A little while back, a little studio called Overkill put a game on Steam called Payday: The Heist. The release completely passed me by. In fact, I was totally ignorant even of the existence of the title until a group of my friends all bought it and decided to start robbing banks together. They were so taken with it that they demanded that I join them, and I couldn’t have been happier with the purchase. We passed many nights (and into the early mornings, sometimes!) trying to grind our way through harder difficulties, and try to learn more advanced ways to stealth through the various ‘heists’, which included stuff ranging from your standard-issue bank job through a Left 4 Dead inspired hospital mission called, fittingly, No Mercy, where a shadowy anonymous buy was willing to pay bank in exchange for a sample of infected blood.
The game was marked by a number of good ideas. It includes minor RPG elements in that your account ‘levels up’ as you play more heists, granting access to useful abilities. In the original game, most of these bonuses were tied directly to weapons and armor and your ability to last in combat against the inevitable waves of police and SWAT forces that would attempt to keep you from escaping with your ill-gotten gains. Being stealthy at the start of a heist by using silenced weapons and preventing any civilian hostages in the area from escaping to summon help could pay significant dividends as you waited for your large thermal drill to bore its way into this vault or that one. A variety of weapons and gadgets rounded out your heisting arsenal, modeled off of real-life weapons augmented by just a bit of fancy. The game included multiple difficulty levels for every heist which would affect the number and types of enemies that spawn, and add other random factors that could make heists substantially more challenging. Indeed, that random AI Director feature of the game also helped its replayability dramatically, as heists could play out very differently if things went right – or very much wrong.
Payday 2 improves noticeably upon almost all of this. The heists are now more elaborate, including multi-day criminal enterprises (such as a ‘Watchdog’ mission where you must first secure a shipment of cocaine against an FBI operation, then in ‘day 2’ load the coke onto a drug boat at the docks, all while under police assault), and a wider variety of possible objectives – your crew are no longer strictly robbers, but rather highly skilled specialists for higher, men of limited principles and significant hardware.
The skill trees (Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician and Ghost, respectively) now include a wider variety of abilities, many of which can be directly employed for greater speed or stealth in the missions. Now, being a high level player with access to the best gadgets can make the simpler heists significantly easier, allowing the players to focus on the greater challenges of high difficulty level multi-day jobs. I personally find it very rewarding to try and work through missions in a stealthy way. Not only can some rewards become greater when you don’t have to battle you way through police lines, but the heists can also (often) be done cleaner and more quickly with the application of stealth. Returning is the oft-failing thermal drill which is the centerpiece of a number of missions where you try to gain access to a safe or other place you shouldn’t be, but this can now be circumvented if your technician is skilled enough to deploy shaped charges to blow off hinges, or if your ghost has an ECM Jammer that can bypass electronic security. The Mastermind can talk down inquisitive guards on the other end of the phone, easily intimidate and control civilians, and provide a slew of buffs to the group, and the Enforcer can (among so many other things) bring a powerful rotary saw to slice open less-imposing lockboxes, ATM machines, and encroaching enemies who draw too close.
Also notable in Payday 2 is a more credible electronic opponent. In the original game, the challenge was typically increased by sending more powerful units earlier in the mission, legions of ‘special’ units, and an unending stream of SWAT goons and their guns. To an extent, this is still completely true. However, the enemy now employs lesser raw numbers in favour of better tactics, and more threatening enemy units. Of course, stealth your way through the missions, and you may never have to suffer their wrath…
Payday 2 is not by any means a perfect game, however. The mission select is now done through an interface called Crime.net, which is a black and white overhead map of a city on which missions appear as ‘pings’ (as if the job just became available, complete with a timer before the job eventually disappears). Because of this system, if your crew is in favour of running a particular heist, it quite literally might take as long as half an hour of ‘browsing’ Crime.net for it to appear (or perhaps even longer!). In the most recent update, Overkill added some very basic filters to the Crime.net interface, allowing you to opt out of missions below a certain difficulty level… but this seems woefully inadequate. Though the game contains 10 heists, they re-use a couple of maps between them, and some of them are completely basic – there’s almost nothing to them. These are offset by some very complex heists higher up in pay scale, but some of them start to feel less replayable after a couple of solid nights with the group. This happened in the first game too, of course, but it’s much more annoying now with the obstacle of Crime.net possibly throwing you copy after copy of an undesirable heist that you are totally burned out on… instead of something you’d really like to do. I frankly do not understand the creative choice behind not offering better filters for this system.
While it is true that the police do not attack in such great numbers as before, they do still leave a lot of artifacts around the map, with corpses, piles of ammo, and miscellaneous gear (such as riot shields) strewn about, and I have seen the game start to chug on systems that are powerful enough to run many other contemporary games without issue. By its nature, this is probably something that’s hard for this game to overcome, but it’s a frustrating problem to have when the key resource that you need to enjoy this game to its fullest is friends who can also play it with you.
Yes, Payday 2 has in-game voice chat, and yes, you can jump into public games with strangers anytime you want. Some people might really enjoy doing so, in fact, and I don’t really mind it…. but I would much rather gather a group of 3 friends to roll with and work in tandem to complete heists. The AI team-mate can be valuable in combat because of their accuracy (though sometimes the team AI seems bewildered in a way the police AI rarely is… failing to respond even in a dire emergency) but is also frustratingly useless as they cannot transport filthy lucre, or drugs, or whatever, cannot advance mission objectives, and will occasionally blunder into unwinnable firefights against a legion of police in the middle of the street… where they can’t even be reached for a quick revive. As a result, you really want a full party, regardless of how you have to get it.
One thing to admire entirely about Payday 2 is its price point. At $29.99 on Steam (it’s also available on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, the physical media involved means your price point will be $39.99 instead), this game has real value, though I can’t necessarily recommend it if you don’t have at least one friend who would be willing to buy the game as well and commit to playing it with you. Your mileage may vary with teaming up with strangers (I’ve had a mixed bag of results, myself) but I wouldn’t have purchased the game without friends I knew for certain would play, so I certainly won’t tell you to do it!