Don’t let the arsenal fool you. Payday 2 is a stealth game. You might have a vast array of guns, attachments and armour at your disposal, but they’re contingency measures. The real aim of the game is to get in, get out and get paid without alerting the authorities: the perfect heist. It’s an obsession that only intensifies with every failure – every time you’re caught on camera, a cashier triggers a silent alarm, or a passer-by hears gunfire and whips out their mobile phone, you learn a little more about how Payday 2 functions. Early on, you’ll shoot your way out, past the ever-strengthening waves of police assault teams. Later, you’ll urge the host to quit and start afresh, hoping the algorithm that drives the game’s dynamic missions deals you a kinder hand.
This randomisation is designed to add variety and replayability to maps which you’ll quickly learn like the back of your hand. Take Bank Heist and Jewellery Store, two missions set on compact maps whose brevity and relative ease of stealth dictate that you’ll play the most. Guards and security cameras vary in placement and number. Sometimes you’ll open a vault door to find another one behind it. Outside, there’s nothing more dangerous than the street corner hot dog cart which serves as a magnet for police and means you’ll have to station one of your crew around the corner to take down the long, mustard-stained arm of the law the second the heist begins, lest they cotton on and call for backup.
It’s a smart system and a vital one, too, because despite a greater selection of missions and locales than 2011’s Payday: The Heist, your freedom to choose between them is needlessly limited in two ways. While the first makes some sense – locking away the tougher missions until you’ve levelled up enough to survive them – the second is a needless triumph of style over substance. The game’s mission browser, Crime.Net, takes the form of a city map showing a selection of heists. At a glance you can see the mission name and difficulty, as well as how many players are waiting in the lobby. But there’s no way of filtering the results, and if you’ve got your eye on a specific mission and difficulty level, you’ve no choice but to sit and wait until it appears. The more you rank up, the more frustrating it becomes: when you need 10,000 XP to hit the next level, a Normal difficulty heist that offers a tenth of that simply isn’t worth the effort.
It’s a shame, because wait for the initial slew of Bank Heist and Jewellery Store icons to fade and be replaced and there are some great missions here, many of which are spread across several days and only pay out when the whole job has been completed. In Framing Frame, you break into an art museum in the dead of night and steal some paintings that have been purchased by a wealthy senator. You implant cameras in them so that you can monitor the movements of the security team in his penthouse apartment before stashing several kilos of cocaine in his vault. In Rats, you kill a team of mobsters cooking meth before whipping up a few batches of your, following barked (and frequently wrong) radio instructions on which ingredient to throw in the pot next. In Nightclub you struggle to keep revellers out of the crossfire while you fend off gangsters and police, with a smart bit of randomisation: if the DJ’s playing bad music, the dancefloor will be all but empty. And while stealth will quickly become an obsession, plenty of heists are loud from the word go: Watch Dogs kicks off with your crew in the back of a van, the back door opening into a crackling exchange of gunfire with a teeming throng of police.
Too many missions, however, are variations on a theme. Ukrainian Job is the same as Jewellery Store with a different objective (a randomly placed tiara); Bank Heist comes in three flavours, tasking you with making off from the vault with cash, gold, or the contents of deposit boxes. Further padding to the mission count comes from the pointless Mallcrasher, in which you have to destroy $50,000 worth of goods in a shopping centre, and the humdrum Four Stores, in which you make off with a paltry $15,000 by drilling into high street cash tills.
Ah, the drills. Payday: The Heist’s greatest source of frustration returns and are as annoying as ever. They conk out and need to be reset constantly, for some reason bought on the cheap despite the millions of dollars you’ve been cossetting away in offshore accounts. You can offset this somewhat as you level up – in the upper echelons of the game’s four tech trees lie skills which reduce drilling time, as well as a chance of an automatic restart when one fails. Overkill’s stated aim pre-release was for players to specialise in one area just as a real heist crew might, but in practice you’ll need to spread your spending across Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician and Ghost because there are essential tools in each. Every player needs the Mastermind’s increased number of cable ties with which to subdue hostages; each will surely covet the Technician’s ability to reduce drill noise, too. High in the Enforcer skill tree is a portable saw that cuts through locks like butter. Each costs not just skill points, but cash too, and you soon realise that of all Payday 2’s problems, its economy is the biggest.
You walk away from successful heists with millions, but only a fraction of that will be spending cash, the rest forever squirrelled away to your offshore account. As well as skills, you also have to pay for weapons that you unlock as you level up, and prices are obscene, with the most powerful assault rifle in the game somehow stickered up at almost half a million dollars. Customising a mask costs over $100,000. Even gun mods and attachments – tied not to levelling or weapon use but a random post-heist loot drop, meaning you frequently pick up a new barrel or sight for a weapon you don’t own – have to be bought once unlocked. Take a silencer off a pistol and, when you later go to replace it, you have to pay for it again. After 20 hours of play the demands on your in-game wallet are such that it’s no surprise so many players are min-maxing the system, grinding the shorter, easier missions on higher difficulties.
Ignore these botched systems, however, and Payday 2 is a fine heist sim. With four players communicating properly it’s a delight: you scope out the dynamic hand you’ve been dealt, agree on a plan, put it in action then work together when it all inevitably falls apart to ensure you get out safely. Gunplay is excellent, with real heft and recoil to weapons, and ammo always perilously scarce. Audio design is remarkable – little surprise given that Battlefield veteran David Goldfarb was brought on to head up development – and the throbbing dynamic soundtrack that kicks into progressively higher gears as the police assaults intensify ratchets up the tension.
There is a tremendous amount here to like, and in the thick of battle – as you fend off heavily armoured SWAT teams, the ground at your feet a mess of bags full of loot and downed comrades, your getaway driver imploring you to get a move on because he can’t wait around for ever – the flawed framework couldn’t be further from your mind. But then the mission ends, and the $1.1 million for which you risked life and limb becomes $60,000 in spending cash. You unlock an attachment for a $400,000 gun you don’t own. You level up, and get just one of the four points you need for another skill. These things can be patched, of course, and we hope they will. Because in its current form, Payday 2 is a slog, and it’s no fault of the game itself but all the bloat that surrounds it.
Payday 2 is out now for 360, PC and PS3. PC version tested.