Modern gaming is a strange thing. Some say, it’s the worst it’s ever been. Some, the best. I tend to agree with both parties. There are genuine gems, but there are also atrocities which I can only condemn. Good games ruined by greedy tactics, gamers lied to and premises broken. Every new year there’s some new scandal, some new outrage. Star Wars: Battlefront II turned out to be just another cash grab from EA. Buy cards, buy loot boxes… you probably already know what I’m talking about. But there was another EA game released just this month. A game mostly ignored by media outlets. A game from the series that matter so little today that there was virtually no reaction to it at all. And there should have been. There are cards too. And microtransactions. Everything you loathe is here. One franchise after another, gone.

Don’t shot, it’s already dead

Need for Speed: Payback is a proud franchise with rich history of experiments, brave new ideas and high production values. It has a lot of fans. In fact, it’s probably the only such franchise still standing – all other classic arcade racers are already gone. Burnout is long dead, and so is Driver. But ever since Ghost Games started developing Need for Speed, things have been going downhill. While not terrible, all of their attempts have been mediocre at best. It was serviceable.  But Need for Speed deserves way more than that.

One of our heroes and the main protagonist Tyler Morgan. Fun-loving, talented, brave and hungry for revenge. A perfect forgettable character no one will remember in a couple of months. But he’s not the problem.

At first the game looks like it desperately wants to emulate Fast and Furious. Not the worst idea by all means, and its story is appropriately corny, but don’t think that you’re in for a series of dangerous races, epic police encounters and criminal chases. After a bright opening, Need for Speed: Payback quickly dissolves into something very tame and slow.

The story tells us about a couple of talented go-getters: Tyler Morgan, Mac and Jess. They are our main heroes, although I would call only Tyler a protagonist. The plot is as predictable and clichéd as you might expect from a racing game: newbie swindlers tried to steal a fancy car, but were betrayed by an associate. Now in disarray, they crave revenge. And what other way of getting it if not racing?

Tyler is a driver extraordinaire, capable of beating any opponent. Mac is a master drifter who enjoys off-road racing. Jess has nerves of steel and is perfect for quick getaways. The ability to control all three characters is interesting and reminds me of GTA V, but don’t think much of it. In fact, I don’t like it one bit here, as it only distracts me from the game and creates unneeded complications.

The story is completely uninteresting, but it gets the job done, I guess. Heroes’ motives are clear, at least. There are some additional characters with a bit more… character. By this point I’m kinda tired of controlling some amazing new rookie who seems better than anyone else.

We all remember the cringy dialog from the previous game, but in Need for Speed: Payback it’s been toned down a bit. It’s still there, and the characters still use their ridiculous millennial lingo, but it’s not as distracting here. Overall, the game’s very cheesy, which is okay for a title like that. I never expected a good story – I just need a reason to race.

The game gives me a reason, but quickly takes away the possibility. The first couple of races are fine enough, with different cars and styles. There’s even a thrilling police chase – so, a lot of boxes are ticked. But after a while the game just stops.

The thing is, I can’t just go and race – I need a good car. Seems reasonable enough, right? But the way you obtain a car is not only bizarre but also completely stupid.

Every race has a minimal car rating. You can try to race with an inferior car, but you’ll never succeed. And to get to that perfect car, you have to grind, or… pay. You can either buy a better car or, or, most probably, upgrade the one you have. For that you use Speed Cards – those damn things right outta Real Racing from the Apple Store.

You can earn Speed Cards by racing, but you won’t get much. Even more: you never know which card you’ll get, as it’s all randomized. Finished first? Congratulations! Now pick a card. Bad card with even worse specs? Too bad!

When a game asks you to win a race and then gives you an inferior car part, that means something’s seriously wrong.

Is your car crap? Well, that’s too bad, because you’ll have to work for a new one.

You can pay for a better card, of course. But what reasonable being would do that? Winning cards is not easy, and you never know what you’ll get.  You can buy cards for an in-game currency, which can be obtained by doing tasks all over the world. These tasks range from boring to a total grindfest, and are just no fun. I don’t want to leave the story just to do some stunts to earn cash to upgrade car to race one time.

And now imagine that you have to do that for different cars. Need for Speed: Payback has different race types like drag, off-road, chases and so on. Different races require different cars. Every single one of these cars you have to upgrade. It’s hard, it’s long and not rewarding at all. Look, I want to buy that sick looking Buick, but its stats are worse than I have now, and to upgrade it I’ll have to work. That’s not fun! Remember Need for Speed: Most Wanted from 2012? That game was hated by some and loved by some, and I liked it quite a bit. At least that game understood that people want cars in their racing game. There was a lot of them – all free. Not in Need for Speed: Payback.

I also loved police chases from there. And Need for Speed: Payback has police chases too. A bit. A little bit. When it’s convenient for the plot. These are the most underwhelming chases I’ve seen in a game. They are short and they are completely scripted – you just have to be fast enough to go through the checkpoints. I get checkpoints in normal races, but car chases? Isn’t it the point of those to be creative and find a way to lose the cops?

Even Watch Dogs understood that, and that game wasn’t a good racer – it wasn’t a racer at all. In Need for Speed: Payback these chases last for 2 minutes max and require of you almost nothing. When in free roam, there is no police at all. You can do whatever you want – they don’t care.

That doesn’t look good. I can see the diner, but what happened to my car? It seemed to have lost all of its textures.

All of that – in an open world. Need for Speed: Payback has the biggest open world of any game in the series, but I honestly didn’t care. It’s big, but it’s also uninteresting. The city doesn’t look alive at all, there’s no atmosphere. The number of other cars on the streets is laughable, especially when I recall games like Driver: San Francisco. That game’s from 2010, and it had better world with more cars.

I won’t say that the world of Need for Speed: Payback is bad, though. It looks nice and has a lot of good racing spots. It has a purpose, but looks more artificial. I get why there aren’t many cars, but empty roads just look weird.

Customization is alright. Make a car your canvas.

And while the world looks fine, I can’t say that about the cars themselves. Hear me out, though. I’m not saying that the game looks bad – it’s Frostbite engine, after all – but for someone who missed a lot of racing titles and just played Gran Turismo it looks, quite frankly, underwhelming. The cars lack the expected details and you have to try real hard to destroy them. No matter what I did, my car always looked near perfect – even after a high speed rendezvous with a tree.

Even worse, there’s a nasty bug (as far as I know, every system has it) which prevents the game to fully load textures all at once. Because of it, you have to wait ages in order to get a fully rendered car and a world around it. So every time I turn on the game, I get greeted with a N64-esque graphics. Nothing game breaking, but Need for Speed: Payback obviously lacks polish.

Every arcade racer needs high speed chases. Cop chases are always fun, but in Need for Speed: Payback they are too far and few between. They are criminally linear and short. But still fun – mostly because cops drive like maniacs with no concern for their own safely.

In terms of audio Need for Speed: Payback mostly gets it right. Cars sound good, even authentic. You’ll want to hook up a decent sound system and turn the volume all the way up. It’s quite nice, not gonna lie. The game utilizes 7.1 surround sound – especially when traversing these tunnels with cars whizzing by. Nice sound – it’s like you’re really there, overtaking these sluggish fools.

Soundtrack – an important feature of a racing game, which adds to the overall presentation and atmosphere – is very blah. Practically nothing for me, although it’s an odd mix. Maybe I was wrong to turn it off, but after a couple of obnoxious rap songs I’ve had enough. I miss radio stations like those in GTA or even Driver: San Francisco. Let me choose what I consider good music. Or even better, let me add my own music like in the old days. Now those were the times.

Just drive

Now, handling is the most important question, and everyone I know gives a different answer. Some say that Need for Speed: Payback drives bad and cars feel like they’re floating above the ground. Some, including me, think that the game is perfectly fine in that aspect. I like arcade driving as opposed to more realistic handling of games like Gran Turismo, and Need for Speed: Payback is right up my alley. It’s fast, it’s fun, and the cars themselves don’t feel like they’re all reskins of one base model.

At night the game is at its prettiest. But where are all the cars?

I love driving in Need for Speed: Payback, I really do. It’s easy to understand. And fun. Drifting is also fairly easy, even for those who never liked it in the first place. Even if you feel like you can’t win, try again, and after a couple of races you’ll get the hand of it. You’ll feel the car and just know when to turn and when to hit the brake. I don’t have many good words about Need for Speed: Payback, but there’s nothing wrong with handling.

Read also: Gran Turismo Sport review

There are other pros, as well. People love to customize their car, and you can really create something special in Need for Speed: Payback. There are a lot of tools for the most creative of drivers. Nothing compared to the level of Gran Turismo Sport, but still good. You can make your car look as visually stunning as you like. Paint and decals are free, but everything else requires in-game money. Want a new spoiler? Get ready to work for it!

Ah, cards and loot boxes – the bane of modern gaming. Almost every big game has them by now. In Need for Speed: Payback, cards are randomized – you either get a good one, or complete garbage.

The verdict

I might’ve been a bit too harsh on the poor old Need for Speed, but what are you gonna do when talking about such a beloved IP? People love these games and wait years for a new one. But Need for Speed: Payback is not something we’ve waited for. Sure, some people might like it – and I’m glad for them. But most will feel betrayed by Ghost Games, who had all the time and money to create something special. Sure, this might be another case of EA execs screwing a good game up because of their lust for microtransactions. Maybe it is.

In this state, Need for Speed: Payback is no fun. And when a game is no fun, it doesn’t have a reason to exist. I tried to get into it, but there are way too many roadblocks for me to do so. Additional challenges must be in a game for fun, as a bonus, not as a way to make people grind for basic things like a better engine or an exhaust pipe! This game infuriates me with this – it’s a perfect mix of mediocrity and systems, which should never have been put in a game in the first place.

Need for Speed: Payback disappointed me and a lot of fans. I often hear exclamations like “why can’t they just make a 2005 game with better graphics”, and I understand where they’re coming from. Need for Speed: Payback is everything but fun.