Heists are the best. Mixing brains and brawn, outsmarting anyone in your way, and making off with the score while the fools you just robbed are left scratching their heads is appealing to me in ways I don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s the slickness of it all; a sting pulled off well is like a large-scale magic trick where the prestige is a lot of money being stolen. For the longest time, I’ve been waiting for videogames to properly iterate on the heist formula. Payday: The Heist was an interesting first step, but it’s up to Payday 2 to deliver on the first game’s promise.
Payday 2 may lack a real story, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have stories to tell. Take a seemingly rote jewelry store heist. My group had lost control of the situation quite a long time ago, despite our best attempts to incapacitate the guards and civilians without triggering the jewelry store’s alarms. The getaway van was on the other side of the road, filled with just under the required amount of valuables. Between sweet freedom and our ragtag gang, stood every cop in Washington. Each officer was armed to the teeth and itching to put us down. No matter how many we shot, two more appeared to avenge their comrades. Our ammunition reserves were quickly depleting, and the cops were pushing further up the street. And then they called in the snipers. Within minutes, I was the last robber left standing. No ammo, low on health, I holed up in the back room while I waited for my allies to be released from custody. Even though we ultimately failed, it was a prime example of how fluid these heists can be.
You’ve got a set amount of job types to pick from. Bank heists, jewelry store thefts, an elaborate frame job involving paintings, a four-store simultaneous robbery, cooking your own meth during a police raid, and a couple more that I won’t spoil for you. Although you’ll have an idea of the general framework of each job after about four hours, there’s a decent amount of randomization that will help keep you on your toes long after the novelty of each scheme has worn off. (Robbing four stores at once never stopped being cool, if you ask me) For example, when you’re robbing a bank, the layout and amount of loot you can nab varies between playthroughs. Harder jobs offer some enemy type variation: a regular job will just put you up against SWAT, but as you climb the difficulty curve, you’ll have to contend with armored FBI agents, cops armed with riot shields, and heavily armored FBI agents.
On the lower difficulties, there’s a chance you could pull off a job yourself if you’re very good, but anything higher than ‘Hard’ requires a full team of human allies, preferably with microphones. A well-rounded team is also nigh essential; if you have at least three different classes on a squad, you can do almost anything. Players can pick between the Ghost (a character designed for stealth), the Enforcer (the tank), the Mastermind (situation control and support), and the Technician (a tech-based class that eventually gets access to a sentry gun). Each class feels distinct, and getting a skill that you’ve been eyeing for hours is just as satisfying as it is in most games with a leveling mechanic. Unfortunately, your AI partners are just generic unleveled criminals without any distinguishing abilities. No ammo or health bags, no zipties, nothing. They also lack any self-preservation instincts, and never help you move the score to the escape van. When you’ve got to move 4 bags of money across a street crawling with the fuzz, it would be really swell if they would pick up the slack.
The civilian and AI routines are equally flawed. I received many a penalty for “killing civilians” simply because they ran into the line of fire. I understand keeping hostages under control is part of the robbery experience, but what sane person would run across a hall where police were exchanging bullet fire with homicidal career criminals? Sure, this is a game that looks and feels like a budget title at times, and I don’t expect incredibly detailed subroutines in a $30 game, but killing bystanders nets you a fairly sizable penalty, especially in a game that requires a lot of grinding.
If you want to afford new equipment, masks, or even skills, that grinding is mandatory. Roll up with a crew, find some really hard but short jobs, and you’ll have a decent stack of dead presidents in about an hour. But even then, a single new gun or a skill high up on your preferred skill tree will really cost you. Initially, I misunderstood how the leveling system worked: I thought players could choose to spend money to upgrade or use skill points. Turns out I was wrong; you need both a certain amount of money and the necessary points to unlock a skill.
In any other game, that would annoy me, and I feel it’s worth noting since that might be a huge turn-off for some people. But here, where pulling off the perfect job gives off such a rush, it’s just a small issue. A particular standout was an art heist I took with three other players. We snuck through the gallery undetected, taking out guards, deactivating cameras, and stealing paintings, almost as if we were real criminals. And then someone got caught, bars slammed over the remaining paintings, security doors cut us off from each other, and the police started to break through the walls. I felt like a master thief when the job was going smoothly. When it wasn’t, and we got away clean, I felt like I had just smashed insurmountable odds. It’s too bad that every job I ever took ended in a shootout, though. A competent, even quite exciting shootout, mind you. But I would’ve liked to actually do some heisting.
When I reached the point where I had played enough (there isn’t a campaign, you just keep playing jobs until you don’t want to play any more) I couldn’t help shake the feeling that Payday 2 could’ve been so much more. The problematic AI is a real issue, and some more depth during the capers – like a police negotiation mechanic, or an undercover player – would’ve easily catapulted this game into a whole other category. As it stands, it’s a fun multiplayer shooter with quite the hook for crime enthusiasts. If you have some like-minded friends with microphones looking for a new game to play together, you should run out and buy Payday 2 as soon as you can. Even if you don’t, it’s still worth a shot despite the flaws you’d expect from a budget title.
An Unclean Getaway
Payday 2 is a really fun multiplayer shooter, but it doesn't have much to offer beyond that.