I don’t get EA when it comes to its racing game logic. For years, the company leaned on its Burnout brand like it was the next hot thing, and even managed to create one of the best open-world racing games out there with Burnout Paradise. But then the series vanished, making room for its inferior Need For Speed brand instead. I just don’t get business sometimes.
We’ve seen some decent NFS racing games over the years, like the 2013 Rivals, which was a solid showcase of open-world racing, and the odd 2015 release Need For Speed, requiring an online connection to get your kicks. But then I heard about Payback, and had my fingers crossed that EA was finally “letting loose” and bringing us a racing game that would be on the same level as the Burnout games, but with a Fast and Furious sort of vibe.
Well, that’s not really the case. Payback isn’t the worst game of the year, but more of a constrained one, where you’re forced to jump through so many hoops to get to the good parts of the game – and even then, it almost feels like someone’s holding your hand right when you’re about to rip it into overdrive. It’s like the team at Ghost Games wasn’t afraid to give you big moments, but stops just short of letting you feel completely mesmerized by them. The seatbelt is holding you back so badly, you could barely reach the wheel.
The game revolves around a storyline that involves three up-and-coming drivers who find themselves at odds against The House, a conglomerate organization that runs the Las Vegas-ish city Fortune valley. It all revolves around a special sports car that’s stolen a bit too easily (girl says, “I’m stealing your car!” and guy says, “Why?” and girl says, “Because!” as she casually walks up to it and drives away – lame), and their slow but steady climb to get revenge.
Now, I like the setting, and the idea that these people are out for revenge. But the pacing for the storytelling is weak, and the characters never really give you a reason to give a damn about them. Fast and Furious had that advantage by giving you established characters, even if some got on your nerves. (Yep, Tyrese.) Here, they’re just filling roles and barely providing you any motivation. It’s like, well, the Need For Speed movie, actually – except Michael Keaton is nowhere to be found here. Damn.
That said, the way the story unfolds is a bit slow, as it takes some time to get around the tiring stuff at the beginning. But then it picks up and you really see a variety of missions that make things more interesting, especially when you’re engaging in chases against the police. These actually make up for some of the lulls in the game, and I’m glad there’s so many that come up to keep things moving, even if the characters don’t.
But then, just when we get to the height of the “man, this is going to be good”, Ghost Games pulls a cruel trick and rips away control. Jumping over a bridge, careening an 18-wheeler off a road, and other big moments are handled automatically with cinematics. Sure, you can high speed it across as many races as you like, but when it comes to stuff you actually want to try, you just can’t. And that’s a frustration that’s hard to overlook, no matter what the set-up is leading up to that.
At least the other activities you get to take part in are good, whether it’s nailing speed traps for the best time, drifting your way to greatness in competitions, doing off-road races with high-flying jump opportunities, and, again, those fun pursuits against the cops. There’s a whole map that’s wide open for exploration, and it can be fun just seeing what Fortune Valley has to offer.
But then another flaw comes into play – having to pretty much grind your way to progress. The game gives you the opportunity to earn Speed Cards that can provide you with a number of perks, such as boosting your level or giving you stat increases. That’s a neat idea, but they take forever to attain. And what’s worse, sometimes you’re pitted in races against drivers that have much more superior cars. You could be the most skilled driver in the world, but it doesn’t do much good when you’re driving the equivalent of a lemon. I really wish this had found more balance so drivers didn’t have to punish themselves in the sake of getting somewhere.
You can also buy new cars, but, again, it feels like an unfair grind trying to get those dream rides, unless, surprise, you spend real money. It seems like a system that could’ve used a massive overhaul, to the point that you could just unlock stuff – you know, like you could in the older Burnout games.
The presentation is solid. Ghost Games’ soundtrack selection is pretty good, and the visuals are nice and polished, really giving you a representation of what an alternate version of Las Vegas would look like. But, again, the characters are bland. You’d think that there would be just as much effort put into them as their lavish rides. Alas, the cars steal the show – as expected.
I understand what the developer was going for with Need For Speed: Payback. I get it. It wanted to create a heist game on the level of the Fast and Furious movies, but with its own little nuances that match up with this particular franchise. But, as fun as some of the events are, the limitations are just too much to bear. It takes too long to make any genuine progress in the game; the drivers themselves fail to bring anything significant or even quirky to the table; and the idea that the game’s biggest moments are out of your control is just infuriating.
If it’s a decent arcade racer that you’re looking for, Payback might suit you, but proceed with caution. You’re probably better off holding out for a ride that doesn’t hold your hand so much as pressure you to put it to good use for shifting gears. That said, Burnout Paradise for Xbox One cannot be recommended enough.
RATING: Two and a half stars out of five.
Disclaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.