Need for Speed is nothing if not predictable. It’s predictable in a good way, sure, but you always know what you’re signing up for.
From my few short minutes playing through the same gameplay segment that was demoed in EA’s glitzy pre-E3 show, it’s pretty clear that Need for Speed Payback is an evolution of the existing franchise, but also adds in some gameplay elements that fans of the early takin’-it-to-the-streets Underground — and fans of the Fast & Furious movie franchise — will love.
It was always pretty obvious to even a casual observer that a faux-F&F, baddies-versus-more-badder-baddies story was the direction that Need for Speed has been heading in for some time. The Underground series has huge cultural cachet with a certain racing game-playing age group, and the Furious movies’ phenomenonal box office success makes it a no-brainer for the racing game to dip its toes back in the water.
You’ll recognise the Payback story, too, as a melange of various Fast & Furious tropes. Boosting cars from trucks on the freeway, a group of rough and tumble I-don’t-got-friends-I-got-family going up against a legitimately evil cartel, regular cameos from a host of strong-willed and interestingly-motivated characters. You get all the storyline you need from the intro video above.
When it comes to actual racing, it’s telling that EA demoed Need for Speed Payback PC with Xbox controllers hooked up rather than anything more serious — like, say, the racing wheel you’d use on a semi-sim like Project CARS or a full-on sim like iRacing. It’s an arcade racer, and that should come as absolutely zero surprise to anyone that’s played any of the recent titles in the series.
That’s not to say at all that it’s not enjoyable, though. Need for Speed Payback is definitely enjoyable. It’s just less nuanced than it could be in its car controls — and that means you’ll have those moments where you’re heading towards a wall or car or other obstacle and you realise you’re going to hit it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s that frustration that twitchier racing games don’t have — although you could argue they’re harder to play in the first place.
The racing is classic — well, modern classic — NFS. You’ve got your nitrous and your handbrake, and liberal application of both will get you around the track/road course/ the fastest. You’ll bounce off walls with not even a hint of cosmetic damage, you can smash your opponents around, and you can take the odd risky shortcut to give yourself an advantage. The fundamentals are solid, unsurprisingly so with EA’s years at the wheel of previous games.
By default — and there wasn’t the option nor the time to fiddle in settings, since the demo was very much on-rails — the Mustang’s steering was decidedly doughy, which meant a lot of full-lock steering left and right and on-off accelerator and brake to compensate for that. And those inevitable wall-riding crashes. It’s just that kinda game. It’s always been possible to remove some dead-zone and make NFS handling a little more enjoyable for driving enthusiasts, so my fingers are crossed that remains. The few seconds of high-speed Koenigsegg Regera racing I got, too, felt a fair bit tighter.
It was interesting that throughout the demo, the story progressed with the NFS equivalent of QuickTime events. Driving up to the back of the truck I was chasing unlocked the next segment, driving alongside it for my passenger to jump out onto the bonnet and climb the conveniently placed ladder alongside unlocked the next, and so on. It worked well — I missed filling the second-long progress bar on one, to the chagrin of v everyone involved, which felt real — but I think sparing use of it will be important to stop Payback feeling simple and repetitive.
I’m looking forward to playing more than a couple of minutes of Need for Speed Payback. If the story plays out with a bit of human interest, if the customisation is as extensive as EA promises — and has built its rep on from previous games, if it’s actually fun to play throughout the inevitable mission or level grind, then it’ll hopefully regain the spark that made the original Underground great.