You know that awesome scene from the beginning of The Dark Knight where those guys in clown masks rob a bank? For a moment, I want you to picture how that scenario would have played out if they weren’t also trying to kill each other as well. Why, you ask? Well, what if I told you this concept actually existed in the form of a game, and one that you can play with up to three of your friends online? Essentially, this is how I would pitch the idea behind Payday 2 to someone who may not have heard of the game before, which admittedly was me only a few short weeks ago. Naturally, this means I have not played the original game, so I will not be able to offer any form of comparison. However, I am confident that I can deliver an unbiased perspective to veterans and newcomers alike.
Payday 2 comes from the developers at Overkill Software, who had previously published their original game, Payday: The Heist, through Sony Online Entertainment as an exclusive digital release on the PSN & PC. Clearly, it must have done pretty well. However, this time they’ve instead chosen to publish through 505 Games, making this their first game to be available at retail as well as on the Xbox 360 platform. It’s also important to note that whilst this game can in fact be played in offline mode, it’s really been designed as an online experience. So, with that in mind, potential players can also expect to see it launching well below that of the average game price. $30AUD on Steam, and $44AUD at retail, or more accurately – still more expensive than most other places in the world. Go Australia!
First and foremost, I think it’s important to clarify that this is not a game for narrative enthusiasts. Certainly, I can appreciate that a strong narrative is not required for an online experience to work well, but the motive driving the missions in Payday 2 is about as thin as paper, and so much so that I would need to turn the game back on to remind myself how it ties together. Essentially, you will login to CRIME.NET, or .OFFLINE if you prefer, to gain access to the mission hub. Each mission has a brief description and a list of objectives, and you will unlock additional missions with experience. Although, it’s more than likely that you’ll spend most of your time repeating certain missions in order to level up, and that means there is no true sense of structure. However, I am also confident that players will establish their own stories based on their experiences with other players online, so it still kinda works.
Ultimately, the success of this game will come down to the way it’s designed, and how well it plays. In my previous review, I discussed what I like to call “FPS Fatigue”, and this is something that I believe a lot of you may be able to empathise with – especially when it comes to the concept of competitive multiplayer. Honestly, I can’t tell you how many online games I’ve played where I start at one side, they start at the other, and all we do is run in, shoot, die & respawn. And yet, our purpose for playing online quickly shifted from the thrill of the fight, and introduced this “RPG-esque” experience model that would allow you to level up at a painfully slow rate whilst earning that next virtual trinket you just had to have. It became addictive, and so the mainstream followed at every chance. For this reason, I think it’s fair to say a lot of us are tired, and this is why I believe it’s crucial to know where Payday 2 stands.
Honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had playing online in recent memory, and whilst that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an outstanding game, I simply can’t deny the rush it provides either. Payday 2 genuinely feels like something different, and for this reason I think the game will engage a lot of players that are actively looking for something new to play with their friends. However, I can’t help but take issue with yet another experience based progression system that undeniably has a negative impact on the way players approach the game. It was frustrating to see how many people would just replay the same missions in order to extort cash and experience, and for what? To purchase the same crap as everyone else. It’s just time consuming, and I don’t want to spend the beginning of every online shooter grinding to unlock what I need to play. It’s not poor design, but it’s evident we need change.
And yet, with that being said, there are still many unique design elements that define the way this game is played, and I feel it’s important to recognise the fact that Payday 2 isn’t necessarily about shooting. In fact, quite a few missions can be completed without killing a single person, but then again, that’s assuming the participating party has the skill to do so. At first, you are given objectives such as a jewellery swipe, but as the player progresses, the ante is upped considerably with objectives that span multiple days before any serious reward is offered. Ultimately, it’s designed to keep people working together, and to do otherwise does no bode well. This means that the quality of your experience somewhat relies on having friends to join you as I can’t recommend random matchmaking as a reliable option. Often these games were disturbingly silent, and proved to be less than thrilling.
However, should you wish to play offline whilst you wait for your friends to join, let me tell you something – don’t. The AI is so laughably daft that it’s almost impossible to progress. It’s broken, and I can’t put it more bluntly than that. Although, there are still plenty of things you can do inbetween matches. Perhaps you should drop by and visit the safehouse, which apparently has no purpose after the introduction (DLC pending?), or maybe you can spend all that instant cash on unlockable weapons that literally cost hours of your precious time? Admittedly, it’s fun to create custom masks, but given my experience with Army of Two, it’s not anything I haven’t done before. And finally, there are several skill trees for you to develop, and whilst your chosen path will definitely impact your game in positive ways, I can’t help but question what the point is if you don’t have a group of dedicated players?
Honestly, I don’t think I can fault the gameplay of Payday 2 to any great extent, except for maybe the occasional technical glitch, but the truth be told, these little hiccups never really did effect the flow of the game. In fact, they were amusing more often than not, and whilst I can’t condone these issues as being acceptable, at the very least they didn’t get in my way during a mission, and I was okay with that. Most importantly, the game really does well to try and empower the player, and it’s awesome to interact with the environment in other ways than shooting. Drilling safes, jamming communications, and sneaking through windows in order to avoid detection – it can really get your heart beating if you plan your approach well. Otherwise, the controls would never let me down, and more importantly, I never once experienced a single moment of lag (or at least a detrimental moment), despite playing with people across the other side of the world. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s well made.
Actually, following in those exact words, I think the same can be said about the game’s presentation. It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges, but it still does pretty okay considering. It’s clear the design team have worked within their means and put emphasis on what they thought was most important. The frame-rate is consistent, the art design suits the theme of the game perfectly, and most importantly, all the little details that matter the most are present in the environment. You might not see the individual hair follicles on a man’s face, but you never think to yourself, “oh god, this game looks dreadful” either. It has all the style in the world going from it, despite borrowing ideas from other sources, and it kicks off with some pretty awesome live action video. In terms of the music, it always felt appropriate I guess, but it never really stood out to me personally. That being said, I think if you’re into that particular genre of music, then it might resonate very well with you, or at least more so than it did with me.
In an online environment that’s been dominated by the ruthlessly quick “shoot, die & respawn” approach, the concept of a game that actually demands team work is almost a dream come true. However, there are complications that come with this prerequisite, and that’s finding good players whom you can play with regularly. Payday 2 has the potential to be one of the best multiplayer experiences ever created, and I can testify to that, but it also requires the right combination of people, and sadly you will not often find this in matchmaking. As we all grow older (relevant as the game is rated 18+), it makes it harder to co-ordinate our time with other people on a regular basis, so when it comes to a game that demands a lot of my own time in order to unlock weapons and develop skill trees, this is just not something I can justify ongoing if it’s not going to be fun without my friends.
If anything, it’s clear that Overkill is a talented team that understands how to be successful without blowing a budget, and for that I commend them. However, Payday 2 is also the type of game I just want to pickup and play, and yet I’m daunted by the time I have to invest in order to the unlock the various resources needed to enjoy the experience. Perhaps this is why a lot of “Next-Gen” games are exploring the idea of persistent worlds as it gives players the ability to develop their character’s in a meaningful way, but does not rely on other people to remain enjoyable during those “inbetween” moments. There is no denying how fun the game can be, but Payday 2 is ultimately limited by conditions that must be met in order for it to be at its best, and that makes it complicated to review. However, should you find the right people to play it with, then I honestly can’t recommend it enough.