Otherwise known as The Game That Tries To Do That Infamous Bank Robbery Scene From Heat, and which mostly gets away with it. Up to a point, anyway.
(I should probably mention before we start that I never played the original Payday and so I don’t know what’s new, what’s been changed, what’s improved etc. beyond what I read on web forums.)
There are a few things that you have to just accept when you play Payday 2. It’s a four-player co-op shooter in which you and three friends rob banks, jewellery stores, drug dealers — basically anyone who owns something valuable that’s not nailed down. – and the first thing you have to accept is that there’s a very definite emphasis on the friends part of that description. You need four people communicating over VOIP to even think about tackling some of the harder missions in the game, and even the basic ones are very difficult to do without other human beings playing your fellow heisters. Partly this is down to the simple nature of the bot AI that accompanies you when you’re solo, since it exists to soak up bullets and pick you up when you get downed and is completely incapable of performing even the basic actions required to successfully complete the average bank robbery, but I think this is a reasonable area for the game to slack off on since there is no AI currently in existence which would be capable of the insane level of coordination a Payday 2 heist requires.
Payday’s coordinated raids and bank hits are both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. You can get by in Left 4 Dead without much communication, and eventually you can run levels through muscle memory alone and treat your human allies as particularly stupid bots. It’s a co-op game where the co-op is not really necessary unless you’re playing on Expert or are in a Versus game. By contrast Payday makes that approach absolutely impossible; you need to be constantly communicating with your team calling out enemy positions and keeping everyone informed as to the status of the heist so that you can get it done as quickly as possible, otherwise the cops will roll right over you. If you can convince three friends to buy it and play it with you Payday at its peak is arguably better than either of the Left 4 Dead games, simply because it commits itself so completely to being a truly co-operative experience. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of locking out anyone who can’t play it with friends – or doesn’t want to. Make no mistake, this game is multiplayer only and if you’re not interested in that you should steer well clear.
If you’re still reading from this point on I’ll assume that you can get a group to play with (or that you don’t mind playing in public games, which always seem like a special kind of Hell to me), in which case the next thing you’re going to have to accept is that Payday 2 breaks reality in several potentially immersion-shattering ways. The way each mission in Payday works is that it’s broken down into several levels that represent different days of the heist. In most levels you’ll start off in Casing Mode, where you’re unmasked and unarmed and get a chance to scope out your target before committing any crime. Guards will get suspicious if you get too close, or if you’re seen somewhere you’re not supposed to be, but otherwise you’re free to move throughout the level and plan exactly how things are going to go down; once you’ve made a plan you then put your masks on, draw your weapons and execute it.
Now, exactly what happens next will depend somewhat on how good you and your crew are at the game and how good your plan is, but mostly it’s going to rely on a large helping of luck. The best-case scenario is that you manage to subdue all guards and civilians, disable all cameras and prevent any alarms from going off; this allows you to steal the goods without fighting any police, but it also requires an extremely well-coordinated team, silenced weapons and special skills from the character class trees (more on those later). Once a guard goes down his HQ will call him on the radio to make sure everything is alright, and while you can answer the radio yourself this will only work a couple of times before HQ gets suspicious and sends in the police. Cameras cannot be disabled by shooting or hitting them (well, they can, but it’ll set off the alarm) and must instead be jammed by a special doohickey that only works for thirty seconds, during which you have to take out the camera with nobody noticing. Civilians can be intimidated by shouting at them and tied up so that they don’t cause any trouble, but there’s 10-20 of them in the more crowded locations and if even one civilian escapes and makes it out onto the street, or if a passerby notices a bunch of armed men inside a jewellery store, that’s your stealth run over. The police will arrive after a very short delay, and this is when Payday 2 gets a little silly because there are hundreds of them.
Not all at once, of course, and they will wait outside for a little while before assaulting the building (a neat touch is that they’ll wait longer the more hostages you have) but when they come for you they will do so in large groups and from several directions at once. The cops vary in effectiveness depending on what type they are and how close you’ve let them get to you. A SWAT officer firing at you from across the street will encourage you to keep your head down, but isn’t capable of doing any serious damage unless he has four or five friends. If he’s next to you, though, that same SWAT officer will likely take off half your health bar before you even realise he’s there; the police are absolutely deadly in close quarters, which is why a lot of Payday 2’s combat is based around managing police numbers so that only a few of them ever make it that far in the first place.
This is one of the reasons why coordination is so vital: the police will change things up, field heavier units and apply pressure at different points as the assaults continue, and this requires you to be dynamic in your response to what they’re doing. An interesting thing about Payday is that it intentionally renders the usual one-size-fits-all strategy used to win co-op horde games – that of finding a defensive bottleneck and holing up on the other side of it – completely useless. We tried that in one of our first games, and what happened was that the police bunched up on the other side of the door without coming inside, threw in a flashbang, sent in a riot shield backed up by three heavy units, and then when we were picking up the two team members who got downed by this tactic they did it again and killed us all. As a general rule getting stuck inside a room with one exit is the worst thing you can do in Payday because there are special police units designed to counter this tactic; you need to stay spread out a bit so that the police never get that critical mass required to overrun your position, which requires thinning their numbers at range before engaging the survivors with brutal short-range weapons before they can draw a bead on you.
As a combat mechanic goes I think this is a lot of fun, and far more interesting than the battles against Left 4 Dead’s AI zombies. The reason I say it’s a bit silly, though, is because you can kill dozens, even hundreds of policemen in your defence of whatever time-critical thing is currently going on (usually drilling a safe or waiting for an escape vehicle), and they absolutely will not stop coming for you in the same suicidal fashion that’s already claimed countless of their colleagues. It’s pure horde mode, and while it works well in the context of aliens or zombies it’s a little hard to swallow when it’s policemen, no matter how well it’s executed. Still, no matter how ludicrous it is I can’t deny that it works; the combat in Payday is fantastically visceral, the weapons are all excellent – especially the shotguns – and a lot of attention has been paid to how they sound. It’s unsurprisingly considering the obvious inspiration the game draws from Heat, since one of the striking things about that film is how loud the gunfire is. Payday’s guns have a similar decibel level (even the silenced ones make some noise) and have different acoustics depending on whether you’re inside or outside. It all combines to make a very intense and often desperate experience, when you get blindsided by a squad that’s slipped through the perimeter and suddenly you’re huddled behind a filing cabinet, frantically trying to reload your shotgun so that you can provide cover fire to pick up your downed friends.
The other great thing Payday 2 does is its loot mechanic. Everything you steal in a heist translates to the size of the reward you get after finishing the mission. Often there’ll be a minimum level of loot required to complete it, but there is always more loot in a level than is required which means that your team has to make a choice: how much money do you think you can make it out with? Loot has to be transported to an escape vehicle, each team member can only move one loot bag at a time, and moving loot bags means you move much more slowly than normal, which isn’t great when the route to the escape vehicle often means crossing an open street with no cover that’s filled with angry cops. It’s entirely up to you whether the reward is worth the extra risk, and there will be times when you fail a level because you got too greedy and stayed in for a few more loot bags. And this will hurt, because if you fail a level – which can often take 20-30 minutes of high-intensity combat – you get nothing. It’s not a trivial risk to take, and is yet another reason why coordination is so important; it makes the difference between getting out with the bare minimum amount of loot required to finish the mission, and getting out with all of it and getting a huge payday as a result.
So that’s all really good, and for the first fifteen hours or so Payday 2 is fantastic fun and more than justifies its asking price. Unfortunately you then run up against a couple of not-so-minor problems that threaten to bring the whole thing crashing down. To start with, there will come a point shortly after you become good enough to reliably complete Very Hard missions that money essentially becomes meaningless. Money is used to upgrade skills, buy new weapons and add modifications to them, but only one of these things (weapons) is a reliable money sink since the other two are reliant on other mechanics. In order to upgrade skills you need skill points, which are earned through XP, and past level 30 the rate at which you get skill points is much, much slower than the rate at which you gain cash money, meaning that it has a tendency to pile up unspent. On the other hand you can’t add a modification to your guns until it’s dropped for you in the ridiculous Payday mechanic at the end of a mission where you flip over a card to get a random reward, and there are so many modifications that the chances of one dropping for a gun you actually use are very low indeed. Finally, once you’re at level 30 you’ve unlocked all the weapons for purchase and have likely settled on a combination that you like, so you’re unlikely to spend any more on those.
This means that once you’ve hit a certain point in Payday 2 you are basically just playing the game for fun. Payday is certainly fun enough to support that approach, except for one tiny problem: there are maybe 7-8 missions in the entire game, which isn’t anywhere near enough variety to sustain long-term play. I expect to squeeze a few more hours out of the game through setting my own personal goals – I want to level high enough that I can get the Iron Man armour from the Enforcer tree, and I want to fully stealth a bank level without the cops ever showing up – but once I manage that I think I’ll be done with Payday 2 until they release some more heists for it. I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with it, and despite the thousand tiny niggles and general half-finished feel of the game I think it’s one of the better titles I’ve played this year. It just doesn’t have the longevity I want out of a really solid multiplayer game, which is more than a little bit disappointing considering how meaty it looked at the start; there’s a structure there to produce high-level players – they go all the way up to 100 – but no actual levels for them to play on. Maybe in six months it’ll be a bit more complete, but right now Payday 2 loses its steam just before you unlock the really interesting abilities and instead asks you to grind to get to them, which is not my cup of tea at all. Payday 2 is a good game, but I don’t regret my decision to bail out here in the slightest, and that’s probably it’s greatest failing: it made me want to stop playing it.