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Our first heist is just minutes old, but already we’ve seized and bound the bank manager, taken his key card and retrieved a stash of pyrotechnics and a saw. That saw is now buzzing away on a gate that will lead us through to the vault, which we’ll access by burning a hole through the floor above. While we wait we fend off an advancing assault team, tipped off by a silent alarm and covering their entrance with smoke, crashing through windows, and sniping from across the street. Through the staccato bursts of gunfire and tersely barked commands, one thought persists: why haven’t we played this before?
We have, of course, in the zombie-infested perpetual night of Left 4 Dead. But despite this obvious influence, Payday: The Heist surprises by feeling so utterly new. Hollywood influences are also a given, and worn on Swedish developer Overkill’s sleeve: a running outdoor battle with police after a heist gone wrong, so clearly inspired by one of the movie industry’s most revered shootouts, is called, with a blunt and endearing honesty, Heat Street.
As well as being a novel take on the co-operative survival shooter, Payday is an ever-increasing rarity: announced out of the blue at E3 and released in the same calendar year. Still, there have been hiccups along the way – it had already slipped from its planned release in early October, and its European PSN release was delayed for a further two weeks.
The nagging concern that it was rushed out of the door to meet its revised ship date is proven right the longer you spend with it. While there’s no need for a tutorial in a game with so obvious a goal and Call Of Duty’s controls, what’s lacking is a thorough explanation of the various functions of the right trigger (context-sensitive prompts do pop up, but you later learn that it can also be used to spot guards and give orders to AI companions). There’s no guide to the unlock system, with completed challenges allowing upgrades across three discrete skill trees, selectable in realtime with two button presses. While there are some onscreen prompts, mission-critical information is passed on by teammates or Bain, the faceless, remote puppeteer who calls the shots throughout. In the midst of a firefight, when you and your real-life companions are making enough noise working together, the game’s reliance on vocalised direction proves a design liability.
The lack of polish shows in facial models, present on hostages but largely hidden elsewhere by companion clown masks and enemy armour. Running animations are similarly basic, perhaps a factor in the police’s preference to engage from distance. Excellent sound design makes up for such visual compromises, with a hefty crackle to gunfire and a musical score that builds along with the action, one level’s squelching house track quickening the pulse as the action builds.
The game’s six stages toy with the formula to ensure variety, with your team stealing a panic room wholesale from a drug den, escorting prisoners across what remains of a recently exploded bridge and, most memorably, sneaking undetected – in theory at least – through a high-rise building to pilfer a stash of diamonds. While all six are available from the off, the final two are only available on hard difficulty and above. Which is where things begin to fall apart.
Even on normal difficulty, Payday: The Heist is hard. So too, we imagine, is robbing a bank, but you’d expect Overkill to cut players some slack in the name of escapism. Police attack in waves, with little respite in between – barely enough for a mad dash to replenish ammo that, commendably, is just scarce enough throughout – but those waves will keep coming until you complete an objective and trigger the next bit of scripting. It’s often hard to tell exactly where you’ve been hit from, and the game enjoys telling you the police have been fended off, only for a couple of stragglers to pop out unannounced while you stock up on munitions or reset saws which, given their propensity to conk out numerous times over the course of a mission, were apparently bought on the cheap.
AI companions are reasonable marksmen and fine spotters, but seem loath to complete objectives, and have been programmed to revive you when downed irrespective of the number of surrounding enemies, meaning you’ll often rise into a hail of gunfire holding a pistol that you emptied while on the floor. With friends like these, those difficulty-restricted later missions are barely worth bothering with. Assemble a team of human companions, however, and the game shines. With a proper team of four working together, maps committed to memory and loadouts effectively coordinated, Payday’s niggling flaws fade into irrelevance and the game finally makes good on those initial glowing impressions. Singleplayer is largely pointless: enemy numbers scale appropriately, but one knockdown means death.
Despite its delays, the PS3 version teemed with connectivity issues at launch, and while matchmaking appears much improved by a day-two patch, the relative lack of PSN players with headsets will hamper your team’s progress. It’s still early days for the PS3 release, but its popularity on PC suggests that, once players realise the importance of voice chat and true co-operative play, the console version will thrive accordingly. Overkill couldn’t, for whatever reason, give Payday the development time it needed for its rough edges to be sanded down, but it remains a game with great potential. Whether that potential is to be realised depends on whether players are prepared to give it the time the studio could not.
PS3 version tested.