If heist films have taught us anything, it’s that crime has its low-level knuckleheads, but also its consummate professionals. Any idiot can put on a balaclava and rob a dairy (unfortunately), but there’s a certain suave mystique to be found in the snappy-two piece suits and ticking stopwatches at the other end of the scale.
Co-op shooter Payday 2 is happy to leave mugging passers-by for a few bucks to small-timers like Niko Belic; instead it puts up to four players in the shoes of an experienced, no-nonsense and hard-hitting team of professional thieves as they pursue their chosen vocations by executing various big-end crimes around the city of Washington DC.
Arriving in the capital after their exploits in the first game, the Payday crew of Wolf, Chains, Dallas, and Hoxton are set up with a safe house and then quickly get down to doing what they do best: relieving people of their valuables. Missions take the form of straight cash robberies from the likes of banks, jewellery stores, and nightclubs, but sometimes the crew are called upon to relieve rival gangsters of their weapons, safeguard a shipment of drugs from the Feds, or even break into an FBI building.
Some missions necessitate a guns-blazing approach from the outset, but many afford an opportunity for stealth. The crew can put on their masks, charge through the front door, tell everyone to hit the deck, and start smashing display cases, but that’s going to draw the rapid attachment of local law enforcement. Keep those masks off a bit longer and pose as a window shopper while spotting the location of cameras and security guards, and it’s possible some precious extra time will be bought for a drill to work on a safe before the police are even notified.
Make no mistake, though; at some point the police probably will get notified. While a completely stealthy approach is a welcome new option in Payday 2, it is hard. The position of safes, security rooms, vault doors, and cameras change each playthrough of a level, so it’s difficult to memorise the perfect approach.
Smaller details also affect success: bulky body armour immediately raises suspicions, unattended civilians eventually get up the gumption to call the police on their mobiles, and the radios of incapacitated guards must be answered to preserve the appearance of a normal day at the bank. It’s all-too-easy to make the mistake that brings it all crashing down around your ears, but the strong desire to pull off that flawless heist and the little moments of ninja prowess that are achieved from mission to mission make persisting with stealth attempts worthwhile.
Once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s all on. While first responders are typically hapless beat cops with little chance against the heavily-armed players, SWAT teams are never far away and will keep coming in waves until the crew are sitting contentedly in the getaway vehicle or bleeding out on the street. Some gamers may be uneasy with the idea of a game that has them gunning down dozens upon dozens of upstanding peace officers, and it’s fair to say that Payday 2 is not the game for them, although it does punish civilian deaths.
Taking hostages by tying the hands of civilians can increase the time between police assault waves somewhat, and civvies can also be traded for arrested teammates, but nonetheless it seems that the Washington PD does not have “negotiation” in its book of tactics. Instead, the boys in blue hurl themselves forward in lemming-like ways and numbers, to the point where running out of ammo is a frequent player concern.
While their tactics seem a bit WWI in nature, the police can certainly shoot straight, and are bright enough to use multiple entry points and snipers. Combined with the great sound design and satisfying gunplay, this keeps battles chaotic and exciting. In the midst of holding off the police, players must also tend to other things such as drills, which have a tendency to jam at random intervals.
It’s typical for what started off in the planning stage as the perfect 45-second bank heist to end up with the sort of scenario in which one player is desperately trying to restart the drill that will finally get the team through to the precious safety deposit boxes, while another tries to revive a downed colleague on the floor, and the fourth plugs away ineffectually with the last clip in his sidearm at the impenetrable riot shield approaching from the other side of the office.
Greed, too, becomes a gameplay factor – players can opt to double back and steal more than a mission requires, giving them more to spend on new weapons, special abilities, and custom masks between robberies. However, going back into the bank for that extra bag can often be the difference between Cristal at the safe house and 20 to life in the big house.
It’s these kinds of moments – and the triumph of somehow surviving them – that can make gameplay in Payday 2 so exhilarating. Limping the last few metres to the getaway van under a bag of loot and a hail of gunfire might end in a fist-pumping success, or an almost-as-memorable failure, with the last member of the team gunned down close enough to reach out and touch the towbar.
When gameplay is this solid and entertaining, complaints mostly end up filed under “niggles”, but there are a few worth noting. Although the sound design is great, graphical presentation is best described as functional, and dirty old suspension-of-disbelief-destroying invisible walls are to be found in a few places.
In addition, there are few missions available to low-level players, and only the hardcore will grind long enough to unlock many of the available weapons, tools, and character abilities. The latter is of particular annoyance given the breadth of approach options these open up.
However, the biggest problem with Payday 2 is its singleplayer experience. While AI teammates acquit themselves relatively well in the gunplay department, they’re of no use when it comes to a coordinated stealth attempt, and they inexplicably refuse to pick up loot bags. This leaves the player to carry all the mission-critical loot to the van, and the multiple trips required make typical missions exponentially more difficult. That alone is enough to make the singleplayer an almost completely nonviable proposition.
In fairness though, Payday 2 has clearly been designed as a multiplayer experience through and through, and it’s there that it shines. Players can jump in with Internet randoms and have a blast, but as with all criminal enterprises, it’s always best to work with people you can trust. Grab the old crew, gear up, and start putting the perfect heist together – just make sure you pack plenty of ammo for inevitable moment when it all turns to custard.