6. <em>Need for Speed Payback’s </em>focus on microtransactions leads to a poor progression system and an over-reliance on grinding. The game takes several steps forward, but just as many back.. Ghost Games. . Need for Speed Payback

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.