Early impressions of Electronic Arts' new Need for Speed game, Payback, have focused almost exclusively on how closely it captures the spirit of the Fast and the Furious movies – and with good reason. The trailer shows a spectacular heist featuring the player's small crew chasing after a truck in a tricked out Mustang GT and then liberating a $1.9 million Koenigsegg Regera supercar. It's spectacular stuff, and leans hard into the notion of "action driving" that EA is keen to assert as a way to describe the game.
Having spent some time playing Payback, both the heist from the trailer and one of the game's more conventional races, it's clear that there's another comparison that's just as relevant: Payback is a lot like Burnout Paradise. Not just in some of the mechanics that it employs, but in the very natural way that it feels, and the way that it's structured. You can see huge hints of it in the trailer above – the nitrous boosts, the crazy drifts, the explosions, but most significantly it's in the combat. "Take down the House enforcers," the game tells you – referencing the casino themed bad guys you're up against. They're helping protect the truck you're chasing in mean-looking black Dodge Challenger Hellcats that weave around trying to stop you from getting near your prey. Just as in Burnout Paradise before it, the mechanism for performing these takedowns is immensely satisfying. Bang into the side of them, grind them up against the guard rails in a cloud of sparks, push them into other traffic, or clip their back wheel and watch them flip. It's all very familiar. In a good way.
It's not surprising really. Many of the developers at the studio responsible – Ghost Games in Gothenburg, Sweden – previously worked on Burnout Paradise at Criterion in the UK, as well as on previous Need for Speed games. Creative director William Ho's first racing game project was on 2002's Need for Speed Hot Pursuit 2 for PlayStation 2, and the following year he worked on the production team for the iconic, genre-redefining Need for Speed Underground.
"I grew up as a fan of Need for Speed. Being able to do something where I was inspired by my favorite moments from the series and translate them to what was then next-gen – PS2 – was pretty awesome," he says. "It was my childhood dream to make racing games. I worked on Underground, Most Wanted, Underground 2 – that was an awesome era for Need for Speed. It's great, when I talk to fans they recall their favorite memories of Need for Speed from that period. When you think about it, Underground through Burnout Paradise was a golden era for racing games. With the first Underground we knew we were really onto something."
Ho says that Need for Speed "feels like home" for him. In keeping with Electronic Arts' current mantra of "player first", Ho is keen to impress how important community feedback has been to the way Ghost has built Payback. It's a game that represents far more than just another annual release – this new game, like Star Wars Battlefront 2, Battlefield 1, and everything else EA is showing – is intended to be a long-term live service. Something that will evolve over time based on player feedback and play behavior. "We've taken a lot of time to really look at what makes the series special," he says. "We talked to fans about their favorite moments, but we've also looked back through time and thought about what elements of Need for Speed resonate the most. We wanted to put all of those elements together. I think a lot of people pay lip-service to that kind of idea – putting all the best parts together – but we had the right team, one that was very introspective."
A big part of this has been defining what makes a Need for Speed game unique – and recognizing what fans expect, rather than experimenting with different styles every other year. "Let's have an identity," Ho says, articulating something that fans have felt is necessary for years. "Let's make sure that with every Need for Speed we don't violate what people really expect. People want authentic car culture, they want iconic cars, people want insane customization, cops, intense races, gorgeous worlds. That's sacred to us. Let's not violate that. We often talk about action driving fantasies – we have to ask if it's clear what the fantasy actually is. If you're playing heist, you are playing an action movie scene, you're an action movie hero over the course of six minutes."
Although not as well received by fans, 2015's Need for Speed reboot was a necessary foundational move for the studio. "It was the first key step for us," Ho says. "People wanted nighttime again, they wanted cops – so we started to pull all of that stuff together in one title. We're using that as a solid foundation. Now we have 24 hour time of day, now we have different car classes, we have visual customization, we're elevating cops to a different level than in the previous game. We also have the most diverse open world that we've ever had in a Need for Speed game."
This last point isn't necessarily that clear from the trailer, but the environment may quietly end up being one of the big stars of Payback when it launches. Whereas previous games have been "open world" in terms of having an expansive road layout, Payback is a fully open environment and you can drive all the way across it, much like the world in competitor Forza Horizon 3. "The game is all one massive open world," Ho says. "The most diverse and the largest we've ever built for Need for Speed. It has five different biomes within that space, but it's all contiguous. You have the casino district, the industrial area. If you want to go to the mountains, you can go straight there. If you want to drive out to the canyon, you can do that too. You can snake your way through the desert. It's completely open – actually, I should say it's completely contiguous with these multiple biomes."
Ho believes that providing plenty of variety is absolutely key to the future of the series. "Players want to be in a game for a much longer time," he says. "It's not like the old days where you'd just rent a game and play it for a short while. People want to invest in characters, and in their cars. It's an intensely personal relationship that people have with their cars in Need for Speed. They develop it over hours, days, weeks." To feed that relationship, Payback is about more than Mustangs, Challengers and Koenigseggs. "We have five different car classes – five different ladders for cars that are tailored for different kinds of events. Each of those classes lets you tangibly feel the differences in the physics and handling," he explains. "We have the race class, which is obvious, then drag, drift for the style racing, off road and then a new class of vehicle that we're calling runner. Those are the cars specifically designed for Jess' missions where she's delivering VIPs or packages, snaking through rush hour traffic and avoiding cops."
"We're on a mission," he continues. "We're very clearly on a mission to build on this foundation and have a lot more continuity from Payback into whatever we do in future. People always love cars. No matter the era, the platform. Not everyone likes to just race in them though. There's only so much you can do with 'hey, we're going to do two laps around this circuit' or time trials or whatever. That's not the motivation for everyone to drive fast in their cars," he says, articulating what so many people also loved about Burnout Paradise back in 2008. "We want to expand the palette, right? We've got Jess the wheelman character in the game, she's transporting cars from point A to point B on time without getting spotted by the cops. There are special delivery missions where you have to get a package to a specific destination on time. At the core you're still using Need for Speed skills and vehicles, but when you have different motivations it's amazing how many more different people latch onto that. It gives the game a much broader texture."
Need for Speed Payback launches November 10, 2017 for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Our play session was on the PC version of the game.