Developer: Overkill Software
Publisher: 505 Games
Payday 2 Review (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
There are a few things in life that are exhilarating, like skydiving, bungie jumping, beating that level of Candy Crush that you’ve been fighting–and losing–against for six weeks, and so forth. At first the task seems unachievable and incomprehensibly difficult, but you do it anyway in the hopes of beating the odds, however slim. And the payoff is magnificent and elicits a euphoric response that makes you want to keep doing it time and time again. In Payday 2, beating those odds is fraught with difficulties and obstacles, but boy is the reward worth it when you do.
You may or may not have had the chance to play Payday: The Heist in the time it’s been available; you definitely won’t have played it if you only own an Xbox system. But if you have, that sense of pure exhilaration and adrenaline-fuelled victory won’t be unfamiliar to you. Conquering armies of enemies, coming face-to-face with death only to have the placement of a medic bag save you in the last moments of your life–that’s all back in Payday 2. But there’s more on top of that. Bigger does not always equal better, but with Payday 2, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
While a lot has changed since The Heist, the basic premise of Payday 2 carries over from the original game, with little variation: Four players, whether human or AI-controlled, head into a location, make an effort to lock it down against outside forces, gather as much valuable loot as possible, and promptly make an escape. Occasionally you have to do something different, like cook meth while battling an army of police opposition (eat your heart out, Walter White), but the basic formula largely remains identical across all levels. But one of the most beautiful things about Payday 2, like its predecessor, is the inclusion of the dynamic level system that makes sure things never get boring.
Payday 2 contains roughly 25-30 individual heists, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to repeat them more than once across your career. But instead of the inevitable monotony kicking in after the third or fourth attempt, the levels change themselves each time you play them. You spawn in different areas, the security cameras change positions, the bank vaults switch around, the contents of said vaults alternate, item placements are varied, and so forth. You could play the same heist twice in a row and neither would feel completely the same as the other. It’s a fantastic system that, similarly to The Heist, increases the replayability of the entire game tenfold.
Unfortunately, while Payday 2 thankfully makes an effort to not make its players get tired of repeating the same heist, it still fails to actually be as varied as you may think. Yes, there are heists that involve activities other than placing drills and waiting for them to complete, but they are heavily outnumbered. Most of Payday 2‘s levels involve the same basic formula of activating drills, restarting them when they fail, and running off with the contents of whatever it was inside where you were drilling. And as such, it can get grating to have to repeat the same pattern of behaviour across the majority of the game. There are no panic rooms being airlifted out of crack dens or prisoners being scooped away by passing planes. The Heist may have had very few levels to speak of, but it at least found some way of making them interesting in spite of that. Payday 2 tries the same, and occasionally succeeds, but it mostly doesn’t.
An area where the game does succeed, however, is in the gameplay. Payday 2 is as pure a co-op game as you can get. Survival relies exclusively on how strong the bond between teammates is. If that bond is elastic and can snap when put to a little pressure, it’s game over. If it can withstand any and all attempts at breaking it in two, you’re as strong a force as five hundred angry police officers are. It’s long been said that Payday is similar to Left 4 Dead but with guns instead of rotting brains, and the comparisons are valid. The success of a heist in Payday 2 is dependant on a strong team unit, but the game’s co-op mechanics are impressively designed nevertheless.
One thing that has changed in the transition from the first game to the second is the inclusion of a fully functional stealth system. While before you had no choice but to summon half of an army in the pursuit of immeasurable wealth, Payday 2 gives you the option of completing a heist with little to no opposition whatsoever…if you do it right. Cameras can be disabled, guards thrown into dumpsters, electronics jammed, and if all done correctly, you can make off with the contents of a bank vault without having to even do anything beyond restraining civilians and keeping a vigilant eye. It may be difficult to properly pull off a stealth-only heist, but the sense of exhilaration and achievement when you do is just as rewarding as that mound of money you just stole without breaking a sweat.
But even if you do decide to dispense with the stealth and opt for an all-out blaze of gunfire, Payday 2’s gunplay makes it feel every bit as fulfilling. Weapons now feel weighty and plentiful, and can be customised with a wide variety of attachments, such as suppressors, scopes, magazines, and more. Unlocking said attachments is a lengthy process that requires repeated play–after the successful completion of a heist, players are given the choice between three playing cards, with each card offering a random prize in the form of attachments, mask customisation options, and cash bonuses–but such a system adds to the longevity of Payday 2. It’s probably not the best way to implement the unlock process for in-game items, considering you can collect multiple copies of the same item, but it encourages continued play.
One area where Payday 2 especially excels, however, is in the four surprisingly deep and extensive skill trees. Levelling up rewards players with a skill point, which can be spent on any of the skill trees in order to unlock new abilities for your character. The system is so well integrated that it’s difficult to label Payday 2 as a pure-bred FPS game; it’s more of an FPS-RPG hybrid. It works incredibly well. Having to spend money as well as skill points in order to purchase items on each branch of the tree is slightly irritating, however, given how cyclopean the cost of some of the higher abilities is, but it really adds a whole other dimension to Payday 2 that prevents it from being just another FPS to throw onto the pile.
While Payday 2 takes huge steps forward in several areas over its predecessor, it unfortunately takes many more back. One of the game’s most notable problems is how reliant it is on you playing with other, human players. If you aren’t, or can’t, the friendly AI that takes their place is, to put it simply, some of the worst instances of AI I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Not only do they simply refuse to pick up or collect important items from the environment, but they are also prone to wandering off into the middle of gunfire. Because Payday 2 does not allow you to play locally with other players via splitscreen, you absolutely need an internet connection in order to experience the true beauty of the game. Playing it without exposes nothing but the rotten core deep within.
Also gone is the simple, easy-to-navigate server browser of The Heist, and of many other online shooters on the market. Payday 2 employs the use of crime.net, a system that randomly creates matches with random difficulties and payout opportunities and displays them on a screen for you to select with an on-screen mouse cursor. You can’t specifically choose which heist and difficulty you want to play; you have to wait to see if crime.net will create a match of that type for you. It’s a frustrating and clunky system that quite frankly hurts even more considering the simplified process the previous game employed. Quite why developers Overkill decided to over-complicate something that needn’t be such a painstaking process is truly baffling.
Another new inclusion to Payday 2 is the safe house–an area of the game you can travel to that allows you to test your weapons, see the money you’ve earned thus far and the like. It could’ve been an interesting feature and one that actually makes use of the offshore account money that continuously builds without you ever being able to use it, but it’s limited to the point where it’s utterly unnecessary. Overkill have confirmed that safe house customisation is to be included in the future, and was supposed to be in the game at launch but was left out due to time constraints, but in its current state it’s a feature that serves absolutely no distinguishable use at all.
While Payday 2 severely lacks in several areas, it does manages to do a decent enough job in the technological department. The game’s visual prowess is nothing spectacular, albeit with strong daylight lighting effects, but it’s certainly not depreciative to the game. The same can also be said of the game’s audio. Weapons sound much stronger and varied compared to The Heist. An area where the game does do brilliantly, however, is the soundtrack. Thumping music kicks in when the action becomes frantic and calms down once the enemies begin temporarily receding, lending considerably to the pacing and intense nature of a firefight and inducing a sense of relaxation when it’s required.
Whether or not you can experience everything that Payday 2 has to offer depends on two things: whether you have people to play with that can function well as a team, and whether you have an internet connection. If you can’t satisfy both of those things then Payday 2 should probably be avoided. Its utter failings in providing semi-intelligent AI to replace human players might be easily ignored on the lower difficulties but becomes too much of an obstacle the higher you go. And because survival absolutely depends on the strength of your team unit, anything less than an exemplary team effort is likely to end a heist in dismal failure, and therefore frustration.
But if you can satisfy both of those things, Payday 2 is a fantastic co-op shooter with a smorgasbord of content for you to play over and over again. The times when you overcome excruciating odds and achieve victory elicit a feeling of pure exhilaration that would be hard to be beaten by any other game. For such a low price the game offers so much in the way of well designed co-op mechanics and adrenaline-fuelled moments of brilliance. Is it the best co-op experience on the market? Not quite. But it’s close.Payday 2 Review (PS3, Xbox 360, PC),