Bank robbery is in right now. Last year, Grand Theft Auto V offered a taste of the bank robber lifestyle, but with only half a dozen heists and still none released for GTA Online, it left players wanting. Payday 2 is here to satisfy that desire. Within minutes of loading up the game, players can be hitting a bank, clearing out a jewel store, stealing and transporting guns and drugs, or doing shady deals for a corrupt politician. It’s fast, frantic and doesn’t try to be moral or nail players to a linear storyline. You are here to rob, steal and kill. Mask up, gentlemen; it’s time to work.
Oftentimes Payday 2 feels like two games in one, which is not always a good thing. The two approaches to most jobs—stealth and loud—are fairly mutually exclusive, having little overlap in skills, equipment and strategy. For example, stealthing a bank requires shutting off camera feeds, luring and neutralising the guards and controlling all civilians inside, while loud just takes walking in with a big gun and holding out until you can escape, with only a couple of civilians as hostages in case a teammate gets arrested. This means that most stealth efforts are wasted as soon as the alarm sounds, and players suddenly find themselves surrounded by hordes of SWAT with little more than a silenced pistol and a very nice suit for protection. On lower difficulties players can usually make it through a botched stealth effort if they play smart and stick together, but on Overkill or Deathwish, anything less than perfection tends to be fatal.
This feeds into another issue with Payday 2: required multiplayer. On Normal difficulty, the game seems to cater to both single-player and multiplayer gamers, with most jobs possible to pass alone. Lack of arbitrary player number requirements—such as GTA Online has—coupled with easy drop-in blurs the line between singleplayer and multiplayer, theoretically making for a seamlessly flexible experience. However, going it alone is subtly discouraged, as many tasks are much easier with another pair of hands, such as moving a dozen bags of loot or simultaneously using two keycards to open a vault. This would be less of a problem if players could give commands to AI characters, who can only shoot enemies and revive allies, and are useless in stealth. Inclusion of individual or group commands such as “bag this body”, “pick that up” or “hold this position” would open up whole new avenues of strategy, but as it is, players must rely on each other to get through a tight spot. The ramping up of difficulty amplifies this need for human support, and can result in hour upon frustrating hour of failed jobs because a player left or the server disconnected at just the wrong time, leaving the host with nothing but semi-brainless AI for support.
While waves of cops, SWATs and snipers can provide quite a challenge, especially as they get tougher armour and weapons on higher difficulties, special enemies really emphasise the need to work as a team. Shields are practically invincible from the front, but can’t defend against multiple directions at once. Tasers can incapacitate a player with electric shocks, requiring another player to kill the Taser to break them free. Cloakers’ stealthy approach and one-hit melee kills make them the bane of anybody who wanders off alone, too far away for teammates to revive them. Lastly, Bulldozers are walking tanks that can slowly mow through the whole team, killable only by explosives or focused fire on their faceplates.
Fortunately, the police aren’t the only ones with tricks up their sleeves. Players can design their ideal bank robber by choosing skills from four different classes. Masterminds are all about manipulating people, with medical bags and buffs to aid teammates, upgraded civilian management and the ability to convert enemies to their side. Technicians are masters of machinery, boasting faster and quieter drills, automated sentry guns and trip mines that can be upgraded to blast through doors and safes in an instant. Enforcers are the crew’s answer to Bulldozers, bearing the heaviest armour, most powerful shotguns, ammo bags and portable saws to crack open deposit boxes. Ghosts are the antithesis to Enforcers, slipping through missions unseen with faster lockpicking that can even crack safes, camera loops and rather overpowered ECM devices that can block all phone and camera feeds, open security doors and incapacitate enemies with feedback. While playing a class straight can work well, combining upgrades of different classes provides the most effective builds. For example, pairing a Technician’s 50% armour boost and faster armour regeneration with an Enforcer’s heaviest armour and health upgrades makes for an extremely durable bank robber, while a Mastermind’s spotter asset can make a Ghost’s efforts at stealth much easier.
One interesting feature of Payday 2 is that jobs’ layouts change slightly on every attempt. Cameras, guards, loot and objectives will often be in different locations each time you try the job, the intent being that players can’t simply memorise where everything is and design an optimal strategy. A nice idea, but it ultimately fails because while these placements are randomised, where they appear still falls within the overall category of scripted spawn points, so after a few dozen hours players will know all the places to look in every job. That said, it keeps things fresh enough that players still need to keep their eyes peeled for unexpected trouble, lest a camera or guard appear somewhere unexpected. Also, the recently released stealth-only Shadow Raid job introduces an enemy helicopter after a few minutes, which will either be carrying some valuable loot or a few extra guards to make things that little bit trickier. This feature forces players to re-evaluate their strategy, making it an excellent step forward for the series.
Every completed job rewards players with cash and experience, and the game feels unbalanced in both categories. Cash starts off being in extremely short supply, leaving scores of weapon mods sitting in players’ inventories because they can’t afford to attach them until without finishing another five jobs or so, each of which could yield more mods. However, by about Reputation 50, most weapons are unlocked, purchased and fully upgraded, leaving little use for cash. Experience is the opposite, with quick level gains early on, but around Reputation 80 it seems to spike drastically; getting from Reputation 0 to 80 requires roughly ten million experience in total, while 80 to 100 requires another fifteen million. This eventually makes all but the most bountiful jobs seem like a complete waste of time.
Weapon modification is deep, with changes made reflected both in function and aesthetics. Stat-wise, a mod rarely gives an advantage without taking something away in return, which means players need to focus their efforts, lest they end up with a confused mish-mash of mods that all cancel out each other’s benefits. Mask customisation runs even deeper, providing millions of possible combinations. However, players can’t see their own mask while on the job, nor is there often time to admire anybody else’s mask outside of the lobby screen. Also, given that body armour is fairly bland, it would have been nice to be able to modify it or the underlying suit in similar ways. Also annoying is the restriction of customisation colours being locked in set pairs, rather than letting players choose two colours independently. Players can view their collected weapons, masks and stacks of cash in their underground safehouse, which has been rumoured to eventually include customisation options of its own. However, it only has space for nine primary weapons, nine secondary weapons and eight masks (despite a blank section of wall right next to all this), even though players’ inventories have space for eight times that much.
Developer Overkill has kept to their word in providing ongoing content and support for Payday 2. New content seems to be released every few months, and often comes at no cost. These updates have included exciting new jobs such as armoured truck heists and game-changing weapons that include sniper rifles able to pierce Shields and even take down Bulldozers in a single shot if hit just right. Overkill‘s next batch of missions is set for release soon, and includes a special diamond heist, a bank job with a vault stacked full enough to move one to tears, a Las Vegas casino heist and a special rescue mission of crewmate Hoxton (a.k.a Hoxtatron, Hoxtalicious and Hoxtonator). Whether Hoxton players will be able to contribute to their own breakout remains to be seen, but if so, this could be a very interesting twist on the standard job format. To top it all off, these jobs will be available through a new contact, the Dentist, played by the rather magnificent Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame.
Few developers seem able to combine instant gratification gameplay with long-term interest, but Overkill appear to have done it. With 280 Reputation levels gained over almost as many hours, this game became the most-played on my Steam list without me even noticing. Though my attention is beginning to drift back to my other games, as long as the new content keeps coming, I won’t be away from Payday 2 for long.