Ghost Games took a year off in an attempt to try and revamp EA’s aging Need for Speed franchise – the second time they’ve done so – but after the reveal of Need for Speed: Payback earlier this morning, I’m certainly left wishing they would have remained in some sort of extended hibernation, and spared us from the second-hand embarrassment of pushing a piece of software out that nobody asked for. Appearing to be set in a fictional rendition of Las Vegas, Nevada and the surrounding treacherous landscape – which is objectively a good mix of technical canyons and wide-open desert highways, so kudos to Ghost on the environment choice – Need for Speed: Payback will be the third action driving game in the long-standing virtual car culture franchise, following in the footsteps of Undercover and The Run, while also drawing inspiration from UbiSoft’s The Crew and narrative elements from Hollywood blockbuster The Fast and the Furious. In classic Electronic Arts fashion, the first official trailer shows absolutely zero live gameplay, but the ninety seconds spent introducing Payback at least establishes the underlying theme of what we can expect from Ghost Games this fall.
And unfortunately, it’s not what anybody wanted to see.
We’re introduced to an array of characters hell-bent on destroying each other before the footage shifts to a collection of scenes that imply they’ve teamed up and look eerily similar to what UbiSoft had produced in their promotional footage for The Crew, right down to specific drag, drift, and off-road variants of cars you’ll be able to purchase and upgrade throughout the duration of the offline campaign mode. It’s the lack of creativity that bothers me here, as with The Crew already having been out on the market for quite some time, Need for Speed blatantly copying what UbiSoft tried and ultimately failed with – to the point where characters in the trailer speak directly of a crew at least three times – indicates their public hiatus was for absolute jack shit; it’s like they’ve asked their teacher for extra time to finish a school project, only to come back with something that was blatantly copied from a friend who took the course a previous semester – and I’ll throw up some shots to display what I’m talking about here.
I won’t go so far as to call it outright theft – there’s only so many aftermarket parts you can put on a car – but if you’re going to take an entire year off to build something unique and exciting, coming back with what on the surface looks like a blatant rip-off of another game’s entire concept and premise is just really shitty, and before fans have even seen gameplay footage, they’re already against you because The Crew wasn’t very good in the first place, and they certainly didn’t want more of it.
Need for Speed: Payback is a title that actively goes against what fans of the series have been requesting for several years – most notably a set of solid driving physics and freedom to just sort of fuck off and do whatever you wanted within the game world – also defeating the point of why they took a year off, and I cannot see this project ending in anything other than total failure with what Payback appears to bring to the table. The absolute last thing Need for Speed fans wanted from the franchise was a kind of action driving saga with heavy narrative elements and a variety of set pieces, and yet that’s exactly what Ghost have been constructing over the previous year or so.
And the reason I’m so critical of the series returning to an action driving experience, is because Need for Speed 2015 (as well as Rivals) received excessive criticism primarily for a physics engine that actively took control of the car away from the player, and users on Reddit and other Need for Speed community websites made their voices loud and clear that improved driving physics needed to be priority number one. That kind of experience isn’t synonymous with action driving games.
The reality is that people have been asking for something akin to Underground 2 or DriveClub, where the vehicle physics are a gameplay element that can be learned, understood, and mastered over a period of time so the core racing portion is enjoyable and rewards raw driving skill, rather than manipulated by a hand of God at any given second to ensure scripted sequences – such as the trailer explosions and car chases seen in the reveal trailer – follow a very strict chain of events and don’t result in absolute chaos that only vaguely follows the narrative like we’re used to in Grand Theft Auto missions. So for Ghost to go the action driving route, therefore guaranteeing the driving model will be nothing but perplexing and downright frustrating in the name of smooth story-driven set pieces, means they’ve taken all this time off to outright ignored why people panned their last release – when the entire point of taking time off in the first place was to sit down and analyze what people wanted. Refusing to even take into account valid criticisms of your last title and make changes based on what your core fans want is of course a fantastic plan of action for any major video game developer and certainly won’t lead to a predicament later on down the line.
Payback also indicates Ghost Games couldn’t even be bothered to study the history of Need for Speed. Three times in the Xbox 360 era of the franchise Need for Speed experimented with heavy narrative elements and an abundance of scripted sequences akin to what we’re seeing in Payback, resulting in two of the worst games in the series from a critical standpoint, as well as a movie that was a gigantic flop and quickly dismissed as a B-grade Fast & Furious knock-off.
Ghost continuing to pursue this style of driving game despite fans and critics alike reacting in an overwhelmingly negative manner to previous titles featuring the same subject matter is the actual definition of insanity; and that’s just Need for Speed we’re talking about. Reception to The Crew, another open-world driving game that seems to have inspired Payback, received very similar feedback even on our own website, as users explicitly wanted the heavy narrative elements pushed front and center – just like Payback – to go away so they could focus on the few enjoyable parts of the game.
Continuing to push into this direction when customers clearly didn’t respond to it well in 2008, didn’t enjoy it when it popped up again in 2011, didn’t want it in 2014 on the big screen, and again didn’t have nice things to say about it in 2015 when it came from UbiSoft, after taking a year off and promising the next Need for Speed will be built with the fans in mind, will make it very hard to sympathize with Ghost when this too ends up being a disaster.
I do not understand why an open-ended street racing game featuring police chases, adequate driving physics, and a big map that let you buy cars and hire drivers to race alongside you whether it be online or offline was so impossibly difficult to produce, the team instead resorted to a racing game with physics people have panned on no less than four separate occasions and heavy narrative elements that the core audience have already voiced loud and clear that they don’t appreciate and would not like to see return.
Ghost took a year off in the name of the fans, and returned with something the fans have explicitly voiced they didn’t want, also managing to ignore all of the times similar efforts in the franchise have failed in the past. This is not a developer you should support with your money, and a developer you should not sympathize with when Need for Speed: Payback inevitably comes crashing down due to the complaints that will now stretch almost a decade in lifespan. After the disaster that was Need for Speed 2015, I was hoping Ghost would take a good, hard look at what made previous iterations of the franchise such astounding products that resonated with multiple generations of gamers, but instead I am only left genuinely angry by this reveal, and questioning what in the absolute fuck is going on at Electronic Arts to greenlight this sort of creative direction.