Review: Payday 2 proves robbing banks is better with friends
At a Glance
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I’m sitting in the hidden basement of my safehouse, thumbing the safety back and forth on my silenced pistol. The radio buzzes to life. “There’s a bank downtown…” and I’m off, sprinting out the door in my well-tailored suit, mask and pistol and assault rifle concealed underneath.
I jump in the van with my three fellow thieves, decked out in similarly immaculate suits. The ride over is quiet. I take the time to study blueprints of the bank, wishing I’d studied architecture in college.
We pull up outside the bank. The voice on the radio tells us an associate stashed a thermal drill out back of the bank; we’ll need it to bust the safe open and steal the cash. I’m excited. Though I’m masquerading as a master thief, this is my first robbery. I prepare to “case the joint,” like the criminal masterminds I've seen on TV.
I walk into the bank, trying to plan my mode of attack. A security guard apparently spots the assault rifle I—for whatever reason—foolishly believed I could conceal under my slim-cut suit jacket. “Hey you!” the guard shouts. An alarm sounds. Time to go to work.
Over the blaring klaxon I hear myself mutter “Here we go,” as I hit the key to pull my sad clown mask down over my face. The cop opens fire on me, and I kill him. We haven’t even retrieved the drill yet. An entire SWAT team quickly swarms our position and murders everyone.
“Your [sic] a god damn idiot,” says one of my fellow team members in the chat.
Welcome to Payday 2.
Take the money and run
Payday 2, like its predecessor, is a game about robberies, heists, and (occasionally) capers developed by Overkill Software. You play as part of a four-man band of thieves, sort of the Beatles of breaking-and-entering, as you gallivant around town, steal money, cook meth, and kill a lot of cops and stuff.
Jobs range from simplistic, one-day romps to complex, multiday endeavors. Short jobs make you less money, but if you fail a long job on the last day you give up all the progress you made earlier. Each time you run a heist, various things (such as item locations) will change, so theoretically even the same map can be different on each run-through.
As you pull off more heists you’ll upgrade your weapons, buy new masks, unlock new missions, and gain valuable skills in any of four tech trees. Leveling up the Technician class will grant access to C4, for example, while Masterminds learn to intimidate police.
Each class is useful. So useful it’s hard to decide what to focus on at first. The developers give you the option to respec your upgrade points at any time, but most of the money you spent on those upgrades is lost in the process. It’s a system designed to reward picking a class and sticking with it, especially since most of the best upgrades are locked to the highest levels.
In theory, the ideal Payday 2 team is a mix of all classes: one Mastermind, one Enforcer, one Technician, one Ghost. The Ghost could go in first to jam the alarms and cameras. The other three could then sprint in, the Technician drilling into the safes (or blowing them open with C4) while the Mastermind and Enforcer take hostages.
What a glorious world that would be.
This ain’t no bank robbery
I really want to enjoy Payday 2. The idea of pulling the perfect job—planning a job in a warehouse somewhere with a ragtag group of like-minded thieves, casing a bank, sprinting in, taking hostages, cracking the safe, and escaping with the cash before the police show up—stimulates the part of my brain that loved watching Ocean's Eleven.
Payday 2 is not Ocean’s Eleven.
The worst part is: it could be. I can tell that just beyond my reach is a much deeper, more fulfilling game than what I played. There is an amazing heist game inside Payday 2. It’s just hidden behind so many barriers that most newcomers are never going to find it, and instead are going to get bored.
Talking about the “ideal” Payday 2 team is an exercise in futility unless you have a group of friends to play with, and that’s the crux of a serious problem: this game is just not a lot of fun when you’re hooked up with random teammates. You’ll end up in a game with three Enforcers and one Mastermind, or two Masterminds, a low-level Technician, and a Ghost.
A typical game of Payday 2 goes like this: Everyone tries to be stealthy for about thirty seconds. Someone makes one wrong move (say, triggering a camera by accident or standing a foot too close to a security guard). All hell breaks loose. Everyone pulls on their masks and starts murdering cops. And then murdering cops. And then murdering cops. And then murdering more cops. And then murdering SWAT members. And then murdering stronger SWAT members. And then the safe busts open after six or seven minutes, you grab the cash, and toddle towards the escape van while murdering more cops.
Or even worse, you’re occasionally paired with someone who doesn’t want to play the game stealthy and just triggers the alarm as fast as possible. Then—you guessed it!—you’ll be forced to deal with the police, in the form of 5.56x45mm rounds to the head.
The game isn’t helped by the utter lack of any tutorial. You can play the same missions offline as online, with bots helping out, but it’s not a big help. For some baffling reason the AI team members won’t carry any loot, so while online a requirement like “Secure four bags” only requires one trip, the same mission offline has you run back and forth by yourself four separate times while the bots shoot at police in random spurts.
The game also won’t teach you, for instance, how to yell at civilians so they’ll get down on the ground and remain hostages, or how to answer guard’s radios so you don’t trigger an alarm while you think you’re stealthily taking down the opposition.
This leads to random games flooded with people who don’t fully understand the mechanics available, making it more likely that every match turns into a giant fragfest. I’m not saying this to be judgmental—I was guilty of the same flaws when I started out. I simply didn’t realize that standing next to a guard while not even wearing my mask yet would be enough to set off the alarm, because it wasn’t conveyed to me ahead of time.
The community is also (like many co-op games) toxic to newcomers, and many game hosts kick users below a certain level or flip out when the match goes sour.
A modern-day Barrow Gang
Convince three friends to heist with you, however, and Payday 2 is an entirely different game. It’s deeper, more tactical, with a lot more of that Ocean’s Eleven vibe.
With a group of friends, each of you can level up a different tech tree and grow your team’s effectiveness on all fronts, the various puzzle pieces that are the four classes interlocking seamlessly. Everyone feels essential, nobody is underpowered. You can coordinate and pull off the perfect job, or at least get close.
And when one of your friends eventually screws up, you’ll probably laugh and tease him or her about it. You’re all learning the systems together as a team, not as adversaries. It’s silly fun, not annoying.
It’s clear this format is what Overkill had in mind. The few times I could put together a game filled with friends, I completely understood why Payday 2 works. Planning out and executing a plan this complex is satisfying. Improvising when it all goes wrong, trying to manage ten problems at once, is even livelier.
Most people are stuck with the lesser version of Payday 2. They’re stuck playing this game with random people or (even worse) by themselves. And there’s no sugarcoating it: Payday 2, without friends, is just not much fun.
The systems are all there, the missions are the same, the core concepts are the same, but I quickly find myself getting frustrated in public matches. I don’t feel like we’re a group of master thieves at all; rather, we’re the most inept bunch of losers on the planet. We’re a bunch of Beavis and Buttheads who went, “Heh, wouldn’t it be funny to rob a bank?” then managed to buy assault rifles and silly masks.
So I guess go to some Meetups or something. Make some friends. There’s still no other game quite like Payday 2, and at its best the game is an enjoyable (if somewhat repetitive) experience. It’s just a shame so few people will ever play it at that way.
Note: This review covers the PC version of Payday 2. We've had reports of PS3 users running into network issues with the game.