Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested)
Developer: Overkill Software
Publisher: 505 Games
It's possible to play PayDay 2 stealthily. Quietly. Subtly. Taking feedback from the original game, Overkill have ensured that each of its 26-odd heists start with a lengthy casing section that lets you plan your caper, place useful supplies and eyeball on-site security. Hopping onto the latest production build with three other journalists at a recent preview event, I studied a relatively lightly-staffed inner city bank before concocting a foolproof master plan: pick the locks, go in quietly, drill into the vault and exit before anyone knew we were even there. In, out, easy money, we thought.
"I give you one minute," Overkill director David Goldfarb ominously intoned as we donned our lurid customised masks.
It turns out that this was a vote of confidence rather than an embarrassing put-down. No sooner had we entered the bank than a civilian screamed, causing the cashier to raise the alarm. All hell quickly broke loose in an orgy of gunfire, tear gas, howled threats and a desperate run back to the getaway van as SWAT teams and Snipers rained fire down on the street, and my small private army of stockholm syndrome-suffering security guards covered our escape. PayDay 2 is one of the most unpredictable and randomised shooters you'll ever play - and if the latest build is anything to go by, it could well be one of the most exciting cooperative games of 2013.
Variety, randomisation and an inordinate amount of content are the order of the day here. In stark contrast to the somewhat flimsy original PayDay, its successor offers no less than 26 missions including bank jobs, cocaine smuggling, art gallery heists and convenience store knock-offs. Levels brim with alternate routes to explore, rooftops to cover, numerous entrances and security networks, all of which have unique vulnerabilities to be exploited during your casing session. Once the gloves come off and the masks come down, however, an inordinate amount of randomisation kicks in: everything from the number and position of security guards to camera locations, police responses, civilian placement, the amount of optional loot to snag and even your getaway van.
It's a uniquely dynamic cooperative experience that absolutely demands tight headset communication as you discuss high-level strategies... then immediately throw them out the window as the heist descends into a chaotic and unpredictable storm of bullets, smoke and shouting. Teams absolutely have to work together to succeed, meaning that you'll almost certainly want to bring a few friends along for the ride. Or, better yet, set up a system link or LAN session.
Rather than standalone missions, heists are organised into mini-campaigns within the sprawling CRIMENET online service (which can be set to offline should you be willing to trust bots to watch your back), which resembles a map of the city populated by various missions for shady underworld denizens (and the occasional senator). Hosts can spend their cash on assets to make missions easier, such as sniper support or gadget drops, while your performance in one mission will have a massive knock-on effect throughout the rest of the job. As an example, if your opening heist descends into utter carnage, you may be forced into a desperate defensive mission as police knock your getaway van off the road - or subsequently ambushed by a tactical unit during a dead drop that would otherwise be safe and routine. Again, PayDay 2's dynamic mission design ensures that no two sessions are ever the same, and you'll never know exactly what to expect from each upcoming caper.
As you complete heists (or totally bungle them), you'll gradually earn experience to put towards skill points in four separate trees. Enforcers predictably excel at dealing and resisting damage; skilled with high-calibre weaponry, explosives and heavy armour. Ghosts pride themselves on stealth, capable of picking locks and disabling cameras. If you're more technically-minded, Technicians lay down sentry guns and communication scramblers to keep enemies guessing. Alongside straightforward buffs to damage and reload speed with certain weapons, more esoteric skills allow you greater efficiency with deployable gadgets or consumables, and can be mixed and matched to create truly custom classes.
Personally, however, I'd recommend the Mastermind skill tree as the most fun you can have with a mask on. Rather than relying on boring brute force, this charismatic crime lord excels at dominating civilians and enemies, capable of convincing bystanders to join the cause. Holding the right bumper allows you to bellow threats at police offers and innocents alike, after which you can sweet-talk them into reviving you or even returning fire against their allies with the promise of a cut of the loot. That they'll never get, naturally. I managed to con a shotgun-toting SWAT Team operative into turning coat, and laughed wholeheartedly as he garrisoned the front door of a museum against his former squadmates. Regardless of your playstyle, be sure to spec a few points into Mastermind for much hilarity.
If there's a custom class build for every taste, there's a dozen guns for any occasion. Cash now actually acts as money rather than an analogue for experience, and Overkill have packed this sequel with a dizzying wealth of weapons to buy with your ill-gotten gains. A host of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and noisier weaponry can all be customised with numerous silencers, scopes, ammo types, stocks and cosmetic flourishes, many of which make them more or less difficult to conceal. Various classes of body armour can be equipped, packing unique benefits and drawbacks. Loads of consumable gadgets are on offer (hint: bring ammo. Bring LOTS of ammo). Dozens of masks can be pimped out with different materials and emblems to suit your particular predilections. There's an enormity, an embarrassment, of content on offer here, which players won't be able to max out without potentially hundreds of hours of play. Our preview build came pre-loaded with the equivalent of 60 hours of currency, and we could barely make a dent.
PayDay 2, then, looks set to be an example of a sequel done right, a game that genuinely builds on the original concept by offering more, better, and then a whole bunch more for good measure. And an achievement that mocks Call Of Duty: Ghosts' intelligent fish. There's still plenty of polish and optimisation ahead, as evidenced by a few crashes and bricked debug dev kits, but PayDay 2 could well become one of the most enjoyable games of the summer should you have three partners in crime to run with.
PayDay 2 is out next month on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.