It is a racing game, with fast cars and fast tracks, with nitrous (because that’s a must in a 2017 racing video game) and upgrades and stunning vistas.
But Need for Speed: Payback, just released by EA Games, is more than that, too. The latest effort in the Need for Speed series is the latest attempt at something some racing games never bother to do. Payback grafts a story onto its terrific gameplay, providing you with a reason to play through its action.
This isn’t just about upgrading your car for the umpteenth race. It’s about Tyler Morgan and two friends and a quest to take down “The House,” the cartel that runs much of Fortune Valley.
The Need for Speed series isn’t new to true narratives. Most racers, from the F1 franchise all the way to Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, shy away from this, but every so often, EA tries to tell a story with its franchise (Remember Need for Speed: The Run?). This one is different, though, in that it’s ambitious, loaded with cutscenes. It’s also a tale that creative director Will Ho openly admits is “not for everyone.”
“(But) even if it’s not for you, the story in Need for Speed Payback gives structure and heft to our single-player campaign,” Ho told the News. “That’s the way we designed it, to be a better overall experience for everyone who has a need for speed.”
How hard was it to craft a worthwhile narrative for a racing game? Here, Ho explains:
DN: Racing games have done story modes before, and generally, the challenge with them is pacing. How much explosion is too much for the story to have a solid ebb and flow. How much does the story take a backseat to the gameplay, given that racing games are rarely narrative-driven? What’s the balance in Payback?
Ho: We’ve learned that Need for Speed fans really want a story premise and characters that motivate them to drive towards the finish. We aimed for a more consistent level of storytelling that informs and entertains without getting in your way. We kick off the single-player campaign with some key scenes that introduce you to the characters, the variety of rides they drive, and why the game is called “Payback.” After that, cutscenes are used judiciously and we tell a lot of story through banter between our three heroes, Tyler, Jess, and Mac.
DN: How important is the story in this edition of NFS, and how much does the story weave directly into gameplay?
Ho: Story isn’t much use unless you make it useful for gameplay. So we use story to set up goals. Who’s the next street league boss you have to take down to get to the next blockbuster mission? What are your next objectives in the heat of an action movie chase? Other characters remind you who to beat, where to go and what to do. So story become a guide and not just a wrapper.
DN: How much does this story draw on tentpole racing movies such as the Fast and The Furious saga?
Ho: When it comes to characters in driving stories, there are some timeless motivations. There’s always the guy who wants respect as a racer. There’s always someone who want to show off. And more often than not, there’s someone who’s running from their own past. Action movies have them. Need for Speed games have them, and so does Need for Speed Payback. But we’ve put these classic archetypes in a driving game that feels like nothing that precedes it.
DN: What’s your favorite Need for Speed story from previous games? Do you feel like the NFS series is underrated in how well it tells a story?
Ho: I think we’re flattered by how many core Need for Speed fans remember stories and characters from past games. The return of Need for Speed Underground’s Eddie in the 2015 got a massive response from our fans. Our stories don’t win Oscars, but they seem to win over our fans. And that’s way more important to us. (Tip: Look out for some hidden references to Need for Speed history and future in the new game.)