Need for Speed: Payback is the first game to be ruined by loot boxes. Obviously it’s not the first game to have loot boxes—we’ve been actively discussing them and their role in games for the last few months, thanks to Forza Motorsport 7 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War and “Is this gambling?” and so on.
But I’m talking ruined. In Need for Speed: Payback, we have a totally decent arcade racer undermined at every turn by rampant and predatory monetization. It should be a cautionary tale for the rest of the industry.
Coming out of E3, I thought I’d pinned down Payback. This was a return to the Fast and the Furious roots Need for Speed indulged in years ago, and Need for Speed’s long-awaited answer to the Forza Horizon series.
A much-needed answer, I might add. Forza Horizon was the upstart in 2012, the unknown quantity next to Need for Speed: Most Wanted. That was the last time the two were even close to parity though, as Forza Horizon’s grown to be probably the best arcade racing series since Burnout’s demise. Meanwhile, Need for Speed’s given us the mediocre (at least the PC port) Rivals and the baffling live-action Need for Speed in 2016.
So at E3 Payback seemed like it was “borrowing” some of Horizon’s better ideas (some of which were likewise “borrowed” from earlier games) and I was fine with that. Horizon has “Barn Finds,” rusted out cars you can find in the open-world and bring back to your garage to restore. Well Payback has “Derelicts.” Horizon has extensive off-road areas? Yeah, Need for Speed can do that too. Payback is definitely Horizon inspired.
What I didn’t expect was for it to feel almost as much like Ubisoft’s pseudo-MMO racer The Crew. The bad parts of The Crew.
Gone is the previous Need for Speed’s focus on real-world racing with real-world cars modified by real-world parts. In Payback, cars are split into five largely arbitrary groupings of vehicles: Drag, Runner, Race, Drift, and Off-Road. I say “largely arbitrary” because most cars can be used with multiple kits, but only when you buy them for that kit. For example: I now own two Dodge Chargers, one ostensibly for drag racing and one for normal racing.
That’s not great, right? But it gets so much worse. See, Payback has a Destiny-style random loot system.
Normal racing games work like this: You race cars, you earn money, you use that money to either buy better cars or upgrade your current vehicle with new parts—a more powerful engine, grippier tires, a lighter-weight frame, and so on. This is how Need for Speed has also worked for years now.
Not Payback! Payback ditches all of the under-the-hood tweaking entirely, replacing it instead with a totally incomprehensible “Speed Card” system. Each car has six Speed Card slots, which roughly equate to actual car parts—Block, ECU, Turbo, Exhaust, Gearbox, and Head.
Each race you’re rewarded with a random Speed Card to put in one of these slots. Say you do a street race in Silver Rock a.k.a. faux-Vegas. After winning, you’ll get a new Speed Card for your car, maybe bumping its “Block” rating from a completely arbitrary 3 to a still-arbitrary-except-it’s-slightly-higher 4.
This is all then tallied up in ways that are again completely impenetrable to the player, and your car receives an overall rating. Lower-end cars have a rating of about 120. Fully-upgraded cars mostly top out at 300, with a handful of cars going up to 399.
As I said, it’s weirdly similar to The Crew. Except The Crew was a pseudo-MMORPG and Payback is decidedly not one. It’s just monetized like an MMORPG.
Every race in Payback has a “Recommended” rating attached, where “Recommended” means “If you’re more than 25 or 30 points lower than this, don’t even bother.” And how do you get more Speed Cards? Well, you have a few options a) Run old races again and hope something good drops. b) Buy cards from the Tune-Up Shop for absurd prices, cutting into the same money you’d rather use to buy actual cars. c) Trade in old cards for “Speed Tokens,” three of which can then be fed into a virtual slot machine (gambling upon gambling!) in the hopes it spits out a usable card. d) Get a bunch of Speed Tokens from loot boxes, and repeat Option C.
Oh, and did I mention Speed Cards can’t be shared between cars? Because they can’t. Even Speed Cards you aren’t using, ones that are just sitting in your inventory because you have better options available, are completely useless. You can sell them or trade them in for Tokens, but if you buy a new car it starts from scratch and you need to repeat any of the previous options to build up an entirely new set of Speed Cards.
In case you couldn’t guess where this is going, loot boxes are the most reliable option for upgrading your cars, if only because they’re full of Tokens, and Tokens are the easiest/quickest path towards building a competent car. And to its credit Payback does spit free loot boxes out at the player at a decent rate, maybe two or three per hour if you’re competent at arcade racers.
But then you hit the grind. Around 10 hours in you’ll finish one round of races and a new set will unlock. In a normal racing game this would be exciting. In Payback, it’s the start of the end. The previous set of races, each of the five divisions tops out at a “Recommended” level of about 175 to 180 if I’m remembering correctly. Given the padding built into the system, this means you could feasibly finish that tier with your cars anywhere from about 155 up to 190. Most of you will probably finish closer to the lower end of that range.
You unlock the next tier and instead of it starting at 180 like you’d expect, every race immediately “Recommends” a car of at least Level 210. Hope you have money or tokens lying around, otherwise you’re running old races ad nauseum and hoping something good drops or...buying loot boxes. And heaven forbid you bought a new car (or decided to use your newly-repaired derelict) instead of continuing to use that crappy Honda you got at the start of the game. If that’s the case, you’re not starting at 155—you’re potentially starting as low as 120. Again, all of your cards are locked to the car you earned them in. Not even the division! You can’t just unequip the cards from your last Drag car and move them to your new one. Nope! Nothing!
It’s garbage. It’s the worst system I’ve ever seen in a singleplayer racing game, or any full-price singleplayer game.
And what sucks is that the underlying racing is actually pretty great. There's no cockpit view which is bizarre, and rubber-banding is still as much an issue as it was in 2015’s Need for Speed, but the more varied landscape of faux-Vegas and the faux-Mojave Desert is ripe for stunts. Taking a mountain pass, effortlessly drifting around a hairpin turn, reaching the bottom and cutting across the sand to hit the next checkpoint, triggering your Nitrous boost and weaving between traffic—it gets my adrenaline up.
That’s why I say Payback is the first game completely ruined by loot boxes. It’s an otherwise-good racing game that is just wrecked by this stupid monetization scheme. What did it benefit Need for Speed to get rid of under-the-hood customization? What did it benefit Need for Speed to tie your car’s top speed, its braking power, and so on to a Collectible Card Game, then dole those cards out so painfully slowly that you’re forced to either pay up or waste your time running old races? And then to tie the cards you’re not using to a specific car?
There’s something like 100-plus vehicles in Payback. I saw eleven of them. After getting one car in each division, collecting the five derelicts, and buying a second Charger because I’m a sucker for Chargers, I just stopped caring. There was no way I was grinding enough Speed Cards to upgrade another vehicle. Hell, I wasted enough time just trying to get my core cars up to par and make it through the campaign.
It made me so mad I’ve now spent 1,400 words talking about Payback and have barely talked about anything except its stupid monetization dumpster fire. And that’s a shame, because there’s a ton to unpack. Payback is about as bizarre as it is generic, almost like you had a Machine Learning AI examine hundreds of racing film and game scripts, then spit out its own version.
Get this: The first person you betray in the game? He’s a man everyone just refers to as “The Gambler,” and he speaks exclusively in gambling metaphors. Later you'll meet “Shift Lock,” the anarcho-communist group of drifters, run by a man named “The Underground Soldier.” Sample dialogue: “We are the last stand against corporate tyranny. We are the drifting freedom fighters of the misinformation age. We are...Shift Lock.”
Seriously. I quoted that verbatim.
And then there’s your generic “I want payback!” protagonist Tyler Morgan. My favorite thing about Tyler is he has random comments for everything. Sometimes if you’re driving when the sun sets he’ll yell out “Night time—this is when I come alive.” He also has a weird fixation on tunnels, and maybe half the time you drive through one he’ll say something like “It would be cool to race in a tunnel someday.” Spoiler: You do race in tunnels, pretty much constantly. Doesn’t matter, he’ll still say this up until you delete Need for Speed: Payback off your PC.
There are serious issues with the campaign—namely that it yanks control away from the player every time it does something vaguely cool. All the real action takes place in cutscenes, instead of letting the player attempt some amazing stunts.
But in any other racing game, that would be the greatest sin. Here, it's an afterthought at the end.
You know what makes me so mad? I want to like Need for Speed: Payback. Go back and read my review of last year’s live-action Need for Speed. Sure, we gave it a 3/5, but you know what? That review was peppered with a lot of praise. It was by no means a good game, but it was fun. I think I called it a “guilty pleasure.”
Payback is not fun. If this were 2015’s Need for Speed systems layered over the exact same story, this game gets a 3.5/5 rating, maybe even a 4 if I were feeling generous. Driving around the open-world is mindless fun. The story is sometimes bad-bad but more often falls into so-bad-it’s-great territory. And hey, the competition’s light this year—there’s no Forza Horizon to even compare against in 2017.
But Payback is the worst loot box implementation I’ve seen in a full-price game. So many decisions here seem made just to squeeze consumers for more money, and in the most obnoxious, tonally-inconsistent way possible.
It’s an absolute bummer. When I saw 2015’s Need for Speed at E3, Ghost Games seemed excited to bring the series back to its roots, to really emphasize how deep the customization went for an arcade racer, how much work they’d put into handling. I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine the developers went “Hey, you know what? Let's ditch all that and clone the awful MMO loot grind from The Crew instead.”
One last, grim thought: I doubt Payback remains “the worst” for long. After all, I just branded Forza 7 with that same ignominious moniker literally last month. We’ve got a lot more dark before the dawn—if it ever comes.