Some concepts are so gloriously well suited to games, it’s amazing they remain relatively untapped. The classic heist sequence from Heat is a perfect example of this, the bank robbery followed by high-octane gun battle in the streets feeling ready-made for a videogame treatment. However, the only real attempt at translating the scene has, until recently, been the notorious Three Leaf Clover mission in Grand Theft Auto 4.
Thankfully, Swedish developer Overkill Software noted the heist-shaped void in the gaming market and addressed it with 2011’s Payday: The Heist. One of the best sleeper hits of recent years, it offered heist action in the form of a Left 4 Dead-style four player co-op shooter. It was a match made in heaven and, while rough and ready, it garnered an impressive fanbase.
A sequel was inevitable, anticipation for Payday 2 increasing with the involvement of their parent company, FPS stalwarts Starbreeze Studios. The result is a game that successfully builds on the potential of the original, while also inheriting that game’s tendency to make things difficult for itself at times.
The first evident improvement is in mission variety, with the expected bank jobs mixed in with activities ranging from the wide in scope, like infiltrating Government properties to nab sensitive information, to wackier situations like frantic mid-gunfight meth cooking. While these activities keep things interesting, mechanically they follow a tight structure: walk (or if you’re feeling brave, sneak) into a location, fight off cops while accomplishing various objectives – drill a vault open or add ingredients to a cooking batch of meth – grab the loot, then book it to a waiting van. The key to success is staying together, and having the situational awareness to know what spots need to be covered moment to moment.
Cops throw themselves at you in infinite waves, with special Assault waves upping the ante in numbers and more heavily-armoured SWAT teams, which makes success a case of efficiency and timing. A successful heist means money, XP and the chance to pick a card for a random item, with new equipment also purchasable with awarded funds and a COD-esque perks system allowing you to develop your general effectiveness. You also have money forwarded to an ‘offshore account’ which is, at this point at least, unusable.
As is standard with online co-op, results can vary based on the quality of players on your team, meaning it’s best played with friends, but the game succeeds admirably in providing an enjoyable heisting toybox. With mediocre players it’s fun; with a good team on a roll, it’s sublime. The level design ensures that there’s something for everyone to do at each point, and assault waves are paced so that you may often feel overwhelmed, but not hopelessly so as long as everyone’s on their toes. The gunplay is just as enjoyable as in the original with no huge changes made, although one can detect Starbreeze’s influence in the slightly more grounded-feeling first-person camera and some thumping sound design. While the game isn’t exactly spectacular graphically it does the job, crucially maintaining a smooth framerate when things go batshit. Which is most of the time.
At its best, Payday 2 is a marvelous experience that provides a feast for co-op fans. Unfortunately, those who prefer single player will feel far less satisfied. While you can play on your own with bots, the AI is laughably incapable of pretty much anything helpful. While no-one expects AI to fully match a human team in sync – not even all human players can manage that – it’s at once hilarious and depressing to see your AI cohorts struggle with such fundamental concepts as picking up a bag.
This isn’t just a raw deal to the players who prefer/need to play alone, but a missed opportunity to provide a training ground that could allow players to try out missions and work out what they require before entering the online arena. Efficiency is king in Payday, and a successful team needs to know where to be at every stage of a heist. Without a viable option to do an effective practice run, players are forced to work it out in the company of others. While the community has been generally very good with this so far, with a lot of pre-round strategizing in text chat and a good atmosphere overall, the memory of the kick-frenzy Payday: The Heist turned into is never far from one’s mind. With single player bot play added by public demand, its horribly unpolished implementation seems a weirdly unconscientious move for such a community-friendly developer.
Exacerbating this problem is the massive XP hit you take when you fail a mission. While losing your money reward makes sense – these are heists, after all – the miniscule blip of XP you’re left with is pretty much useless. While you don’t want to make the consolation haul too big, and thus nullify any incentive to do better, coming away with virtually nothing can be infuriating when it comes to the more difficult, multi-stage heists which can take a fair amount of time to play. Fail, and this time is more or less wasted whether the failure was your fault or not. The game has also been plagued with numerous gameplay and connectivity bugs, which Overkill seem to be doing a decent job of patching out. Still, the odd glitch occasionally rears its head, with connecting to overseas players remaining a pretty dicey prospect.
This creates a bit of dilemma when assigning a review score. With a good team and a strong connection Payday 2 simply sings, making for some of the best co-op action out there. However, the rough edges get in the way of this experience, making for a sometimes frustrating time, and take the shine off what should be a four-star game. Overkill have committed to supporting the game with new maps, heists and characters, and areas of the game that are ripe for expansion are plain to see. Prime example is your safe house, which is utterly useless but clearly built to do something eventually.
Sadly we can only score Payday 2 as it stands now, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the quality of the action makes it a hugely enjoyable game that cinephiles in particular will have a ball with if they’re willing to overlook the odd frustration. Overkill seem determined to support it long-term, which will be vital to keep new players coming in and preventing the community from getting too insular. With some tweaks to the netcode and XP distribution and meaningful new content, Payday 2 has the chance to grow from a strong but mercurial start into something genuinely special.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars