Genre: Cooperative FPS/RPG
Release Date: August 13th, 2013 (US)
Developer: Overkill Software
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
(Reviewer played in the PC Beta as well as 50 hours post-launch)
When Payday: The Heist first hit Steam back in 2011, it was a refreshingly original spin on the ever-evolving genre of the cooperative FPS. Putting players in the roles of professional criminals pulling a wave of heists, it was unique among games of its kind in that it put heavy emphasis on planning, strategizing and stealth, rather than simply have players try to survive while racking up the highest body count. It was a bit more of a thinking man’s game when compared to your standard undead murderfests such as Left4Dead and Killing Floor, and as a result managed to pick up a sizable following.
Two years after the release of the original, a sequel, Payday 2, is finally here, aiming to take just about every element from the first game to the next level. Does it succeed? In most regards, yes, though it is not without a few snags here and there that might frustrate or disappoint from time to time.
Missions in Payday 2 are available in abundance, and each plays differently from one another. One minute you’ll be robbing a bank, the next you’ll be breaking into an airport to steal weapons. You’ll even defend a small house in the suburbs from cops while simultaneously cooking bags of meth. (Blue Sky, of course. It seems there’s some Breaking Bad fans over at Overkill).
There are 11 distinct missions available at the time of launch, compared to the original Payday’s 9, and there are plenty more coming via a full year’s worth of DLC. Rather than selecting the desired heist from a list, missions are chosen via a new system called Crime.net, which randomly spawns new jobs into the world. While the randomization helps ensure players will take on a variety of jobs, it can be kind of a pain sitting there waiting for a specific heist to pop if you’d rather stick to a favorite. Though some missions recycle environments, these instances are at least dressed up with a bit of mission-unique scenery so that it doesn’t feel quite as lazy as it might otherwise. What’s more, each mission is highly randomized. Everything from little details like guard and important NPC placement to big things like the location of a vault will vary from mission to mission. Safes, security rooms, and random lootable objects also spawn in a fairly wide variety of combinations. You’d have to repeat a heist quite a few times to encounter a perfectly identical layout.
Locations vary, but the formula of a heist always remains more or less the same. Unless it is one of the handful of jobs that throws them right into the action, players typically begin without their masks on, allowing them to scout out their target and the surrounding area, determining the best approach to success based on which combination of random elements they’ve been given. Sometimes security is fortuitously lax, allowing for a quick and easy stealth run. Other times the target can be packed with cameras and guards on all sides, requiring careful planning and coordination to prevent police involvement.
In any case, sooner or later it’s time to mask up. Whether you’re going loud or quiet, typically there will be civilians to deal with, as well as a handful of guards to either subdue or take out. These frantic few seconds determine whether or not you’ll be getting in and out quickly or contending with a small army’s worth of cops, hostage rescue units and FBI agents. If you manage to get all the witnesses tied up before they can escape, your crew will have more or less free reign of the area so long as they keep an eye out for any surviving guards or newcomers. If the plan fails, you can expect a lengthy shootout.
Enemies come in somewhat smaller waves than the first game, but thanks to their seemingly superhuman accuracy they are no less of a threat. Players have both a regenerating armor bar as well as a health bar, but even with the best protection you can expect to be gunned down if you stand out in the open for more than a few seconds during an assault wave. The longer the crew takes to achieve their goal, the more armed and dangerous the cops will become. Each enemy type has its own distinctive look, making it easy to identify them from a distance and alert the crew to the big threats. Even with the temporary absence of the melee-based Cloaker from the first game (removed due to bugs before launch), there is enough variety to keep the crew constantly on their toes, changing tactics on the fly to counter the various heavily armored units.
Eventually a police assault will die down, giving players a few moments to recover or make a break for it. Making an escape can often mean having to transport a large amount of loot to the escape vehicle, a task that can be fast and efficient or a desperate sprint through gunfire, depending on how well the crew works together. More often than not the assault will start back up before everybody’s loaded up in the van, leaving it up to the crew to determine whether or not it’s safe to try and grab the extra loot or if it’s enough just to make it out safely.
Each heist is divided into separate missions known as days. Although they can run up to seven days in theory, as of launch they only run up to three, with most consisting of only a single day. There can also be spontaneous police chase stages between days if the crew failed to exit stealthily, a system seemingly designed to cut down on the practice of grinding quick 1-day missions over and over that ran rampant in the first few days of launch. More heists are coming soon via updates, and to be honest, they couldn’t come soon enough. Even with randomization, playing the same missions over and over can get old.
Though these different heist scenarios succeed in capturing many different faces of organized crime, I must admit that their contents don’t always hit the grandiose heights of the original. A massive bank heist in the vein of the First World Bank mission is sorely missing, for example. In its place we have the simply-named Bank Heist, an occasionally tense but noticeably smaller-scale heist than its predecessor.
But make no mistake, Payday 2’s missions aren’t just about small-to-mid scale hits. There are jobs here and there that definitely raise the stakes and get the adrenaline going, like the final day of Framing Frame, which has you sneaking into a wealthy Senator’s apartment, and the second day of Firestarter, which has you breaking into the freaking FBI. Then there’s Big Oil, a job that is nearly impossible to complete unless you go into it with prior knowledge of how to identify the very specific device you’ve been sent to steal out of a dozen very similar ones. It’s a rewarding job, yes, but also frustratingly difficult to complete for a group of random players. I’m confident we’ll be getting a ton of exciting new missions in the promised year of DLC to come, but for now the variety is a bit on the low side.
In between missions, players can spend their hard-earned cash to upgrade their characters, buying and upgrading weapons and purchasing new skills. There are four entire trees to be explored: the Mastermind, who specializes in controlling the situation and supporting the entire crew; the Enforcer, who can equip the heaviest armor and tear through doors, ATMs and deposit boxes with his saw; the Technician, who can deploy mines and sentry guns while also speeding up the safe-drilling process; and the Ghost, who specializes in infiltration, lockpicking and electronic jamming. Each tree provides distinct changes in playstyle and can be mix and matched in various ways. Unfortunately this system also means you will wind up getting the boot from the group every now and then if you happen to be specced redundantly with another player, or if you are unable to provide c4, a saw or some other tool they require to get things done.
I’ve logged a generous 50 hours with Payday 2 at this point, which is partially the reason why this review is coming to you so late. It’s a damn fun game, no doubt about it. Though I’ve yet to reach the level cap of 100, I’ve seen just about all there is to see from this game, which worries me somewhat. I could keep playing for another 50 hours easily –and intend to- but beyond earning the skill points required to perfect my character build there’s very little left for me to work for. Beating the most difficult missions can earn you $1 million or more if your crew is thorough. This cash is meant to be spent upgrading your weapons and skills, but those costs don’t run anywhere near that high, and so very quickly you will find yourself with more than you could ever possibly spend. There is a desperate need for something to spend all this excess cash on, whether that be new weapons, new character customization options or the long-promised ability to customize your safehouse. I can only assume that last one was the developer’s original intention, but unfortunately that feature had to be held off for a post-launch update that is still yet to come.
Overall I feel safe in recommending Payday 2, especially if you happen to have 3 friends to play with. Even after putting in so many hours, the feeling of pulling off a well-executed heist has yet to grow dull. It’s a game that scratches a particular itch that others of its kind don’t even attempt to reach. Still, the launch content isn’t nearly as expansive as Overkill would have you believe, and I suspect players will tire of the game quickly if the upcoming DLC doesn’t bring some seriously kickass missions. Though it’s not without its share of problems, I think Payday 2 is a game that players will want to revisit frequently over the year of updates to come.