Having now put a good few hours into Need For Speed Payback, I’m unsure whether or not I’ll be continuing. I’m really sitting on the fence here, because I have - at times - enjoyed it, but I’ve also been monumentally, frequently frustrated by it.
Let’s start with the story line. I do actually like the fact that there’s - unlike most driving games - some sort of plot going on, even if it is hilariously derivative. It’s one of the things that’s nudging me toward the idea of continuing the campaign, but it’s also relentlessly irritating, mostly due to the characters.
You have three playable avatars: Tyler Morgan, Sean ‘Mac’ McAlister and Jessica Miller. All are cocky douchebags, and feel the need to constantly chirp away about how awesome they are while you’re driving. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I heard ‘Mac’ say something deeply moronic like “I started drifting the corners for speed” at one point. But these three fools pale in comparison to ‘Hashtiger’ - the resident Instagrammer bloke in the game who’ll make you want to hurl your controller at the screen. There are also enough cut scenes to make a Halo game developer blush.
Then we have the way the cars drive. I get that Need For Speed has never been intended to be realistic, but I prefer the way the Forza Horizon games do it - they’re not exactly sims, but the handling does at least make sense. In the world of Need For Speed on the other hand, cars will generally behave like they’re on rails, before eventually understeering and then going into a weird, kind of ‘auto drift’ mode where sideways shenanigans are stupidly easy.
This I can cope with. You do get used to the way Payback does things after a while, and drifting around everywhere is admittedly quite fun. I’m even cool with the deeply silly boost function. But what I can’t abide is the elastic AI in the races. You’ll find yourself easily passing a tastelessly modified Focus RS, only for the blighter to tear up the inside a few corners later, even though your own pace has changed.
Conversely, you’ll find the gap to the cars up ahead you’ve been trying to catch up to for the best part of a lap suddenly disappear in seconds. There’s no rhyme or reason to how the ‘rubberbanding’ works, and how powerful a car is seems to have no bearing on how easy it is to beat in a race.
Finally, Payback is a bit buggy. The first week I played it, it would freeze every few minutes, and sometimes I’d be able to pass straight through AI traffic. That hasn’t happened during my more recent Payback sessions, but the livery on the M5 used in several missions took until a good 30 or so seconds into some races before it loaded properly, leaving me staring at a pixelated mess for a surprising length of time.
It’s a shame as there is a lot I like about the game. The open world map for instance is incredible - it’s huge, almost entirely stunning and littered with amazing roads. The people responsible for the map of the next Forza Horizon installment need to head out into the Canyons of ‘Fortune Valley’ and find out how to make a proper set of bends to enjoy, that’s for sure.
There’s also some great attention to detail going on. While out at the launch of the new M5 - Payback’s cover star - EA told us that developers were sent a sample of BMW Individual Frozen Dark Red Metallic (the super-expensive colour of the Launch Edition cars) to make sure in the virtual world it looked exactly like it should. And having seen the car IRL moments before playing the game (handily, there were a couple of consoles set up for us), I can tell you it does.
For open world driving fun, Forza Horizon 3 is still the one for me. Despite being far too flawed though, Need For Speed Payback isn’t completely beyond being recommendable. The relatively small list of cars doesn’t have a duffer in it, and modifying them in ways you’d never dream of IRL is entertaining. And did I mention how much I love the map?
It’s essentially the gaming equivalent of a Fast and Furious film: it can be enjoyable, but think too hard - especially if you have any real knowledge about cars - and you’re going to get annoyed.
So, you really need to switch off your brain before switching your console on. Right now, I’m struggling to…