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Every movie heist is a well-planned disaster. No matter how carefully orchestrated the scheme, something goes awry. A cop arrives at the wrong time or a new security camera was installed in the bank overnight. Payday 2 puts you in the shoes of criminals trying to keep it together when the shit hits the fan. Like the heists it depicts, though, Payday 2 can be a bit of a mess as well.
The missions of Payday 2 somewhat squander the potential of the premise. No matter how interesting the heists' briefings sound, most missions play out about the same. You set up the automated drill or hacking tool or whatever, and then fend off waves of law enforcement until it completes. Then you grab the loot and run to your escape vehicle.
Fortunately, Payday 2 executes these types of missions well. There's a lot of randomization going on with each heist. The timing of police attacks, the position of objectives and other key variables will change from one play-through to another. Your perfect heist can be ruined by the sudden appearance of a cop in full body armor. These curveballs keep the missions fresh even after the 9th or 10th time you play them.
The best part of every heist is the escape. Police are swarming, your ammunition is low and your extraction vehicle is across the map. You and your crew can flee as quickly as possible, or stick around to scoop up more loot. Because the progression system is tied to how much loot you pull in throughout a mission, you have incentive to push your luck. It's rare that maps don't end with a narrow escape.
When the missions step outside of the defend-the-drill formula, the results can be clumsy. In one heist, you're supposed to cause $50,000 worth of damage in a mall. You're not given any clear description of what counts toward this total. You only receive periodic updates on the damage total, leaving you puzzled as to whether or not you're contributing to the damage at all. Also, you'd think this heist would be the most entertaining in the game but you're just shooting up windows and store shelves. The limits to the environment destruction are on full display here.
The enemies you face are mostly cops but there's a fair amount of variety. At the start of each mission, you'll face security guards or street cops with no armor and pistols. Once you cause enough havoc, though, the police will start throwing squads of SWAT teams with riot shields and carbines. The different types of cops behave differently; street cops will hang back while SWAT teams will travel in groups and try to flank you. They're all a bit dim, though. Cops will stand in the middle of the street and trade fire with you instead of moving from cover to cover.
The enemy A.I. is just one of many ways that the game feels low-budget. The flat textures, repetitive character models and awkward animations are other examples. The world feels realistic enough at first but then you run into invisible walls or start wondering why you can't close doors to slow the police's advance. The game falls just short of what you'd expect from a modern shooter in some respects and it's distracting.
There are 30 different heists in Payday 2, but accessing all of them can be a bit tricky. There's no menu of missions to choose from. Instead, you browse a Crime Net map populated with either single heists or chains of several heists. You'll see several versions of the same heists, each with different difficulty levels and payouts. It's kind of a confusing mess. I'm not even sure whether I've seen all of the game's missions.
Payday 2 can be played with up to three human or A.I. companions. You're really not getting the full experience if you're playing with bots, though. This is a game that's better with company. Whether your heist went off without a hitch or you limped to your escape van without most of your score, it's more fun to have other players there to share in the delight or pain. It's the sort of game that makes you want to share your stories on Reddit.
There's a more practical reason to favor co-op, too: the bots suck. They have the intelligence of a golden retriever with an AK-47. Bots will follow you and shoot anyone that's in front of them, but that's it. The A.I. is the absolute minimum necessary to put the phrase "single-player" on the game box. Don't expect them to contribute to the objectives of each heist at all. They won't carry mission items to the objective so if you need to bring four bags of dope to the escape vehicle, you're going to have to make four trips yourself. Needless to say, these bots don't have the sort of coordination or intelligence necessary to pull off the more difficult heists in the game.
Also, unlike bots, players bring special skills to the table. These skills are organized into four progression trees. The Enforcer path allows players to become durable heavy weapon experts. Masterminds are pistol experts who can control hostages and heal teammates. Ghosts are silent assassins capable of knocking out surveillance devices. The Technician, meanwhile, can bypass locks with ease and employ gadgets like sentry guns and trip mines.
An experienced team with diverse skills can pull off some amazing heists. They can infiltrate a bank and empty the vault before the police even arrive. Unfortunately, most groups you find through matchmaking will be filled with Enforcers and as such will strongly prefer smash-and-grab tactics. Furthermore, the skill trees require some serious investment before the sneaky approach is really viable. Unless you're playing in a pre-made group of high-level players, don't expect much stealth.
The best part of the progression system is that there's always something for players to strive for. You can spend your hard-earned money on new skills, weapon, mask, weapon attachment or other equipment. Again, the knowledge that your progression is tied to the money you earn in each heist pushes you to take risks when you're out in the field. You can risk higher difficulty or multi-mission heists in order to get higher payouts.
Payday 2 is $30 on PC and $40 on consoles but offers enough co-op criminal action to be worth full price. Still, it's clear some corners were cut with the bots, mission design and overall production value. As long as you're comfortable with the limitations of the game and have faith in Overkill's post-launch plans, you'll have fun. Don't be surprised if things go sour, though.
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Overkill Software
Publisher: 505 Games