Updated: Payback Review

The Payback 1.1 update fixes some obvious problems and makes the game more playable. There are two changes of consequence: First, the formerly cruddy 3D mini-map has turned into a more functional 2D overhead map, so you can actually tell where you’re going when attempting to make a getaway. Second, a much-appreciated “rewind” button allows you to restart the last mission you attempted at any time, eliminating many irritating hikes to the phone bank.

Those were two pretty serious rough spots that screwed up the game for us, and we’re glad Apex fixed them. We’re not ready to bump the game up to a 4 yet, but it’ll be there after another solid round of UI and graphics fixes.

Apex Designs’ Payback is a top-down murderfest, just like the early Grand Theft Auto games it’s closely modeled on. It’s not what we’d call a picture-perfect recreation by any stretch of the imagination, as you have to scrape past a fair number of rough edges on the way to the really good stuff. On the other hand, it’s got the same cheerfully violent soul as those earlier games, and it turns out to be a fun play once you get the hang of it.

Payback is set in a series of small British cities (we know because everyone drives on the left side of the road), populated by folks going about their daily business. Exactly who or what are you paying back in Payback? We know it’s not society at large, that’s for sure. In fact, you’re doing exactly the opposite, by extracting bloody tribute from every innocent motorist, unassuming lawman, and guilty-as-sin scumbag you butcher.

In the game’s Story Mode, you play as a crazed sociopath working his way up the criminal underground’s ladder by completing missions to earn cash. You answer ringing pay phones to get these assignments, which can range from gunning down rival gangsters to stealing and reparking certain vehicles, and everything in between. Successful completion of the mission earns you a big chunk of money, boosting you towards the one to two million dollars you need to move on to the next level. If you screw it up by letting your target escape, running out of time, or dying, you don’t earn a dime, and it’s back to the phones for another mission.

There’s no real story here at all–not even a loose narrative. You do whatever the boss tells you to do, over and over again, until you either make the required amount of money or lose all of your lives, forcing a level restart. This missions themselves can be quite inventive, but more often than not, you’re going to be going to Location A to gun down X, Y, and Z… not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Payback is stocked with a wide variety of cars to steal and weapons to shoot, and both the combat and the driving is satisfying, once you tame the somewhat finicky tilt controls to your liking. We particularly enjoyed lighting people on fire with the flamer, and chewing cars into little pieces with the minigun.

However, the game is also plagued by petty annoyances that disrupt the action. For instance, if you fail a mission, you have to march all the way back to the pay phones to get a new assignment. In many cases they’ll be all the way across town, costing you precious minutes. Why can’t you just access a “restart mission” command from the menu? Also, the mini-map that tells you where you’re supposed to be heading is barely legible, and while a compass arrow gives you a basic heading to your target, the target itself isn’t usually marked, which can lead to confusion. Meanwhile, many of the timed missions simply don’t give you enough time to get where you need to go, let alone do what you need to once you get there. We also would have liked to see bigger, better touch buttons to control movement and shooting, because it’s easy to lose track of them in the middle of a firefight.

Parts of Payback’s presentation are phenomenal, perhaps even platform-leading. The voice acting is second to none, replete with funny accents and professional delivery, and we are also hugely impressed with the game’s licensed soundtrack. It’s got eight to ten full tracks, is well balanced between techno, hip-hop and rock, and features a few big names like Dispatch. In fact, Payback’s overall sound design is really good, particularly its positional audio effects. The graphics don’t measure up to the sound, in our opinion. The game runs at an admirably smooth frame rate, but it seems to have cut some major corners in terms of texture quality in order to get there. The cities have a muddy, drab look about them that’s more than just art direction, and the modeling isn’t very good, either–pedestrians literally appear to be stick figures, and the cars are ultra-boxy.

All in all, Payback isn’t as good as it could have been, but it’s still a fun free-form action game with an impressively large scope. If this brand of violence is your bag, we imagine that you could enjoy yourself for dozens of hours here, completing all the missions, running through the game’s Challenge and Rampage modes, and recording videos of particularly bloody exploits. The $6.99 purchase is justified.

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