It’s hard to imagine that 2004 was 13 years ago. I still recall sinking hours upon hours into Need for Speed Underground 2 on my Xbox. It was the perfect game for me at age 15: obnoxious, over-the-top, repetitive, and one of the earlier open-world car games. My obsession with unlocking and purchasing the best parts for my Peugeot hatchback was unquenchable. Making my car look, sound, and feel cool was ultimately more than enough to keep me satisfied. Who needs storytelling when you can put some sick gnar-gnar neon lights on your car’s undercarriage? I certainly didn’t.
Fast-forward to the latest chapter in the Need For Speed series. Need for Speed Payback encapsulates everything I remember about the genre. The only issue is, I was only 15 back then and didn’t have a strong opinion or many viable alternatives to choose from. I was content going through the “grind” of doing tedious tasks for minimal payouts. But I’ve grown up and already endured countless other games with similar reward systems and open-world mechanics. However, after spending my first few hours in Payback, unable to afford the purchase of a new car, let alone unlock some, the thought of the grind had me feeling impatient.
The story, like most other Need for Speed iterations, isn’t the reason fans continue to play the franchise. The cop chases, different racing disciplines, plethora of cars, and endless customization options are the game’s biggest selling points. But you’ll be disappointed to find that in fact the story does take a bigger role in Payback and car customization is hidden behind tedious world activity prerequisites.
I had to go find three different jumps or something nonsensical and make sure I went “X” amount of yards to unlock the ability to customize my vehicle’s side skirts. Even after doing this task, you still have to pay for the customized component. It was exhausting and overwhelming just thinking about the amount of work needed to even have the option to make my car unique.
Does the story at least make up for the fact that customization and cars are hidden behind playtime? No. It’s your typical caricatured Need for Speed cast. Bros, natives, immigrants, whatever. The cast is diverse, but also has no depth; there isn’t anybody worth liking or despising, to be honest, because the entire reason you’re getting “payback” in the first place isn’t convincing at all. The three main characters lack any type of personality. Tyler is basically a Paul Walker reincarnate who is naive, dumb, and reckless, and handles all of the normal racing events. Mac is actually kind of cool; he’s from England and there arecmoments where I warm up to him. His specialties are off-road and drifting. Then there’s Jess, a wheelwoman who “doesn’t play by the rules” or whatever stereotypical rebellious phrase you can think of — she’ll probably say it.
Inundated with nauseous dialogue and a less than impressive soundtrack, it really felt like this game was made back in 2004. It’s actually incredible at how little the series has changed. However, the fact that Need for Speed Payback hit all the necessary nostalgic notes speaks volumes for it staying true to it’s roots. Perhaps the whole point of the series is to be kitschy, obnoxious, and self deprecating. I’m just having a hard time trying to wrap my head around who actually likes it.
If you can put aside the story, music, dialogue, and the pure, unadulterated grind, the game can actually be fun. The driving mechanics feel great and it’s arcade style of braking makes any discipline of racing easy to learn. The police AI isn’t the best, but it’s neat to lure them into traps or simply run them off the road. Terrain is varied, albeit the world is a little plain.
Payback takes place in a pseudo Las Vegas city that’s sprinkled with desert outskirts and a mountainous region. Each racing discipline usually takes place in a specific region, all of which are available to you immediately. You can drive around to explore gas stations (checkpoints that cost credits for fast travel), car dealerships, or other random junkets that can earn you nominal amounts of credits.
After playing a fair amount of the story mode, it became abundantly clear that there was going to be a large time commitment in order to complete what I set out to accomplish. Probably around several dozen hours until I would be able to unlock most of the cars, have enough money to purchase the one I want, find the right tech upgrades, and unlock the prerequisites for customization. Several dozen hours of grinding until I can start enjoying a game is asking a lot these days.
It’s a bit sad that I can no longer enjoy a series of my youth. Need for Speed has stayed true to itself. However, I’m not a teenager anymore. The series quite clearly left me in the dust as I matured and doesn’t seem to be making any effort to change in the future. Nostalgia alone can’t keep this game afloat and it’s loot crate-like, monotonous system makes Need for Speed Payback feel stale.