“xXx420smokerxXx, make your way over to the hotdog stand. Try to stay outta sight, but keep an eye on the cop over there. ladykillah69, go down the alley and let me know what you see. SSJ2Gohan, you’re with me outside the front of the shop. Nobody goes until I give the word.” I hear my comms crackle and a gruff voice pipes in: “Ra1nb0wDa5h, I got one pig watching the rear of the building. I can see another in the back room guarding the safe; the manager’s back there too.”
“Alright,” I say. “Lets do this quick and quiet, and get outta here before they know what hit ‘em. Masks on. Go.”
A chorus rings out, comprised of silenced gunfire, screams of terror, and shouts of “get the fuck down, now!” What follows will either be a perfectly executed smash-and-grab, or will devolve into an all-out firefight with wave after wave of FBI agents. Planning is all well and good, but even the best plans fall victim to chance or poor implementation. Only time will tell.
Of course, casing a joint and plotting out your course of action is just the tip of the iceberg in Payday 2. Heists begin by selecting one of any number of jobs some shadowy ne’er-do-well is willing to pay you to complete. The jobs vary in difficulty, and tougher acts of thievery are appropriately rewarded with significantly greater amounts of loot. After you’ve selected which crime-of-the-century you’d like to commit, you and your accomplices have the opportunity to equip whatever gadgetry and weapons your four-man team feel will be needed, aided by a pre-mission briefing that gives you an idea of what to expect.
Gizmos run the gamut from C4 charges, which can be used blow open safes or as defensive proximity mines, to ECM jammers which will knock out surveillance cameras, to diamond-tipped saws which make quick work of security doors. Though jobs can be completed without the use of any such paraphernalia, they make completing tasks a much quicker and easier affair. Plus, they have the added benefit of making you feel like a goddamn master-thief when you bring exactly the right combination of tools and the wits to use them.
If you’re not interested in the “quick and easy” route, or if your careful planning takes a turn for the worse because one of your less-than-professional teammates gets spotted by some nosy doughnut-muncher, Payday 2 has the standard array of armaments from which to choose. Assault rifles, shotguns, pistols… just about any hardware you can imagine, replete with a bevvy of attachments and modifications, is at your disposal to help you reduce a few dozen law enforcement officers to a fine pink mist. The gunplay doesn’t bring anything new or groundbreaking to the genre, but it controls exceptionally well with either a controller or a keyboard and mouse.
What started out as a good idea hindered by mediocre implementation in Payday has transformed into an engaging, smart and fun experience. Blending mechanics from horde-mode cooperative shooters with light strategy and puzzle-solving elements, tossing in an RPG-esque progression system, and wrapping it all up in a Hollywood heist movie aesthetic, Payday 2 is one of the most unique FPSs I’ve ever had the joy of playing.
Good level design, sprinkled with a hint of randomness, does an excellent job of keeping the game from feeling repetitive even after multiple playthroughs. The 12 currently available missions are not procedurally-generated per se, but they are dynamic and rarely play out exactly the same way twice. The police officers on patrol near the hot-dog stand in the example above, for instance, may not appear the next time you attempt that job. Alleyways accessible in one playthrough may be blocked off in the next. Safes (and their valuable contents) may spawn in different locations, or not at all. Even with pre-mission intel, you never know exactly what you’re going to be dealing with until you’ve got boots on the ground. These changes, though they may not sound like much, keep players from finding the “one true way” to beat a level and force you to change your tactics constantly.
More advanced heists consist of multiple phases which are also subject to randomization. One mission, for example, has you holding off law enforcement officers while your team attempts to cook a batch of meth, then delivering said meth in exchange for information about a rival gang, and finally using that information to raid the gang’s headquarters. Depending upon your performance in the initial steps, the latter stages can play out completely differently. Fail to deliver enough meth to the buyers and they may refuse to give you the intel you need for the mission’s finale, forcing you to acquire it through alternative methods.
Most levels can be completed either with some well-planned stealth, or with hundreds and hundreds of bullets. The four distinct skill-trees, coupled with the large assortment of weapons, tools and character-customization items, nicely complement the game’s play-the-way-you-want design. Character progression happens slowly, but each individual skill-point you allocate can have a drastic impact on your abilities, so the decisions you’ll make regarding your skills and equipment feel weighty.
Payday 2 is a multiplayer game by design, whether your allies be computer controlled or human. Like many cooperative titles, the game is at its best when you have a regular group of friends to play with. Not only is it easier to coordinate efforts when you’re familiar with your accomplices, but building your characters to play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses adds a cooperative aspect to the metagame as well. If you’re playing offline or don’t have a full four-person crew, you’re going to be at a disadvantage when it comes time to pull off a heist. AI controlled teammates will be helpful when a mission goes south and the bullets start flying, but they’re not designed to help with hostage management, looting, or any number of the other factors that make this game so special. Playing with friends, or at the very least with randomly assigned squadmates online, is the way this game deserves to be played. For this reason alone I cannot recommend Payday 2 to anybody who doesn’t want, or doesn’t have the ability, to play online.
Graphically, the game looks a bit dated. Character models are also recycled regularly — it’s common to see two or more identical bystanders just few feet apart from each other. Though these shortcomings can put a damper on the game’s immersion, they never felt to me to be much more than a minor nuisance amid the flurry of gunfire and hurling of cash bags.
Also along the lines of “minor nuisance” is the fact that you can only have a single character profile to customize. Players are able to respec their avatars at the cost of in-game currency, but it would have been much more convenient to be able to have a few different characters to choose from. This problem will be exacerbated if more than one person is going to be playing on the same user profile.
If you do have access to both the internet and friends, and if you’ve ever fantasized about taking part in a Robert DeNiro movie-style robbery, a la Heat or The Score, Payday 2 is the game you have been waiting for. So go grab a copy, load it up, walk straight into that coffee shop and shout “everybody be cool, this is a robbery!” Or just go all Mr. Blonde and start killing people.