Payday 2 (for PC, PS3, Xbox 360) review

Payday 2 is a satisfying and deep heist game that manages to overcome its disappointing graphics and stupid characters to offer endless missions where anything can happen if you can keep your wits about you.
Photo of Payday 2 (for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

Heists are fun. They combine cutting cleverness with brute force in a way that makes it feel very good to be a bad guy. There’s a reason heist films are their own genre; in fact,  one of the most memorable in recent years is The Dark Knight’s opening Joker’s bank heist. Put on a suit, put on a mask, get into the building and get out with a huge haul. Overkill Software’s Payday tried to recapture that magic to some success, and Starbreeze Studios’ (which bought Overkill last year) Payday 2 builds on that with loads more customization, depth, and tons of x-factors that can throw wooden shoes into your plan’s carefully assembled gears. At $29.99 (direct) for PC and $39.99 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, this heist game packs a ton of value and quality into a budget price.

Heist Game
On the surface, Payday 2, like the first Payday, looks like Left 4 Dead with cops instead of zombies. You play one of four characters (Hoxton, Chains, Dallas, or Wolf) as you carefully maneuver through dangerous areas and into secure locations only to get out and away before you’re overrun by the cops. The four-players-versus-tons-of-enemies dynamic makes the game seem a lot like Valve’s zombie shooter on paper, but just like heist movies have more complicated plots than zombie movies, Payday 2 injects a lot more depth into the game than Left 4 Dead.

Each of the eleven missions can consist of one or several days, with each day representing a map with its own objective. A simple bank heist might have you running into a bank, stealing the money, and leaving, but a drug-running mob hit could have you stealing cocaine one day, transporting it to your contact and avoiding cops the next day, and shooting the leaders of the gang you stole from the next. In each case, you need to front-load your strategy to minimize conflict when possible and protect yourself and your goods if the bullets do start flying. Which they probably will. Every time. It’s basically a question of when, not if. You could potentially pull off a heist without firing a shot, but that requires four people being extremely clever and extremely lucky without a single hiccup in the plan.

Increasingly Complicated
Depending on the nature of the day, you might start in casing mode, with your signature masks off and your guns hidden. This is your one and only chance to make your mission clean, and you’re probably going to screw it up horribly. Sneak around the bank, or mall, or club, pick out the weaknesses, get the gear you need, and get through without getting caught. You can’t actually do anything illegal when casing, so when you’re ready to make your move you need to put on your mask and take out your gun. Properly casing your target can put your in just the right place to make your mission clean and simple, with a minimum of shooting and no alarms raised. Even if the alarms are raised, using the relative safety of casing your target can put you in just the right position to take hostages, fortify your location, and buy yourself as much time as you can for the getaway vehicle to show up or the drill to get through the safe.

Ah, the drill and the getaway vehicles. One of the biggest parts of Payday 2 is the waiting game and defending your position, and you’re going to find yourself hating the drill and the drivers/pilots your handler gets you. It can take several minutes to get through a safe or wait for a van or helicopter, and unless you are both very skilled and very lucky, you’re probably going to be spending those minutes fending off police assaults. Waves of increasingly well-armed police will come rushing in through every door, window, and stairway, and it won’t take long until heavily armored white-helmeted SWAT teams are bashing their way in while snipers are tracking you from across the street. They come in waves, with a handful of police always on your tail even when they’re not actively assaulting you, keeping the pressure on. You need to survive, grab the goods as soon as you get through the locks, and get out as soon as you have an escape plan.

Fortunately, if you’re canny you can take hostages and use them to give the police pause, or trade them if one of your guys gets captured. You can also plank up windows to keep out police, and even set different traps depending on your level and skills. A few zip-tied hostages, a cell phone jammer, trip mines, sentry guns, and a carefully dropped ammo bag can make the difference of whether you get gunned down in the first wave of make it out alive with all the loot.

Then there’s the chance your getaway vehicle will crash or your plans will change and you’ll find yourself improvising ten seconds into the game. Each mission is riddled with variables from different security camera placements and guard paths to how different people react while you case your target. These changes can seriously complicate your plans even if you’ve played that particular day from that particular mission a dozen times before. Eventually, you’ll find your carefully laid plans blown up with you running through cordoned off streets with SWAT teams after you, a gut shot wound and a heavy duffel bag full of cash slowing you down, and two of your partners in the cops’ hands.

Now, look at the last page. Do you see how it started as a simple heist, then became a dance of hiding yourself, positioning yourself, defending yourself, taking hostages, and using skills? That’s the essence of Payday 2. It seems so simple on the surface but gets more and more complicated and deep. That’s what makes it so great. There’s such a balance of seemingly simple objectives, surprisingly complex strategies, and a whole lot of variables that can make every mission screw up in its own unique way. The action itself is fairly simple, with responsive first-person shooter mechanics focused around dealing with police and enemy mobsters. It’s all the uncertainty and strategy wrapped around the shooting that makes Payday 2 feel so rich and complex.

Graphics and Multiplayer
All of this depth translates well into the action, but the graphics don’t follow suit. The game looks fine, but there isn’t much polish to the models or animation, and there aren’t many graphical tricks to give the action a sense of realism. The game world feels very flat and lifeless compared to many AAA first- and third-person games, and the civilians in particular move and act very robotically. The missions are full of set pieces, but there isn’t a whole lot outside of your handler’s voiceovers before and after to give a sense of immersion to everything.

For a game this potentially complicated, you’re best off with three friends. You can also get matched with three strangers online, and even play in single-player with two or three bots backing you up. Unfortunately, the bots are head-crackingly stupid and usually can’t even be bothered to carry bags of loot to the getaway van. You need to play online with other people to get any real satisfaction out of this game.

Payday Rewards
Most of the money you “make” with each successful heist goes toward an offshore account as an ongoing point system, but you keep a chunk you can spend on new equipment, masks, and skills.  Missions also reward you with experience, which advances your reputation level and gives you skill points. You can spend skill points and money to unlock skills in several talent trees, which give you both passive and active bonuses. The Mastermind can deploy a doctor bag to let teammates heal and can choose to improve how he handles pistols or assault rifles, how he interacts with civilians and hostages, and even whether he can intimidate or convert enemies. The Enforcer can deploy an ammo bag to keep his teammates stocked and can spend points to use shotguns better, carry more ammo, run faster when carrying a loot bag, and even use a portable saw to cut through locks. The Technician can set trip mines and spend points to improve the drill, use rifles better, and even deploy sentry guns. Finally, the Ghost can use an electronic jammer to disable cell phones and cameras and open ATMs, and can spend points to better blend in when casing targets, pick locks faster, and use silenced weapons more effectively. You can switch between deployable tools between missions, and different skills in different jobs all stack together, so you can make your own custom thief.

Skills cost money as well as skill points, and you have to balance spending your cash on skill points against buying new weapons, weapon upgrades, equipment, and masks. Each gun is customizable with attachments and, in some cases, different parts like barrels and receivers. You start off with an assault rifle and a pistol, but soon you can unlock different weapons like machine guns, sniper rifles, and machine pistols, all with their own different variations and versions. You have to balance stopping power, accuracy, ammunition capacity, and concealability for each weapon, and customize them with the right sights, silencers, and other attachments for the job. There are over two dozen different guns, which get gradually unlocked for purchase as you rise through the levels. You can also buy custom masks, if you don’t like the default masks used by the four main characters, and even modify the masks with different colors and materials. You can also get masks, materials, colors, and weapon attachments as loot at the end of each successful mission, where you can pick one of three cards that randomly gives you a bonus.

Get Paid
Payday 2′s hidden complexities and the rewards you can get from playing will keep you coming back to the game again and again, and the variations it throws you prevents the different missions from feeling too stale or predictable. For a title that’s effectively multiplayer-only, supports only four players, and has less than a dozen missions, it offers a surprising amount of depth and fun, and offers the closest experience you can get in a video game to actually pulling off a heist and escaping from the cops with the loot.

Specifications
Genre Action Games
Platform PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating M for Mature

Verdict
Payday 2 is a satisfying and deep heist game that manages to overcome its disappointing graphics and stupid characters to offer endless missions where anything can happen if you can keep your wits about you.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc