To some extent, a racing game should be all about the cars. But Need for Speed Payback goes to such an extreme in fetishizing the different parts and builds of its vehicles that it gets stuck in the technical weeds, failing to consistently deliver on the adrenaline-pumping highs of previous Need for Speed titles. This is a grindy caRPG that sacrifices specificity of environment, story, and characterization so as to guarantee that the car reigns supreme.
Fortune Valley is built for the game's cars above all else. The locale boasts sinuous mountain roads and forested paths that are perfect for drifting; long stretches of lonely highway that are ideal for top-speed racing or crash-centric showdowns with cops; and uneven desert terrain that's made for off-roading. Even the Las Vegas-like Silver Rock has a strip optimized for drag competitions. In the heat of a race, one might not notice that Silver Rock doesn't light up with a garish glare at night or that it has only one unexcitingly constructed casino. But when driving from the end of one race to the start of the next, it becomes obvious how empty these locations are, how rare it is to come across a sightseeing landmark, let alone a scenic route.
Payback has to artificially entice players to wander off-road by hiding derelict parts—used to rebuild the game's most customizable cars—in the most obscure corners of the map. That the game cannot organically encourage you to idle in even the more engagingly designed areas, like an abandoned airfield that's been turned into a ramp-jumping playground, speaks poorly to its focus and design. Progression, at least on the harder difficulties, is gated less by skill than by a car's performance level, a numeric value that's upgraded by earning speed cards (parts, essentially) through the game's single-player campaign. However, because missions don't provide nearly enough of these cards, you have to grind cash by repeating boring, secondary challenges that, again, are more about the car's level (for instance, its top speed) than a player's ability. Moreover, the game's tune-up shops randomly replenish their inventory every 10 minutes, so if they don't have what you're looking for, you'll have to idle around waiting for a new shipment to arrive.
The game sacrifices specificity of environment, story, and characterization so as to ensure that the car is king.
This thankless task has to be repeated all over again in Payback's penultimate chapter, as the cars available up until that point in the campaign cannot be leveled high enough for the game's final set of challenges. Even worse, this must be done for each of the five different types of car—Race, Runner, Drift, Drag, and Offroad—because speed cards aren't shared across the vehicles in your garage, even between cars of the same class. This only opens the door for a soul-sucking grind, one that seems designed to force players into spending real-world money to speed up the process.
All this emphasis on cars also has an impact on Payback's already thin revenge narrative, slowing it down. The game is at its best when it's moving too quickly to be questioned, shifting between its three protagonists—cocky Tyler, thrill-seeking Mac, and ice-cold Jess—so that there's never a dull spot in their high-stakes heists against their nemesis Lina Navarro and the race-rigging House. These exhilarating sequences are less about the cars than they are about the stunts: ramming trucks through barricades and springboarding over highways as the police pile up behind you. To put the focus back on the cars, Payback stretches out each chapter by forcing players to compete against the various leagues of Silver City and their unique vehicles.
The main missions against Lina are personal, unpredictable, and dangerous, with bombs and helicopters making things more complicated. The league races that make up the majority of the game are as by the book as it gets. You won't meet the leaders of these groups, you'll only face down their cars, and there's a dissonance in having the sometimes personal pre-race trash talk synced up with the camera's long, luxuriating focus on the cars. Lina presents a real threat, but Natalia Nova of the 1% Club simply represents a bunch of rich elites with exotic cars, just as Holtzman's off-road Hazard Company offers nothing more than a stereotypical assemblage of high-powered hicks. Lina provides her races with personal stakes and a story, whereas each league strips everything down to the car, each serving to demonstrate how ridiculous or inconsequential the other one is. The results are inconsistent and leaden, which are far from the ideal conditions for any kind of racing game.