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Game Impressions: Need for Speed Payback

One of the great things about racing games is that there's room for everyone to enjoy with them. Whether it's the fantasy fun of Mario Kart or the hyper realism of a modern PC sim, there's plenty of space for each game to carve out its own niche.

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EA's long running Need for Speed franchise was once one of the industry's most influential driving games, but in recent years has struggled to find an identity in a crowded market. Two years ago, a rebooted Need for Speed was released featuring real life car culture personalities and extensive visual customization. This year, NFS returns with Need for Speed Payback—an open world arcade racer set in the fictional, but heavily Vegas-inspired, locale of "Fortune Valley."

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With so many big racing games on the market this fall, it can be tough determining which are worth your time and money. Is NFS Payback the right game for you? Here are few things we liked about the game and a few things we didn't.

Eccentric Car List

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While Payback's car list isn't huge by modern video game standards, EA and Ghost Games has done a great job of including a strong variety of cars—and not just the usual supercars. There's are lot of cool and quirky machines to be bought, from the Volvo Amazon to the Buick Grand National. And, now that off-road racing is part of the mix there's an even larger variety to be had with the ability to convert normal cars into Baja-style racers that look quite cool.

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Blatantly borrowing a page from the Forza Horizon series, Payback also features "Derelict" cars which have to be discovered and repaired by finding hidden parts spread across the game's map. While the car list is diverse with some cool options to please hardcore gearheads, collecting and building up different cars in Payback is unfortunately not as easy or enjoyable as it is in other games, but we'll get to that in a moment.

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Visual Customization

One of the best features about the last Need for Speed was its deep visual customization features - and that has returned for NFS Payback. Whether it's making custom liveries, fitting dozens of body parts, or the huge selection of aftermarket wheels and more, the game sets a high bar in this department.

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There's a group of folks at Ghost Games who have a deep love of car culture and have gone through a lot of effort to share that in NFS Payback—which is chock full of real life car parts and some really cool attention to detail. But is the depth only skin deep? How does it feel once you get out there and start driving?

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Physics & Action

Once behind the wheel, NFS Payback is not too different from the last Need for Speed game. Over the course of the game you'll be tasked with normal racing, drifting, drag racing, running from the cops and racing off-road. Those looking for a simulation experience likely won't be playing an NFS game in the first place, as the physics of the game clearly fall into the arcade realm but that's doesn't have to be bad thing.

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There's not really anything wrong with Payback's gameplay, and the variety of events is nice, but there's just nothing that puts a huge grin on your face the way other great arcade racers have in the past (cough, Burnout, cough).

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For example, the police chases in the game don't require you to outsmart the cops but simply to get away from them by reaching check points—and the off-road racing feels like the normal racing only with more jumps and less grip. Again it's not bad, it's just kind of unremarkable.

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The "Story"

Chances are, when you are looking for a racing game a fictional narrative isn't high on your priority list, but that's exactly what you get in this game—with a group of racers and their quest for revenge on a criminal group called "The House" being a huge part of Payback's premise.

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We wont go into details of the paper-thin plot, other than to say it takes itself way too seriously and features some forgettable, hollow characters. While the idea of playing a car action movie sounds promising, all of Payback's big Hollywood-style stunts are shown via cut-scenes rather than actual playable moments. The parts you do control are pretty standard arcade racing fare. The idea was clearly to capture the fun of the Fast & Furious franchise, and it didn't really work.

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Frustrating Grind and Head-Scratching Upgrade System

Of course the story elements can be ignored pretty easily, but there are other negatives that can't be passed over. First up, there's the modification system. In just about every other racing game made over the last 15 years, upgrading your car was a simple process—you'd spend your prize winnings on the parts you want to make your car go faster, handle better, stop quicker, etc.

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NFS Payback has completely done away with that in favor of a convoluted, confusing and just plain bad system that involves "shipments" and "speed cards" to upgrade certain areas of your cars performance as if you were playing an RPG. The cards you're awarded in-game can be completely random—making upgrades of your car a long and frustrating process, often requiring repetition of the same races over and over again in hopes of getting the speed card needed.

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And your car WILL need to be upgraded, because race events give a recommended performance rating and if your car isn't within a few points of that rating you will be totally left in the dust by the faster cars of the AI racers. Even worse is the fact that speed cards can't be transferred between cars, meaning if you want to try out a new car you'd better be prepared for even more grinding to stay competitive.

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Overall, the speed card system feels like a damaging fix to something that wasn't broken—but when you realize players can purchase shipments using real money, it becomes too clear that the long grind and randomness is all there by design. The idea being to persuade players to drop some real life money to get ahead—and its negative impact on the game is significant.

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It's disappointing, but is a movement seen beyond NFS Payback. We've seen many other games where publishers have added micro-transaction systems on top of full priced titles and they've received a lot of criticism for it—but sadly, this looks like it's the future of big budget games, racing or otherwise.

The Verdict on Need for Speed Payback Review

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Ultimately, despite some promising features and great visual customization, the frustrating upgrade system and overall grind of the game take a lot of the enjoyment out of NFS Payback. Those looking for a fun, arcade racing experience with a wealth of content will probably be better off sticking with something like last year's Forza Horizon 3 which offers a lot more bang for the buck and a more complete open world racing experience.

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