How is it that a scene in Saints Row 4 about a fake alien drug is enough to incur the wrath of Australia’s classification board, yet a scene in Payday 2 where you’re cooking up a few fresh batches of speed while you murder-kill hundreds of law enforcement officers doesn’t even rate a mention? It makes absolutely no sense, but it’s a bloody good thing, as to miss out on this virtual heist simulator would be criminal.
Before we dig into what makes this such a fantastic game for the price, we should point out that it’s 100% co-op. If you’re one of those strange loners who doesn’t experience extra joy when playing their favourite games with a few friends, then this is not the game for you. Yes, Payday 2 does have an offline mode where your three co-op teammates are imbued with the intelligence of a carrot, but this is intended as a tool to become familiar with the various maps rather than to actually beat them. Unlike certain other reviews, we’re not marking down Payday 2 for having shit singleplayer, because it has always been promoted as a co-op game. To do so would be like marking down Skyrim because it’s a rubbish flight simulator.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s talk about why Payday 2 is shaping up to be the most enjoyable co-op experience of 2013. The premise is simple – you’re a crook who has to take on various heists, be it cleaning out a bank, assassinating rival cartel bosses or stealing expensive paintings from a museum. Considering that cops n’ robbers is a staple pastime for every male boy in his younger years, and the incredible popularity of heist films such as Heat, Point Break and Dog Day Afternoon, it’s bizarre that there aren’t dozens of games doing the same thing. But they’re not, which leaves Payday 2 as basically the only decent heist-simulator on the market, making some of its more painful flaws slightly easier to justify.
Like the first game, you’ll head into each mission alongside three other human players. Choosing a mission is done via the crime.net, a map-style interface that is filled with pulsing dots representing each type of heist. As you level up, more heists become available. However, finding the heist you want to do, at the exact difficulty level right for your character, is about as enjoyable as being tasered by a SWAT member. The jobs seem to show up at random intervals, so you can spend several minutes waiting for just the right mission to appear, before eventually giving up and heading into something else. We can understand why crime.net was included, as it tries to add a bit of excitement to a boring old server browser, but ultimately it fails at the intended job of getting players into the mission as quickly as possible.
Once you’ve progressed past the painful mission selection screen, things start to improve. A rather vague mission briefing is given, and players can see which weapons and gadgets each member is bringing. This is the time to plan out your heist, and good teams will spend a few minutes chatting about how the job is going to go down. I only wish that the developers had included a detailed map at this stage, which could be drawn on by the players. Rainbow Six offered this functionality over a decade ago, so there’s no technical reason not to allow gamers to draw giant cocks all over bank blueprints.
Not that having hugely detailed plans would guarantee mission success. Each level is chock full of dynamic elements that change every time you play. Vaults, cops, guards, cameras and security rooms all pop up in different places, forcing players to spend the first few minutes of a mission scoping out the scene. It’s here that the refined visibility system comes into play. Your visibility alters depending on the gear you’re wearing – if you’ve got a huge piece of body armour on with a hefty AK stuffed inside the front, civilians probably won’t think you’re a nice person, and will call the cops. However, if you stroll into the bank wearing a suit, with a small carbine hidden in your jacket, you can practically step on a guard’s toes before he’ll get narky.
Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to pull the job off, it’s time to put your mask on and head into action mode. The first two minutes will determine how the rest of the mission will go; if the four of you operate like a well-oiled murder machine, there’s a good chance you’ll bring the heist under control without the cops ever being alerted. On the other hand, if you let civilians run off or start firing your hand cannon on the open street, expect the boys in blue to arrive in minutes.
Stealth is much more viable this time around than the first game, but it’s still incredibly difficult to pull off, especially for beginners who lack many of the upgrades that can make it easier. In over 20 hours of play I’ve only successfully completed a handful of missions without the cops arriving, but it could be due to the fact that I’ve avoided any YouTube tutorials that show how to do each mission. I’d recommend the same to you - if you’re one of those strange people who enjoys the rewarding sensation of actually figuring something out for yourself, stay away from online guides.
When the shit inevitably hits the fan, the greatest improvement over the original comes into play – combat. The first game’s wonky gunplay felt light and unsatisfying, but the sequel nails it, with a much meatier, more impactful representation of a firefight. Guns feel terrific, with their excellent animations matched by brutal sound effects, and the spray of blood and ragdoll of a downed enemy never gets old. A little more destruction of the environments would have been nice, but this ain’t no $100 million Battlefield game built by 300 developers. Enemy AI is fantastic, with cops using cover effectively, and diving or rolling to get away from incoming fire. Excellent enemy spawn positioning accounts for much of the challenge, with the pigs often busting in from windows or skylights, using smoke grenades for cover. Every so often they’ll do something stupid, like not see a player standing right behind them, but for the most part the AI puts up a brave fight, especially on the higher difficulty levels.
The presentation of these firefights is a bit of a mixed bag. Most environments look fine from the outside, but their blocky designs start to fall apart indoors, where the lack of detail can be a little underwhelming. Having said that, I’m a huge graphics whore, and never felt that the game looked ugly. It’s no beautiful Battlefield 3, but then again it’s also no fugly Spec Ops: The Line. Helping to balance out the functional visuals is a totally kick ass soundscape. The music in particular is simply phenomenal, ratcheting up perfectly to match the tempo of the on-screen action. Gunshots are suitably meaty and raw, and the reverb effects change nicely depending on whether you’re inside or out.
If you’re lucky enough to complete a mission – which is actually rather hard, even on the lowest difficulty level – you’ll be awarded with cash and XP, both used on the final major improvement over the first game, customisation. Each player can now build out their character into one of four trees; the Enforcer is the walking tank, the Technician can crack safes quickly, the Mastermind helps support the team while the Ghost is a master of stealth. The armoury is suitably massive, but the upgrade system for weapon mods is kind of rubbish. Rather than simply using your cash to buy gadgets for your favourite weapons, you have to first unlock them via a random loot drop game at the end of each mission. It’s frustrating and stupid, as you can wait weeks before a silencer drops, and hopefully this system gets patched out soon, as it’s arguably the biggest complaint of the community.
There is one other major complaint at the moment, and that’s the lack of heists. There are around ten heists at launch, though some of these are spread over multiple levels. However, some of these levels are straight copies from other heists, which feels a little cheap. The good news is that the dynamic elements found on each level, along with several different difficulty modes, means that it’s possible to play a single heist dozens of times before it gets old.
When things go right and you’re walking out the vault with half a million in unmarked currency, not a cop in sight, Payday 2 is one of the most satisfying co-op games of all time. Yet even when your plans explode in a mess of buckshot and tear gas, it delivers a level of co-op excitement that is hard to find. Sure, there are a few rough edges in the form of crime.net and the weapon mod systems, and the lack of content won’t help it’s longevity. But at the end of the day this budget title delivers an experience that betters many of its full-priced competitors, and with a year’s worth of DLC in the pipeline, Payday 2 will keep your career as a criminal going for quite some time. Well, at least until somebody complains to the Classification office and gets it banned in Australia…