Payday: The Heist was a solid co-op game that felt raw and a bit unpolished. It was still fun, but felt a bit like a confused mess at times. Payday 2 is the new and even more ambitious sequel. Overkill and Starbreeze have done an excellent job in refining the formula to make for one of the most fun, challenging co-op experiences in years – provided your team is patient, quick and smart.
In Payday 2, you are not the good guy. You are a bank-robbing sociopath with a penchant for heavy weaponry, clown masks and gadgets. As such, it is your job to go into some very incredible situations, and then get out of them. Payday 2 does an admirable job right off the bat of making each game interesting. Whereas the first game had missions that could take 20 minutes at a minimum, Payday 2 has crafted scenarios that can last from 30 seconds to far longer, multi-tiered, multi-day missions. In each of these scenarios, there is a significant level of tension, whether you’re hiding on a Museum’s roof waiting for a guard to pass or trying to revive a teammate who has been shot while under fire in the middle of a warehouse shootout.
Payday 2’s heists have a great range. The simpler of the heists include a robbing a bank, jewelry store or a nightclub. The more advanced scenarios come soon and involve cooking meth in order to sell it in exchange for information and cash or stealing art in order to sell to, and later frame a Senator. The great thing is, even after you’ve completed the more advanced heists, the lower tier ones are still an absolute blast to play through.
Part of the reason is that the game borrows a lot from Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. The interface is similar, as is some of the interactivity. But the best thing is the “AI Director” that Left 4 Dead had. This is where each mission would be slightly different. So if you decide to rob the bank twice in a row, not only could the security cameras be in a different place, but the vault itself could be moved. It goes beyond that too.
Sometimes, you and your teammates will be in the middle of a perfect stealth run. But the game could spawn a civilian walking the streets who has a cell phone and sees you with your mask on and gun out. They will call the cops, and make your day a lot harder. Part of what makes the game so much more interesting than a lot of other games is that the game seems to adapt to the players, as much as the players are forced to adapt to the game.
The best part of Payday 2 is that the game is far more involved and far more tactical than a lot of other co-op games. More so than Mass Effect 3 or Gears of War’s horde modes, more so than games like Army of Two or even Left 4 Dead, communication and tactical thinking are the key not only to a successful playthrough, but also critical to maximizing the fun of the game. Payday 2 forces you to rapidly adjust plans between 4 people as you see how levels are laid out, how your position is being assaulted and who has what skills to best complete objectives. The other games are all fun, and still require a modicum of communication, but not even Payday: The Heist was quite so demanding.
And to be honest, that is both good and bad. When you have a group of 4 people who all have microphones and patience, the game was among the best experiences I have had this year. Payday 2 is not quite as cinematic as say, Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us, but when you have 4 people trying to coordinate different skill sets while trying to sneak into the FBI headquarters to steal a server, the experience is easily on par with those games, just its own quirky way. However, get a squad where even one person lacks a microphone, and the experience can dissolve quickly.
An anecdote: the mission Rats requires players to cook crystal meth. Meth is highly explosive if made wrong. The game has you gather the necessary chemicals, and one person follows a set of dictated online directions and adds ingredients while the others fight off waves of cops. If you place the chemicals in the wrong way, the top floor of the meth house explodes, and the remainder of the mission becomes exceptionally challenging. Well, tonight, three of us had mics, and the one guy who didn’t either couldn’t hear us, or didn’t listen and proceeded to put the ingredients in how he thought they should go. Needless to say, things did not go so well, and rather than the $150,000 or so we could have taken, we got maybe $10,000.
We still had fun, and ended up in some wild shootouts, but it does significantly detract from the game, when earlier, with 4 Microphones, our team was like a well-oiled machine that stormed jewelry stores and sneakily raided museums. Further, I have had games where no one else had a microphone, and we were able to complete low level missions with relative ease. Things really do start to get iffy when the game reaches higher difficulty sessions or longer missions and you can’t rapidly communicate with everyone to make sure people are on the same page.
The game even with one AI bot is similarly not nearly as fun as it is when you have a full team. The friendly AI isn’t the worst I’ve encountered, but it is a far, far cry from a competent team. While I have had the AI go out of its way to get me up or helpfully shoot some enemies off my back, it was not all good. In one instance, we had a person drop from our game, and though we were quietly stealing from a safe in the back room of a jewelry shop, the AI who took over thought it would be a good idea to walk around to the front of the store with his mask on. Even had this not alerted everyone, before people even reacted, we watched helplessly as the bot proceeded to shoot a security guard through the front window. We still got the jewels and our cash, but it wasn’t fun having our stealthy mission progress destroyed by a particularly disgruntled bot.
Playing the game Solo is not a generally good idea, as stupidity aside, the AI cannot interacting with objects or even carrying bags of cash. This means that you have to do all the heavy lifting alone, and there is a lot of heavy lifting in a game that involves thefts of cash, gold and other loot. Avoid playing solo if possible, and stick to games with friends, as the friendly AI is really only good for shielding you and for screwing up your attempts at stealth. On the bright side, the enemy AI isn’t perfect, and even on high difficulties, I’ve had enemies watch as crossed their sight lines, though this was uncommon.
Still, in spite of these issues, if you can find a solid game then you will be rewarded with some very challenging, tactical and interesting gameplay. Payday 2’s stealth system, while not perfect, is still plenty of fun, and very rewarding. You don’t get an actual bonus for doing things quietly, but there is a real sense of accomplishment when your team does complete a mission without alerting the police. Add that to the three tiered, RPG style reward system and the formula is made better. The unlock system of Payday: The Heist was kind of a mess. Payday 2 gets it right with a clearer level system that results in skill points to unlock various helpful traits, such as the ability to make police officers surrender or extra ammo bags. Additionally, you take a portion of any job you complete, and these are used to purchase weapons, weapon modifications, new masks, skill traits or even temporary assets to assist you in your heists.
The third tier is that masks, weapon modifications and mask modifications are all on a random card system. After a successful payday, you choose from one of three “payday cards” and a magic random number generator decides what you get. It can be a dash of extra spending cash, a new mask or a general or specific weapon mod. This system is in and of itself a bit off, as at one point four in five missions netted me a $3,000 cash bonus, while my teammates got new masks, rifle sights or other useful weapon mods. It’s not a perfect system, but that little bit of chance does admittedly add a bit of simple excitement to even a normally mundane unlock system.
All of this is helped along by an excellent soundtrack that is not only driving, but contextual. The musical cues are reminiscent of classic movies, highlighting upcoming assault waves of police officers or warning you when stealth is out the door and it’s time to prepare for your heist to get a lot more challenging. The core interface of the game is also excellent, and much improved from the last game. Crime.net, the hub where you choose your next mission, is crowded, but still pretty clear what games are which heist and how difficult the individual game has.
Overall, Payday 2’s experience varies from play to play. I’m not referring to the excellent implementation of the AI Director, though that could fit. Ultimately, Payday 2 is what you and a good team make it. While the game can be fun even without a great team, it rapidly transforms into one of the most enjoyable games of the year if you have teammates who have the patience to treat the early parts of each scenario like the puzzle they are and who have the willingness to listen and help when something breaks and the cops come cracking down. The violence in the game reaches levels that are almost uncomfortable, as you are the bad guy. But that content discussion is for another time. As it stands, the puzzle like mechanics and exciting shootouts make for an excellent co-op gameplay experience. It’s a bit ironic though that the game with the most sociopathic characters – so far this year – also teaches you how to play best with others.
Reviewed on PC (also available on PS3, Xbox 360)
August 13, 2013
8.0 / 10