If you're looking for actual serious racing on the Xbox One, there are places you can go. Forza 7, Project Cars 2, Assetto Corsa, but Need for Speed would not make that shortlist. There are races, yes, but it feels like it's not really the point of the franchise.
Payback is the latest from EA and it doesn't do anything to reinvent the brand, but it is also probably the best of the bunch to date. Lots of little bits from various different Need for Speed games over the years feel like they've come together and created this game.
It's fast, at times a lot of fun and always oh so cheesy. It's Need for Speed, but you have to wonder how long EA can keep pushing this before a serious change of direction is in order.
Need for Speed's greatest hits
There's nothing really new in Payback, that is to say there's nothing you won't have seen before in a previous Need for Speed title. If you mixed Fast and Furious with Grand Theft Auto and added a sprinkle of Forza Horizon, you'd arrive about at where Need for Speed: Payback is. However, it isn't better than GTA V or Forza Horizon 3. It might be better than Fast and Furious, though.
What you have in Payback is serious car customizations, around from the age-old Underground days, with wild body kits and absurd modifications. Mods aren't just bought, though, in most cases, you're earning them as a reward in a lucky dip style. You get three cards to choose from, revealing one will be your modding prize.
All this is then mixed together with a fairly decent open world map with both on and off-road sections to explore, along with the series' trademark police chases.
It also maintains a Need for Speed standard of being very good looking in its own right. This one is enhanced for the Xbox One X, and though it doesn't mention 4K, it does look very sharp and the cars are gorgeous. Likewise with the setting. The visuals have a definite movie feel to them.
Oh, and you have nitrous. Lots and lots of nitrous.
The formula is pretty good, especially for Need for Speed fans. There are all the good bits from the franchises past stuffed in here with a map you can actually explore. But then you come to the plot.
The main character is a cheesy street-racer, wronged by "The House" in the very Las Vegas-esque Fortune City complete with its own Stratosphere Tower. There's a gambler, a bad guy, a $2 million hypercar with some kind of experimental technology inside it. There's your crew, there's a token character from London, and the whole thing feels very much like a bad Fast and Furious script. It sounds like a bad Fast and Furious script.
Visually, Fortune City is both engaging and beautifully created. And some of the characters have appeal. But the whole thing plays out like a bad movie, and ultimately begins to distract you from the best parts of the game.
Because when you get stuck in, it's actually a lot of fun.
If you ain't first, you're last
When you're racing, Payback is a bonafide arcade riot. There's no concentration here on accurate handling, it's all about massive nitrous bursts, huge drifts, and the occasional deliberate accident. You do whatever you have to do to finish first.
That's partly because if you don't win, you may not be able to progress through the story. This is where the racing aspect of the game falls flat, because at times it then feels less like fun, more like a grind.
But the whole thing plays out like a movie script. You're the hero, you take on the bad guys, beat them on the streets, take them down. You get a mix of racing, including drag, circuit and off-road, and you don't have to follow the exact circuit layout (but you do have to hit checkpoints.) If you spot a shortcut, you can absolutely use it and get an unfair advantage.
But so can your opponents.
The action is entirely in-car, with the only sightings of actual characters being the numerous cutscenes that tell the story. There's a lot to sit through. Multiplayer is the same exact experience just without the cheesy storyline and endless cut scenes.
One of the absolute best features of this year's Need for Speed is the map. It's not the biggest you'll ever play, especially compared to something like GTA V, but it has a lot to offer.
Besides the setting, a mix of desert trails and city streets, the map is littered with additional challenges such as you might find in a Forza Horizon game. You've got speed traps, jumps, speed zones and best of all, billboards to smash in a very dramatic and heroic fashion.
It's nice because if you're getting a bit worn down by the storyline of the main game, you can just jump in a car, go exploring and take on some different challenges.
Part of the main story but away from organized races are the old Need for Speed favorites: The police chases. Because you're a bad guy (even though you're the good guy) driving dangerously and occasionally stealing cars, the cops want you.
In a chase situation, you'll be given a time and an objective to reach an escape point or just get rid of them any way you know how. It has always been enormous fun to pile the police cruisers into a wall and watch them flip through the air in a dramatic slow-motion cutscene. It's old school Need for Speed at its best.
The deluxe edition and microtransactions
There is no additional spend for multiplayer add-on packs in Need for Speed: Payback, but there's still an upsell. You can buy the deluxe edition any time from the Microsoft Store, but even if you get the standard edition, you will find a path to upgrade to it right within the main menu.
This is far from the worst example of monetization, though it does give you in-game bonuses, discounts and boosts to your rep as well as getting additional shipments of goodies. All of which take time and effort to earn in the game.
There is also additional single-player story content to unlock as well as some special vehicles, so you're also getting what would constitute proper DLC. But there's no denying the deluxe edition is made attractive to folks to pay up early on and get on faster.
What you will also find is a truckload of microtransactions in typical EA fashion. The in-game currency is "speed points," and you exchange these for shipments. That's not too bad, but then you find the tab where you can spend plenty of real money to buy many more shipments and get better stuff even faster. I suppose you at least get a 10 percent discount if you're an EA Access subscriber, but it's not the point.
Sure, you don't need to buy anything to enjoy the main part of the game. But for a game like this, for the most part, this kind of thing just isn't necessary. The bulk of the experience is single-player, and yet EA has still decided to bundle in a heap of microtransactions.
That makes me sad.
The bottom line
So here's the deal. Need for Speed: Payback isn't a bad game at its core. Especially not for fans of the series. For those people, this is one of the best outings yet. It's fast, it's fun, and there's plenty to keep you entertained.
Even for fans of more serious racers, it's a laugh to spend a bit of time playing something more arcade-style, pulling out truly ridiculous drifts and smashing police cruisers into walls. The physics are far from realistic, but that's never been the point of Need for Speed.
The issues with this game are primarily the pretty awful storyline with characters you probably wouldn't want to see in a rip-off of a Fast and Furious movie. The dialog is on the whole pretty cringe-worthy, and adding a token Londoner doesn't improve it. Payback feels like it has tried to reinvigorate itself by borrowing ideas from various corners, but in doing so it lacks any real identity of its own.
- Looks stunning.
- Decent open world map.
- Plenty to do away from the story.
- Arcade racing fun.
- The story plays out like a bad movie.
- Dialog is pretty awful.
- Borrows many ideas without having a real identity of its own.
When you step away from the storyline and explore the map, you'll probably be happiest. This game looks tremendous, the environments are at times breathtaking and the cars are stunning as ever. But the meat of the game still feels like a chore, with progression extremely linear and based entirely on one outcome before you can continue.
And it really doesn't need microtransactions. No, it's not pay to win, you don't have to even think about touching them. But that EA even included them turns me off a little. There are very real things to fix with this franchise, and asking people for more money inside the game isn't how you do it.
Need for Speed has recently been rebooted, but on the evidence of Payback, it's not nearly enough. Diehards will enjoy it, and it is a good arcade racer deep down. But what EA really needs to do is come up with something fresh and give us a whole new Need for Speed experience next time.
Need for Speed Payback is available now for $60, or $54 for EA Access subscribers.
Review conducted entirely on Xbox One using a copy provided by the publisher.
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Richard Devine is a Managing Editor at Windows Central with over a decade of experience. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently, you'll find him steering the site's coverage of all manner of PC hardware and reviews. Find him on Mastodon at mstdn.social/@richdevine