Robbing banks by yourself isn't fun. As a single player experience Payday 2 is horribly frustrating. The AI doesn't flatter itself; both friendly and enemy. The objectives aren't suited to a solo player, and missions can be needlessly tricky. In short, it's bordering on broken.
But that's not how this first-person shooter is intended to be played, and for every player you add to the mix, things improve accordingly. Two's company. Three's a good crowd. Four is right on the money. A good team ethic is needed if forward progress is to be made. Overkill hasn't been calling this the Dark Souls of heist games for nothing. It's hard. While it's safe to say that both games are ruthlessly challenging, the comparisons with the brutal fantasy RPG end there. In Payday players don't get a quick restart and another crack at an outrageously difficult challenge, instead missions must be started from scratch, and each can take some time to conclude.
The heists here are shorter than those in the first game. Some are standalone, while others are a chained together sequence of missions that form a mini-narrative. There's a decent amount of variety in the different tasks given to you by your handler, ranging from straight up smash and grabs, to weapon seizures and drug deals. Missions are selected via Crime.net, a map where jobs flash up briefly, there to be snatched. Different assignments yield up differing levels of reward, so it can be worth waiting for a juicy score to appear.
While heists played on normal can be tricky, very hard and Pro jobs amp up the pressure considerably. On harder settings the police response will escalate very quickly, and teams will be swamped by heavily armed officers before they know what has happened. The standalone missions are fairly straight forward, but once you start getting into the larger jobs, planning and forethought becomes more important. Strategising your approach and then successfully implementing a well-formulated plan is immensely satisfying. You can purchase ‘insider information' as a job loads, getting useful tidbits before you pull off the score (like where the security key will be stored, or medical/ammo drop bags on site), and making sure all bases are covered via different loadouts before the level's start can mean the difference between success and failure. At the beginning of each job you can case out the joint you're about to hit, and as long as nobody does anything silly, you can gain valuable intel on the task in hand before it descends into combat.
At the end of a multi-day job teams will have to take down the Payday. Here the challenge solidifies, and teamwork is utterly essential. Smaller groups supported by AI will struggle, and even well-oiled units will require a little bit of luck to finish off some of these levels. On the way to the aforementioned Payday level, if any mission gets to messy, an additional 'escape' challenge is generated. Teams are rammed off the road by pursuing cops after a scrappy heist, and must defend their loot and wait for an alternative escape route to be sourced. They're not long distractions, but they keep repeat plays interesting, and give players the incentive to go for a quick, clinical robbery. Working as a unit is a big part of this. With everyone reading from the same page, teams will be much more efficient, and things are less likely to go wrong.
There's an RPG element that plays a significant role as you progress. As experience is accrued, points are spent on improving skills and gaining useful perks. There's four different paths to specialise in, with comprehensive skills trees for each. You can go heavy with the firepower, utilise gadgets in the field, control the crowd and lead your team, or stealth around patrols. Stealth is by far the most difficult specialisation, and although we initially tried for this, a high level of skill is required. It's aspirational, and at first it's best just to nail down the basics. You need to learn how to walk before you can run.
The skill trees are very varied. I followed the Mastermind path, which offered increased leadership skills and better crowd control. One perk enables you to cable-tie more hostages, another gives a boost to the whole team's stamina. Unlocking the entire tree for one type will take some time. Each path also impacts the equipment (electronics jammers, health packs, ammo) that players can take with them. The best teams will be balanced across each of the specialisations, allowing for different tactics to be utilised in the midst of the chaos.
After each successful heist, loot is randomly dropped. You can unlock weapon mods, cash bonuses, or components to build your own unique mask. Once unlocked you can buy them using credit earned in-game, and add them to your inventory. Earning this loot can feel like a grind at times, and to level up and get good gear you'll have to revisit the same crime scenes more than once. The loot does give you plenty to do during a break from the business of robbing banks. The mask customisation is a particular highlight. You slowly unlock different masks, and the materials needed to make them stand out from the crowd. It might take a while to get the one you really want, but decent placeholders will be made available to you during the wait.
Repetition in the levels is eased by randomised elements that keep missions fresh. Objectives shift location, patrols change, and the getaway car can appear in one of several places. It means that even maps that have been tackled several times stay more interesting than they might have been. Teams need to remain alert and flexible. Staples need to be maintained. If a player goes down under enemy fire, hostages secured with cable ties during the start of each heist can be used to bargain for their release, so making sure you have these bargaining chips in each and every mission is important. It pays to be meticulous.
Enemy AI isn't very subtle, and foes tend to steam into the action. Waves of increasingly hardy opponents repeatedly assault you as you try to hold down your position and maintain your equipment as it burrows into vaults and through doors. Repelling hordes of SWAT teams and constantly restarting broken drills ultimately defines most missions; Payday 2 brings an element of grind to the FPS genre, although it's more refined than its predecessor and the frantic gunplay keeps boredom at bay.
We reviewed the PC version of the game, and it looks very nice. The environments are crammed full of little details that add to the immersion. Some assets are a little overused, such as the enemies and NPCs, but it's not a major issue. The soundtrack is similarly repetitious, and while it works to accentuate the fast-paced action, given the amount of content that needs to be replayed, more variety would've been welcomed.
Razor sharp difficulty aside, our progress was hindered by several crashes (both soft and hard), and one of my co-robbers had their progress completely reset; this will need to be fixed, and quickly. It didn't, however, spoil our fun too much because since that early hiccup the game has been running much more smoothly. Single player issues still persist, Payday 2 simply doesn't have the same appeal when viewed from that perspective, but when played with a group of friends (or even like-minded strangers), the thrill of the score is simply intoxicating, and covers over any of the game's shortcomings.