Developer: Overkill Software
Publisher: 505 Games
The quality of PayDay 2 depends on the company you keep.
It's a blank canvas for riotous cooperative shenanigans, a selection of unpredictable randomised heists hewn out of an eccentric engine that's never quite fit for task. Your four-man crew will case banks, jewellery shops, art galleries, FBI headquarters and more in search of the big score; planning the perfect silent hit that, nine times out of ten, goes all to hell in the space of a single gunshot. Pure stealth descends into madcap improvised defence as you wait for a thermal drill to finish its interminable task, SWAT teams breaching through the windows and civilians screaming in the thick dust, followed by a breathless dash to the getaway car as bullets thud into your immaculate two-piece suit. Equal parts stealthy planning and insane fun factory, no heist is ever the same and tight teamwork is rewarded with a big fat payout.
Conversely, you'll need to roll the dice if you decide to team up with randomers - and played solo it's akin to purgatory. In effect, PayDay 2 will either be the best or worst game you'll buy this summer.
Or more accurately: it will be the best game that you and three friends buy this summer.
A hilariously pointless tutorial (that's probably best avoided, to be honest) introduces you to Crime.net, a messy menu of dynamically-spawning heists taking place around Washington DC. As a career criminal, you'll engage in these hits for fun and profit, graduating from low-key smash and grab jewellery jobs to elaborate multi-day heists involving several linked missions. Whether you're cooking meth to trade for information, battling to keep a cocaine shipment safe or silently infiltrating an FBI field headquarters to liberate some intel, there's an enormous amount of variety on offer here.
Most jobs begins with a period of 'casing time,' wherein you and your crew can infiltrate the target building and suss out the outlying area. Security systems and personnel are randomly placed every time, along with optional loot and environmental objects to exploit. So long as you don't act suspiciously, you're free to roam and make increasingly complex plans, noting the locations of potential exits and hostages before putting your masks on and setting it into motion.
It's possible to complete many missions silently and subtly, either using pure stealth or striking fast enough to zip-cuff civilians and neutralise security... but chances are someone will screw up. Perhaps a civilian will scream and alert some beat cops. Maybe a security guard will trip a silent alarm. More than likely one of your crew will blunder straight into a CCTV camera. Regardless, this oasis of casing time calm usually becomes a distant memory as you engage in an all-out battle for survival.
While you wait for the safe to crack or the hack to complete, the ferociously quirky AI sends a totally unpredictable force of assault teams in your direction. Sometimes beat cops will attack the front door, backed up by snipers on adjoining rooftops. SWAT teams revel in breaching through windows, climbing up to higher storeys or even blasting through seemingly solid walls, testing your defences from unexpected angles. Depending on difficulty, you'll sometimes encounter enormous EOD-suited juggernauts or taser-wielding commanders in amongst the rank and file, or any combination of the above.
As such, you'll need to carefully coordinate to set up a perimeter with planks and trip mines, watching potential breaching points and keeping hostages under control to exchange for downed colleagues... before desperately trying to ferry the loot to your getaway vehicle under heavy fire. With extraction locations, security systems and police response all randomised on the fly, you'll have to think on your feet and take the initiative whenever you can.
A robust progression system adds meaningful depth to the experience. Four skill trees improve your aptitude for gunslinging, stealth, hacking and crowd control, unlocking an arsenal of deployables that will keep you in the fight for longer. A well-placed ammo pack, medical kit or trip mine can make the difference between failure and payout, while advanced tiers grant more versatile and subtle bonuses. Well-specced 'Enforcers' wield a circular saw capable of ripping open doors or ATMs faster than lockpicks, 'technicians' can jury-rig their trip mines into safecracking shaped charges and 'Masterminds' can convince police offers to switch sides with a few well-placed threats.
Being a Mastermind myself, I can't recommend the latter option enough - leading a disposable SWAT operative through the maps never gets old. Progression rewards you with genuinely new ways to circumvent obstacles and exciting tactical opportunities, especially if you dabble in a couple of skill trees to round out your skill set.
PayDay's staggering arsenal of upgradeable weapons and masks pushes the boat out yet further, offering copious boomsticks based on your increasing reputation level and a dizzying array of masks to customise with different decals and materials. However, weapon modifications are randomly doled out once you successfully complete a heist, which acts as a double-edged sword. Though a neat idea in theory that leads to every player boasting a unique set of upgrades, it should have ideally been reserved for cosmetic details. As an extreme example, I didn't manage to find a single silencer for any weapon until I was level thirty, massively cramping my style and usefulness to the team until I turned my voice into a deadly weapon, but managed to get three identical copies of a lightning bolt mask pattern. Seethe.
Taken individually, many of PayDay 2's components feel a little rough and ready, mainly thanks to the unpolished Diesel 2.0 engine feeling slightly shonky in terms of stiff animations and drab texture work. However, when you play with three trustworthy friends packing headsets, every piece fits together perfectly. The unpredictable heists ensure that you're constantly making and abandoning plans to fit the situation, closely working together as the stealthy infiltration or messy siege plays out, and occasionally swearing blind at each other when things go awry. Better yet, you'll all level together, and cater your skill allocations to create the ultimate crew. If you're a fan of Left 4 Dead, there's every chance you'll be playing PayDay 2 well into next year.
Indeed, it's quite possibly the most enjoyable cooperative experience of 2013; intense and delightfully mad.
On the other hand, playing with unknowns is a little like Russian Roulette. I've personally found myself in numerous excellent matches with balanced headset-wearing teams, and made several reliable new friends, but there's an equal chance that you'll find yourself with players who simply don't play ball or communicate effectively. A single showboater who runs back for "just one more" loot bag when everyone else is waiting for extraction can result in everyone failing the mission and forgoing payment, seeing twenty minutes of hard work wasted in the blink of an eye. You'll have to roll the dice and prepare for the worst, but at least every miserable defeat will be tempered by plenty of last-second successes and trustworthy new partners to work with in future.
Forget about singleplayer, though. Just forget it. Despite Crime.net featuring an offline mode, it's a grim and hateful experience due to the friendly AI's inability to pick up mission-critical objects. You will have to complete every objective yourself, while under fire, constantly reminded that you would be having buckets of fun if only you had any friends. It's a soulless purgatorial grind that's best avoided at all costs. Thankfully bots prove to be reasonable allies if you need a fourth man to pad out a session, and never set off alarms on their own initiative.
PayDay 2 is superb if played the way Overkill Software intended, then, but will still be an acquired taste. Annoyingly, it's a game that actively does its best to make you fall out of love with it in a few annoying, unavoidable ways.
The progression system is a frequent source of frustration, in that there's an odd disconnect between the all-important magic numbers. Missions promise payouts of hundreds of thousands (if not several millions) of Dollars, but these massive mythical figures don't in any way resemble the amount you'll actually earn. The vast majority of your share ends up in an 'offshore account,' which cannot be accessed or transferred in any way, while only a tiny sliver ends up available for your personal use. The white-hot aggravation upon stealing an enormous amount of optional loot, only to be told that you're earning chump change, is physically painful - especially if you're saving up for a particular upgrade. Plus, as mentioned, failed missions pay out nothing at all, which can lead to any number of 'wasted' hours.
Worst of all for a cooperative game, the netcode proves to be an eccentric and unreliable beast. You'll join matches in the last five seconds, resulting in a payout for no work whatsoever. The sound will sometimes cut out for no reason. Matches end instantly if the host disconnects, leaving everyone bereft of payment. Shockingly, even though there's 'drop-in' multiplayer, the action stops dead for up to thirty seconds while you wait for another player to connect. Despite being functional in the main, this state of affairs is frankly unacceptable and firmly keeps our Editor's Choice Award off the table.
These gripes can be sidestepped if you play with three good friends in organised online or LAN sessions, mind, and that's rather the point. When you've got a good crew holding your back, you'll be having too much fun to care about or sweat the small stuff, and revelling in the joy of every hard-won Pay Day. If at all possible, dance with the devils you already know.
- Utterly wonderful four player co-op
- Totally unpredictable randomised levels and police response
- Versatile skill trees and progression system
- Peerless when enjoyed with trustworthy friends; scope for stealth, carnage and everything in between
- Diesel 2.0 engine is clunky and crude
- Quirky if not downright primitive netcode
- Frustrating offshore account system and randomised weapon upgrade drops
- Can be miserable if played with unknowns, tragic singleplayer
The Short Version: When played with a reliable crew, PayDay 2 is one of the most exciting cooperative games on the planet. Annoying quirks and rough edges abound, but so long as you can trust (and talk to) the criminals at your back, you'll be having far too much fun to notice.
A Note on platforms: Naturally you should buy PayDay 2 on the platform where most of your friends reside, but go for the PC version if you have the choice. Not only will you squeeze some extra grunt out of Diesel 2.0, but PC games historically retain their multiplayer communities for much longer than console ports. With next-gen consoles on the horizon (not to mention plenty more upcoming current-gen titles), I fear that the PS3 and Xbox 360 player base may end up decimated in a matter of months. - Jon