Payday 2

August 27, 2013

With the Payday: The Heist, I’ve always felt it scratched an inch for fans that was started by that memorable opening to The Dark Knight. Or at least the whole high octane heists by comically clad yet irresistibly suave criminals vibe served as heavy inspiration. Sure, Payday didn’t reward you for systematically killing off your companions, and then launching a manic campaign of violence against a masked vigilante. But the essence of “crime does pay” was there.

Whatever the source material, Payday was a hit among online communities on both Steam and PlayStation 3, encouraging sales giving Overkill Software the go-ahead to head back to the drawing board and see where they could take the formula for Payday 2. Yes, those masked thieves and killers are back for another outing of good old fashioned criminal activity, and with them come a number of predictable tropes so closely associated with expansive sequels. And I mean this for both the good, and the bad.

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If you’ve played Payday: The Heist then you’ll immediately understand the basic premise of Payday 2, and the gameplay fundamentals, because they’re more-or-less the same. With an emphasis on four player co-operative play, you and your criminal entourage must work together to break safes, control crowds, steal goodies, and protect yourselves against waves of cops in the most efficient manner possible, on an assortment of heist-themed maps with a handful of random and procedurally generated content to keep each mission varied and interesting. Payday 2 is this cranked to 11.

Content is king and this has been Overkill’s focus, taking Payday as a first time outing to test the waters, and now considering the formula tried-and-true have attempted to deepen the experience. This means more items and weapons, more variety between map location and heist types, and a greater scope of missions and the challenge they present to the group.

On paper the changes sound fantastic. A wider assortment of equipment expands strategic planning and execution beyond Payday‘s simplicity to the point where varied load-outs can greatly impact the workflow efficiency of a single mission, and missions have been structured to better cater towards “stealth” style play, rewarding coordinated teams that have crowd and security control down to complete significant heists with minimal, if any, alerts.

This is all wrapped in a unified “Crime Net” profiling system. It’s really just a flashy way to archive your data, stat tracking, cash and experience points, but also acts as a nexus for mission selection. Via a virtualised overhead map, players can view mission availability (and their limitations), as well as the phases for multi-day heists that grow beyond a single jewel shop hit-and-run to big time hits and getaways.

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The scope of Payday 2 is actually pretty damn impressive, clearly representative of a developer legitimately deepening and growing a formula for a sequel. But by deepening the formula Overkill also raise the issue of accessibility, and run the risk of fragmenting what should be diverse heist tactics, bottle-necking a community towards one particular play style.

Deepening mission structure and mechanical complexity? Good. Tacking on an experience and class system? Maybe not so much. As so many developers do when given the opportunity to grow, Payday 2 is yet another online shooter with leveling and unlockable skill-sets wrapped around an experience system. You might remember cash rewards from Payday. They’re here too, but generally restricted to buying actual equipment, like guns and attachments. Skills, on the other hand, must be unlocked through grinding levels and spending experience points.

I know how this idea might sound good in theory, broadening potential playstyles and customisation beyond weapon load-outs, but I’m not convinced it fits such a fast moving and player agency driven multiplayer shooter like Payday 2. Staring down a wealth of upgrades that seem so far away due to leveling gateways makes earlier missions feel somewhat arbitrarily restricted in how deep they can go. This is not the kind of game where you want to be given the impression there’s going to be some grinding to get to the really good stuff. Worse, Payday 2 has spread these skills across four classes, each focusing on a particular play style (crowd control, combat, technical, etc).

This works fine for a game like Battlefield where differences between classes are relatively small, and a single team can be made up of 32 players, increasing the likelihood that among your battle buddies will be at least two or three people with the right tools for the job. But Payday 2 is a game for four players, and four players only. If you really want to play with a particular tool you’re going to need to focus on assigning XP to that class. And if you want to play as something else, but part of a team that has the right tools, you’re going to be hard pressed to find random people online that fit the criteria.

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I found this particularly problematic online. Just as with the original, Payday 2 doesn’t shy away from combat, and it’s more satisfying here than before. But what if I want to try for a stealth run? What if I really value a team that tries to do things quickly and quietly before the inevitable shoot-out begins? Good luck finding those people. The reality is when it comes to accessibility of an online shooter, most casual players immediately gravitate towards the skills and perks that emphasise mastery of guns. And hey, that’s fun, but do you see the problem? When you’ve spent too much time fragmenting and compartmentalising your skill system, you ironically limit just how diverse the community is going to be. Payday 2 would have been better off keeping it simple in the experience points and skills area, unifying equipment to let all players draw from the same load-out pool, allowing teams and tactics to evolve naturally and without restriction.

Payday 2 also runs into a handful of presentation and feature issues. Technical performance on the PlayStation 3 is a mixed bag at best. Though a step up over Payday, Payday 2 is hardly exceptional in visual fidelity. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue for an online shooter if the framerate was stable, but it isn’t. Sometimes Payday 2 performs like a dream, other times plummeting the framerate because you happen to be looking at the wrong part of the map. I feel strongly that in any game that encourages co-operation and skill in an online environment technical performance is paramount, and Payday 2 doesn’t cut it, at least not on console where technical deficiencies can be made up by stronger hardware.

I’m also not sure why this game has been given a disk release, because if you have any intention at all of playing the game solo you’d have better luck grabbing a gym bag, mask, and rifle and going on a real heist. Payday 2‘s companion AI is a token gesture (or joke) thrown in for players who maybe want to try out builds or just screw around, because it is literally nonfunctional when it comes to performing actual heists. AI is programmed to do one thing: shoot at bad dudes. That’s it. They will not help manage crowds. They will not fix bust safe cracking equipment. They will not grab loot. They will do absolutely nothing except point and shoot. And even then they’re unreliable, my favourite example being a masked, armed companion resting against a wall enjoying a smoke at the tail end of a massive heist, as he ignores an army of SWAT to his front (who, in turn, are ignoring him), and my lifeless body begging for revival to his right. The guy was literally broken, or maybe was just tired of a life of crime. But anyway, if you’re buying Payday 2, you’re doing so to play online and as part of a team, and in that case you might as well buy digital.

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My negativity surrounding Payday 2 may paint the game as a failure, but I don’t mean it to. What I mean to do is emphasise Payday 2‘s failings so budding investors know exactly what they’re getting into. And I say this because beneath the muddled experience system and somewhat convoluted presentation Payday 2 is a fantastic cop-op multiplayer shooter. The issue is you need to do more than put down your dollars. You’re also going to need to cater to the online community’s play style, or better yet get in touch with some Payday fanatics and organise a tight group of experienced players with a dedication to teamwork.

Because this is where Payday 2 shines. When each player is playing a role exactly as it should be, and the team is working together as a cohesive whole, the thrill of performing a heist efficiently is ludicrously addictive. Like watching all the nuances in a Rube Goldberg machine come together to perform a task with perfected complexity, the sensation of control and reward from a well attuned Payday 2 team is sublime. And even when things go pear shaped and the cops roll in, that brilliant soundtrack hits, the adrenaline rushes, and the team launches into a panicked yet strangely organised frenzy of theft and gunfights.

Overkill’s work in deepening mission structure and game complexity is admirable, and for Payday vets should provide more than enough reason to grab this sequel. I’m not confident all changes were for the better, nor am I sure the online community will fit the mold the game tries to sculpt, but when all the pieces fall together a lot of fun is to be had. Even if all of those pieces require a fairly specific player investment.


Deeper heist mechanics | Broader mission variety | When it "clicks", it's fantastic


Technical issues on console | Unecessary levelling/skill system | Broken single player

Overall Score: