Three minutes. In three minutes we will have made off with a great lump sum and the world outside this bank will be unaware, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. The thermal drill can be heard in the back-room, slowly pushing its way into the safe of this bank. The security guards are neutralised and tied, the civilians are on the ground and being marshaled by one of the crew. We are so close I can almost feel the money in my hand. Suddenly an alarm is tripped and the police have been alerted and are already in transit. We took out every security camera, didn’t we? The police and SWAT teams sieging the building would indicate that we weren’t thorough enough. Next time though, next time it will be the perfect robbery. This is Payday 2.
Developing a cooperative online game is a task that would strike fear into the heart of most, add the genre of FPS into that and it becomes that little bit more difficult. Thankfully Overkill Software have already had the groundwork laid out with the original Payday: The Heist in 2011 and with a strong premise to work from this latest iteration delivers. For the uninitiated, Payday 2 sees you as part of a four-man crew, you will receive missions that progress from simple bank heists to elaborate gallery robberies.
Straight off the bat it must be recommended that Payday 2 should be played online and with friends if possible, the gulf between the single-player experience and the online cooperative one is one of a huge distance. In single-player you will be able to take it at your own pace and learn the ropes but the game will feel sterile, there is no depth to how you can manage your computer AI compatriots and their inactivity will inevitably drive you to distraction. On more than one occasion a crew member stood across from the building we were meant to rob and did nothing; even when the police arrived and a shootout ensued they remained motionless. Worse than that the police seemed unmoved by the masked gunman standing five feet from the car they were hiding behind. The single-player is all sorts of illusion breaking, and you will be better served diving into an online game to get a real feel for how a game plays out and experience the dynamism and unexpected nature of human intelligence.
On starting your career you will be given an option of opening up a skill tree from one of four classes in which to develop your career with the player choosing from Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician and Ghost. Each class comes with their own traits that will have both individual and team buffs. The Mastermind class will see you become a situational expert, helping your team and managing the crowds with consummate ease. As a Mastermind you can intimidate enemies that other classes cannot, forcing them to surrender to you or by unlocking the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ perk there is a chance that a nearby civilian will pick you up if you are downed by gunfire. Alternatively you can go down the Ghost route and help your team from the shadows, you will be able to pick locks faster and even deal more damage with silenced weapons depending on the perks you unlock.
On finishing a mission you are assessed on a number of factors and you will receive a cut of the overall bounty that you extracted from the not-so-willing previous owners of said bounty and you will also receive XP points. This time around XP is not the currency with which you buy weapon upgrades and the like - that is saved for hard cash - instead it is used to unlock paths within your chosen skill tree. On finishing a mission you will also be given three face down playing cards to choose from and when the one you pick is turned over you will receive either money, a weapon upgrade or a mask.
There is a surprising amount of depth in Payday 2 and as such your character will very much feel like yours, even beyond dressing with the custom masks and so forth you will feel a proper connection to your character as he becomes truly customised. There is a noticeable difference in a balanced crew than one with multiples of one class. It might be nice and quiet having Ghosts stealthily taking the target building apart in a quiet fashion but should the proverbial hit the fan you will wish you had an Enforcer on board to deal out some damage. At the absolute worst this imbalance can be a tad frustrating but ultimately it serves you with the experience of having to adapt to a situation and that is something that will become invaluable.
The missions themselves will play out in a variety of ways and are dynamic enough that you will have to pay attention to your surroundings. Security cameras that were in one position in your last round may not be in that position now, or that character who had the key that you need may not have it now. It was essential that the game got this dynamic element right as the central conceit typically lends itself to mastery by simple repetition, thankfully that is not the case here. In each game the first phase will be the ‘casing’ phase, in which you will walk around freely with your mask off looking for entry points, security cameras and guards. A lot of the games we played had people donning their mask immediately and wading in, and while it might still get the job done your rewards will be lower. It pays to be methodical, to assess your surroundings and plan accordingly. This is also where the benefit of online play and communication comes into focus, success will live and die by communication and if you find yourself in a team that delegates responsibilities such as safe-breaking and crowd control you will feel part of a well oiled machine.
Visually Payday 2 will not win any awards as it verges on the side of functional rather than impressive, even on a higher end rig it doesn’t blow any minds. It is a shame that there is a manufactured feel about the NPCs within the game as the sense of place is constantly at risk of coming apart. Walking into a building only to have blank replicated faces staring aimlessly and having no sense of purpose removes any sense of actually being in a bank, club or gallery. It is by no means a deal breaker and if the job goes south the civilians will all end up on the floor and of little concern once tied up. Perhaps if we see a third installment we could see a concerted effort on the visual side of the house as it is a game that definitely feels better than the sum of its parts.
What is really striking about Payday 2 is all the little details that the development team have dropped in that make the experience something that is both clever and memorable. Filling a loot bag for the first time and picking it up could have been a perfunctory task but here the camera angle tilts as the bag on your shoulder weighs you to one side. Trying to move past the police while carrying a bag can be a tense and slow experience but the overall effect is brilliant. You can also be taken into custody while trying to complete a job, your criminal overseer Bain will then negotiate with the police to have you returned in exchange for a hostage. There is a plethora of these little touches throughout the game that lend to the experience in a way that would see the game suffer without them being included. There is a great level of confidence with the vision for this game and in nearly all elements it delivers.
There is something attractive about a perfect heist, getting in and out with all of the goods and none of the attention is a taste that is sweet and satisfying in equal measure. Overkill Software have nearly perfected this wonderful recipe and they are definitely on track to creating something exceptional. Behind the sterile single-player mode and the less than impressive graphics there is a deep and exciting experience here. Grab your mask and your gun, look and think before you act and get the cash. Simple. Isn’t it?