NEED FOR SPEED PAYBACK Review: A Few Steps Forward in All the Right Places

STORY

When you start off, you are introduced to Tyler Morgan, a racer who is very much in it to be the best there is. During your first race, you are then introduced (and switched to) Mac, a member of your crew that prefers racing offroad. And then you meet (and switch to) Jess who is the runner or wheelwoman for the crew.

Without giving too much of the story away, but just enough to make my comparison, something bad happens that splits the crew up and keeps them split apart for some time. Months later, they reunited for a common cause to take down "The House". There are many gambling references thrown in, but one thing stands out. This is almost the same start and premise for the movie, Need for Speed. If you watched the movie, you will recall that the crew reunite to take down the protagonist by attempting to enter a well known racing event called Deleon. Well, in the game, you take down Leagues and Crews to win a spot in a well known racing event called Outlaw's Rush. All this in an act towards payback.

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Although I enjoyed the storyline and the interaction between characters, I felt it was rehashed from the movie and also some previous Need for Speed iterations. The game is still all about racing, with a story to keep you entertained along the way. You may enjoy the characters, but the plot won't really push you to keep going. 

What caught me by surprise, was the weird mix of linear and open world play. When you start the games first missions, and many of the other story missions, it plays out like Need for Speed: The Run. It is linear and you are given the cars you drive with. Completing the mission will immediately start the next mission. You will switch between Tyler, Mac and Jess without being given the choice. 

Later though, and through other parts of the game when you take down leagues in either drift, drag, runner, dirt or racer modes, you are free to explore the world, open map icons and do whatever the hell you please. Most of this is spent either re-racing races to collect speed cards, the new form of upgrading car parts, and then upgrade your car to the next mission's required specs, or going to the tune-up shop to buy these speed cards. 

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Each character has a preferred racing mode. Tyler will take the race and drag races, Mac will stick to dirt and drift modes, and Jess has the runner or escape artist modes. If you wanted to take your Honda S2000 that you built for race and adjust it for drift, you can't. You have to buy a brand new Honda S2000 and build that specifically for drift. Each car also has its own performance cards, so you cannot use old cards from one car for another. When you get a new car, you basically have to take it through all the old league races, build it up from scratch until you reach the latest mission that has high spec requirements.

This new feature has put me off wanting to get new cars. I spent hours racing my Honda S2000 building it to high specs, and when I then got a Mazda I wanted to try out, I had to do it all over again. Sure, this built up a massive cash flow from re-winning races and getting new shipments of parts, but it got a bit frustrating redoing races for the 5th time. 

You can also gamble during races. You can take bets for your race, whether you will be able to drift for 600 metres or stay in first for 60 seconds. If you manage to complete the bet, while actually racing and taking down cops, you will get the pool money that was thrown in against you. 

Many of the new features reminded me of GTA V. Switching between three main characters, buying garages to store more cars, and the different areas of the map; I could not pass through this review without making that mention. The garages are pretty much what we've become used to in Need for Speed though, with similar performance, visual and paint upgrades. However, I must just add that underbody Neon lights, colour smoke, sound systems and Nos colors are back, making this feel like a small nod to Undergound 2.

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The music and sounds are great, with another nod to GTA V. You now have a radio station playing with a DJ speaking between songs to tell you the latest on the news of Tyler ripping up the streets. The best experience was when the police pursuits started and the police radios boomed over the PS4 controller. It became a mix of hearing what the crew were saying over their phones on the TV, listening to the cars being destroyed all around you and hearing what the police were saying on your control... all at the same time!!!!

The visuals are the usual superb Need for Speed graphics we have become used to, if not better. You move between the wide mountain areas that are reminiscent of Need for Speed: Carbon, the sprawling inner streets of towns that goes back to Need for Speed: Most Wanted (both versions), and some industrial areas in the desert. The cinematic sequences are absolutely gorgeous and wonderful to watch, while the takedown sequences we were treated to in the trailer are a thrill to experience each and every time.

Perhaps the most exciting feature I enjoyed was the derelict missions that kept me so busy, I forgot I had a story to follow. It follows a similar formulae to building up hotrods in The Crew, but I enjoyed it way more. Instead of just searching for parts, you have to find innovative ways to jump into the required areas where the parts are. There are interactive clues for you to follow, with hand-sketched maps you can pin to your overall map. 

One last feature I want to touch on are some elements from Burnout Paradise that I enjoyed. You can collect coins and jump through Billboards, but in a way that is more enjoyable. The boards get tracked as you take them out. Some old Need for Speed features had also returned, which are your speed traps, with the addition of speed runs and drift runs to name a few. Believe it or not, you can actually complete these side missions during main missions too. The repair gas stations have returned, with no real notable change.

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GAMEPLAY

There isn't a drastic change in the control mechanics since the last Need for Speed. The races and drifts are pretty much the same, but the drag system has been enhanced in such a way that I actually want to play them. Nos and perfecting shifting are key to winning them, but the overhead bar indicating perfect shift zones are vastly improved.

The dirt races are a bit hard for me to manage. The offroad areas are a tad difficult to traverse and even the smoothed out parts of the roads you are racing on could send you tumbling and crashing into rocks, even if you try your best to avoid them. Don't get me wrong, they are still enjoyable to race. Yet everytime I enter a dirt race my blood-pressure soars to unhealthy heights as I restart and restart and restart. 

Having said that, once I got the hang of it the dirt racing became easier to manage. And then you switch to street racing and you've got to adapt again. Drifting around streets and houses is such a pleasure in this game, and I marvel at how quickly these cars respond to your controls. There is less handbraking and more normal braking, which is a pleasant departure from many Need for Speed titles. Drifting has once again become my favorite in this title, and they have pulled it off fantastically. Be warned though... if you are in a drag car, you will struggle to take corners when riding through town.

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Which brings me to my rant. When I enter a drag league to complete all their missions, I expect to only do drag racing. During some of the drag league missions, I was expected to race from one end of the town to another, or escape the cops. That was not what I signed up for, and wished they would keep the drag missions as drag missions.

So let's talk about the cop mechanics. I am afraid to say that if you were looking forward to the lengthy cop chases, the heat levels and the cool down areas, you are in for some disappointment. Me... I am glad it's gone. Now when cops chase you during missions or league races, as soon as the mission is done then they are gone. Just like that, as if they never existed. I have never been hunted down while free roaming, and the cops don't even seem interested in me. This is a pleasant change from the past, where I had spend almost an hour on one pursuit that had nothing to do with the story at all and was merely random for speeding in a slow lane.

All in all, the gameplay has become a much better experience. The user interface is easy to read and understand, and a quick glance to specific areas of the screen will tell you exactly what you want to know, quick and simple. 

With the new performance cards that are used for upgrades, Payback shoves replayability in your face. Whether you want to or not, you WILL replay missions. Each mission has a recommended car performance level, and trust me when I tell you that you will suffer if your car is a level 140 and the recommended level is 170. Yes, you can go buy tune up parts at the tune up shop, but they are rather expensive. So either you will be re-racing missions to win performance cards, or to earn credits to buy performance cards.

When you do get your car where you want it, you will want to buy a new car. As mentioned before, you will have to get that car up to mission spec too. This means replaying old missions, leveling up and then finally returning to the main storyline. As far as overall replayability goes, when the game's main story is done, you can then spend your time buying those exotic cars you wanted and replaying old missions just to supe them up. The only time you would stop playing this is when you've become bored of buying cars and building them up.

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WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE BETTER

First off, the performance cards. Yes, I loved them! But I hated that when I fitted new cards, I could not use the old cards for any of my other cars. I guess if one had to be logical, this is realistic. One cannot fit a high spec Ford turbo in an Aston Martin. Then again, who could realistically jump off a ramp, fly through the air and crash through billboards and still look good afterwards? I would have preferred to reuse old cards anyway, even if it isn't realistic.

The storyline could have driven me more. This does not have the scale of urgency that the original Most Wanted had. Maybe that's what they were aiming for. Perhaps the built the game first and then just attached a story as an afterthought. Having said that, I still loved this story and could easily see it as a film sequel to the first Need for Speed movie. There was just nothing that urged me forward to complete leagues and get into Outlaw Rush. Everything else was just too much fun to complete first. Like completing all side missions in Assassins Creed Origins before I even touch the main story. 

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VERDICT

I know there are many Need for Speed fans that might feel disappointed. They did not like the direction Need for Speed was taking and wanted a return to the old formulas. I am not one of them. When the game started and I was treated to The Run's linear gameplay, I almost put the game off and returned from the shop I bought it at. I am glad I waited. I am a big fan of the open world arena, and I feel that EA have pulled off this mix of linear and open world gameplay perfectly.

EA have also moved Need for Speed a few steps in all the right places for me. The enticing side missions, the new performance system, the return of some previous vanity items that I've missed. Yes, Payback will keep me busier than the previous Need for Speed did. I am thoroughly loving it and this was definitely worth every dollar spent on it.

What are your thoughts? Does the new story mode sound like an improvement on the series?

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