Hands-on: Need For Speed Payback might be too cinematic for its own good

EA Play 2017 was dominated by Star Wars, but amidst the Hollywood style reveals of EA’s upcoming flagship titles was the most cinematic gameplay I’ve seen in a long time.

Need For Speed Payback is the newest chapter in EA’s long-running and always evolving racing franchise, and is clearly a less-than-subtle nod to a certain OTHER franchise about people driving dangerously. I believe it’s called The Quick and the Quarrelsome.

This cinematic flavor is both a blessing and a curse. My curiosity is certainly piqued by what I played, but I’m concerned that the focus on emulating cinematic storytelling in a racing game might cause some uneven gameplay.

Payback will be for available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC via Origin on November 10, 2017. I played on PC using an Xbox One controller.

Burning Rubber

Need For Speed Payback is an open world racing game focused on a group of lead footed protagonists attempting to bring down a nefarious cartel with the power of driving. The trailer shown at the EA Play press conference was a single mission from early in the game.

There’s not a great deal of narrative context to the trailer, just a lot of beautiful car damage and slick graphics interspersed with some vaguely rebellious 20 somethings talking about bringing down the big bad.

As is to be expected from EA, the game is effectively presented, especially effective on the giant screens in the Hollywood Palladium. What immediately stood out to me was the cinematic nature of the gameplay. It seemed like there was a lot of cutting away from the actual driving to showcase some very cool action moments.

There’s no question what we saw was beautiful, and the attention to detail is staggering. The way the tumbleweeds roll through the sun bleached desert, the way reflections slide across the metal of your Mustang as you speed down the freeway was a visual highlight in the graphically gorgeous trailers.

What concerned me was not the presentation, but the choice to integrate cinematics into a high stakes driving experience. I couldn't help but think that in a game focused on speed and locomotion, breaking up the exhilaration of opening up the throttle on a freeway would be jarring regardless of how fun those cinematics are.

After leaving the theater I was excited to play Need For Speed Payback, and hoped to find that my concerns were unfounded.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Hands On The Wheel

The demo made available to the press was the same mission that was in the showcase, which was nice as it allowed for direct comparison.

The driving experience should be familiar to anyone who has played Need For Speed in the last few decades. Gran Turismo this is not. Payback is unapologetically arcadey, and that is fine with me. Realism is not the name of the game here, over the top action and an exhilarating sense of speed is—and at that this game succeeds.

The problem was as I feared however. The glossy cinematics completely interrupt the joyful fluidity of driving fast down a beautifully rendered freeway.

I loved watching the detailed destruction of my opponent’s vehicles as I ran them off the road, it brought me that same joy that makes Burnout 3 one of my all time favorite games.

What I did not enjoy was having the very compelling gameplay paused to show me a small movie. Pulling up next to a semi truck at high speeds is super fun, interrupting that experience to further the narrative is detrimental to the gameplay regardless of how cool it looks.

It’s a jarring and uncomfortable experience that really interrupts what makes vehicle based games so fun: the joy of speed.

Story should supplement gameplay not detract from it, and I’m concerned Need For Speed Payback is embracing its cinematic inspiration too enthusiastically.

Need For Optimism

It should be said that this is an open world game, with a great deal of promised features like car upgrades, varied environments, and a host of other compelling gameplay. What the press saw was a tiny fraction of the completed product, so this may well have been a small piece of a much more dynamically implemented narrative and gameplay experience.

What I played was very entertaining, and undeniably beautiful, but like so much of what EA announced at EA Play 2017, the focus was on cinematic presentation over actual gameplay. I am in no way opposed to cinema heavy games, (I love MGS for exactly that reason) but I’m not sure how well it can work in a racing game.

I look forward to having my early doubts proved wrong, because what this game did right was remarkable. If EA can find the balance of telling an interesting story without interrupting what makes vehicle based games so fun in the first place, Need For Speed Payback could be the stand-out entry that revitalizes the franchise. 

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