Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Publisher: 505 Games
What is it that makes the idea of a perfectly executed heist so wonderfully compelling? I don’t have an answer to that question, but like so many other people I’ve long been enamored with movies, games and books that focus on a gang of criminal masterminds pulling off daring raids. Perhaps it’s the simple pleasure of watching a group of highly talented people execute an unrealistic yet complicated heist in fantastic style. So this week I’ve been pretty happy to have three titles in for review that based around doing just that. Today it’s Payday 2: Crimewave Edition, a current-gen re-release of a game that I sadly missed out on when it was first brought out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC last year. Unlike both Invisible Inc and The Mastermind, though, where screwing up is a bad thing, Payday 2 feels more like it wants to replicate the mayhem of a job gone gloriously wrong with the added benefit of friends being along for the ride.
Four player co-op action is the name of the game here, tasking you with robbing banks, cracking safes, rigging elections, defusing bombs and even cooking up crystal meth, all while usually fending off waves of police intent on introducing your face to their bullets. Some heists are simple, short and sweet, and others entail several different objectives and can last quite a while. The two keys to it all are tension and greed; everything takes plenty of time, like drilling into a safe, and equipment is constantly failing, requiring help from the players. Most heists involve a lot of waiting around, and possibly screaming at the screen for the damn drill to hurry the hell up. It creates a palpable sense of tension as you and your team gun down the incoming hordes, barely fending off special units and SWAT teams in the name of grabbing cash. Meanwhile there’s always the allure of extra loot to contend with, money that you can grab if you hang around just that little bit longer, risking more dangerous waves of enemies in the process. Every player is important to the mission – one needs to keep an eye on the equipment, another needs to grab the loose jewelry, cash or cocaine, another needs to keep the crowd in check and the last one might want to lay down some defenses. The best plans can crumble as players argue about what to do, or somebody slips up, or just plain bad luck intervenes.
Before you get into the mission proper there’s often a chance to purchase a few helpful assets. These range from simple things like someone leaving a bag of ammo around or window being helpfully left unlocked, to things like parking a tall van next to a gallery so you can scamper up to the roof a little easier. Larger missions give you access to the pre-planning phase where you get the chance to examine the buildings blue prints and then grab some helpful perks that cost both money and favors to pull off. Maybe you want the thermal drill left in a specific spot, or a set of keys that could gain you access the vault much quicker. A better getaway driver means less chance of a crash during your escape, which in turn means you won’t have to play an extra level of fending off waves of cops while you wait for a new escape vehicle, potentially costing you some of your hard-earned loot if you can’t move all the bags in time. You can even get inside help, provided one of your crew has the correct perk. It’s a neat feature, giving a shallow but ultimately nice illusion of being an actual criminal gang planning a big heist. And that’s the key to enjoying Payday 2 to the fullest, allowing yourself to become immersed in the idea.
Most missions begin with a chance to case the target first, too, letting you amble around and get a feel for where the patrols are, camera locations and entry points, although guards will still grow suspicious and call the police depending on your concealment rating, which is to say how much gear you are packing. Wear a simple suit and side-arm and you’ll probably be just fine unless you happen to go somewhere you very obviously shouldn’t be or get right up in a guard’s face, but if you’re packing an assault rifle and body armor then the jig is up before you’ve even begun. Once you don your mask the heist is on, and from there you can do a variety of things. Doors need to be picked open, or you could just blow them down with C4 if the loud approach sounds fun, cameras avoided, guards taken care of and vaults cracked open. To avoid the cops being called you and your crew need to take control quickly, dealing with guards and then using your weapons and voice (tapping the should button on Xbox One yells at a victim) to keep the crowd in check. You can ziptie people to act as hostages and even move them around the level, which forces any cops to go after them first, although you do have to be careful because civilian deaths incur a cleanup cost. Hostages can also be traded for arrested players.
Pure stealth is technically a viable option, and in fact the game even clearly marks which heists can be tackled purely through some good old-fashioned sneaking. Stealth, though, is also the single hardest way that Payday 2 can be played, requiring a great team working together in near perfect harmony, which doesn’t happen too often if you’re simply playing with random folk online as there’s almost always someone who decides to do something stupid. And yet that’s fine in a way, because heists that descend into chaos are a lot of fun, although nothing beats the satisfaction of managing to sneak into a gallery and make off with a series of paintings without anyone being any the wiser, or robbing a jewelry store by calmly killing every guard and then keeping the civilians in order. But stealth does mean dealing with some awkward problems, including being spotted through the occasional wall and having no way to check round a corner without simply sticking your head round, giving you a very good chance to be seen. Stealth is clumsy at best, making it a further challenge. The rules surrounding noise, vision and others things feel vague at best. Don’t expect to ever get through a level without a firefight without first having a good, experienced crew, a well-developed character and lashings of dumb luck. This does, though, mean stealth feels relatively realistic. It does, however, almost feel like stealth is viewed as a lesser option seeing as how something like a silencer is hard to come by but huge assault rifles are available from the very start, but I feel like that was a deliberate choice to replicate the idea of a crew becoming more experienced, moving from the much simpler strategy of going in all guns blazing to the far more subtle art of sneakery.
So most of the time heists quickly escalate into full on firefights which means strong combat is important, but Payday 2 suffers from oddly stiff aiming that seemingly can’t be fixed, though disabling aim assist does seem to help a bit. It’s like there’s a massive chunk of deadzone on the controls, and then when they do finally get moving it’s with a small jerk, making fine aiming difficult. It’s frustrating because the feedback on the weapons is nicely done, and controlling them requires some finesse. Holding down the trigger usually just results in a spray of bullets that only hit the enemy by pure chance, so you need to fire in bursts to stay accurate. Accuracy is a problem, though, due to that fiddling aiming, so tackling a sniper on a nearby rooftop or just trying to pick off a few SWAT hiding behind a car is more awkward than it should be. Combat, then, is enjoyable but could do with some work.
Really, underneath the criminal skin Payday 2 is really a wave-based shooter. Assuming you don’t manage to get in and out without triggering the police you’ll face wave after wave of opposition while having to get away with the loot. Things like drills and even uploads tend to stall out a lot, forcing you to restart them, so you simply have to defend the area before then grabbing bags of loot and trying to get it safely to the escape vehicle. In this sense the game can become boring quickly. Semi-randomized maps mean the position of things like cameras and even safes can be altered which helps keep things interesting by forcing you to alter plans on the fly, but there’s no denying that gunfights begin to get tiresome quite quickly, especially since they don’t have the finesse of other shooters on the market. The length of time things like drills take is also a divisive aspect; on the one hand it creates tension, making me constantly check the progress bar while waiting for the next enemy wave. On the other hand the sheer length of time things can take, along with their propensity for breaking down, often left me feeling annoyed.
You can tackle heists on your own, too. The problem with solo play is your hapless collection of gormless AI partners who seem wholly incapable of doing anything even remotely useful. They are able to gun down some police in a firefight, which is nice, and serve as decent meat shields, but after that they’re about as useful as a toaster made of chocolate. During a heist they strangely refuse to grab any loot, leaving you to run around the level like a moron that’s drank far too much coffee. Furthermore they won’t restart stalled equipment, either. They will at least help you up when you get downed, but they won’t toss out health or ammo packs like real players can. If that wasn’t enough they prove wholly inept at covering you or positioning themselves and wont keep hostages in check. I’m willing to overlook a the lack of actual intelligence in the artificial intelligence since this is a co-op focused multiplayer game to a degree, but if you’re going to include a solo mode then at least ensure the player’s partners can grab some of the loot. Hell, a command wheel would have been fine to position them correctly and order them to pick up a bag of cash, because in their current state it’s hard to see why the AI crooks even exist.
The police force aren’t exactly boasting much in the intelligence department, either, though. The only reason they pose a threat, both in solo play or online, is due to their sheer numbers. Occasionally they manage to flank the players, but mostly they seem intent on getting themselves shot in large quantities, often standing around in the open or forming handy conga lines of death in alleys, or just charging straight into a room in hope of simply swarming the player. Much like the friendly AI they are, quite frankly, a bit embarrassing for a title released in 2014 and now 2015 as well. C’mon, guys.
It’s a shame, really, because with better AI on both sides Payday 2 could actually be pretty damn enjoyable as a solo game, too. Sure, it wouldn’t be fantastic given how its really meant to be played with other gamers, but it would be compelling enough to jump in every now and then when you don’t feel like dealing with real people. As it stands, though, you can have fun with it, you just need to be willing to work around the flaws. Having said that, the state of the AI is frankly embarrassing for a game that was released in 2014. The simple fact of the matter is that if a developer isn’t going to properly commit to offering a solo mode then they just shouldn’t bother, and it seems clear here that a singleplayer mode was tacked on in a rather half-assed fashion.
Online play is a bit more of an interesting situation. On the one hand playing with friends is a joyful experience. Despite my gripes with some of the core gameplay elements, like the stiff shooting, those problems fade into the background when careful planning the perfect heist with a few good friends and some even better beer. Over the years I’ve often ranted about supposed co-op games that are only fun because you’re playing with friends, and not because the actual gameplay is properly built around having several people working together, but Payday 2 is a true co-op game in the sense that everything is built around people working and playing together to succeed. Flaws be damned, it’s just fun. Playing with randoms is unsurprisingly a bit different. This is a game that really needs teamwork and microphones to work, so if you end up with players missing either of those elements then it can drag the fun down quite a bit. This does also mean that if you struggle to talk to strangers online Payday 2 isn’t for you, unless you’ve got a group of friends to play with. For the most part, though, the community seems to be made up of good natured people, largely because thoughtful players is what a game like this attracts. There’s plenty of veterans also willing to help out new players, too. Still, you’ll also discover some jerks who’ll boot you just for wearing the default masks or for asking some questions, and since the host has control over who gets to play and who doesn’t there’s already too many snobs refusing to let lower leveled players into a match. Meanwhile the netcode can be a little boisterous, sometimes causing the action to stutter momentarily or some connection errors. Overall it’s not too bad, though.
But what is a heist game if you’ve got nothing to spend your cash on? The game falters a little here because all it offers is weapons, which in turn are used on more heists to get more weapons to help complete more heists. There’s a Safehouse that you can visit and both the game itself and the online manual refer to being able to customise the place, giving you something to spend your money on outside of pure gameplay tools. However, this feature still hasn’t been implemented. The developers have been chatting about it for a very long time now, and it’s becoming hard to believe that the feature will ever turn up. Indeed, on the forums it seems they have something of a reputation for promising features and not delivering on them. Still, to the game’s credit the selection of weapons and attachments is impressive, boasting a large armory of boomsticks to suit almost everyone with the exception of snipers as the levels just aren’t big enough to support it. Things like the barrel, slide, magazine, scopes and more can all be changed, too, giving you a solid level of customisation.
There’s a bit of a problem, though; while weapons are unlocked for purchase by simply levelling up your character, attachments are earned through an irritating randomized system where players have to pick from one of three cards at the end of a heist that could contain money, attachments or one of the numerous masks you can equip. There’s n rhyme or reason behind the system, though, and so you can find yourself sinking over a dozen hours into the game without ever getting a silencer, a key component for stealth. Even if you do eventually get a silencer it could be for a weapon you don’t even own or like using. To be brutally honest, it’s a stupid system. Sure, it’s meant to almost replicate the feeling of opening a booster pack of Yu-gi-oh! Pokemon or Magic the Gathering cards, that nice feeling that comes from wondering if you’ll get something really cool. And it has to be said that in some cases I like the system; take Mass Effect 3 where the multiplayer would give you booster packs that could open up new character variants and weapons. But spending a few dozen hours in a game while watching as attachments for weapons you don’t even own are unlocked and none for the gun you actually really love is frustrating.
The great selection of weapons is bolstered by a diverse skill tree system that brings an extra layer of communication and strategy to heists. There’s a grand total of five different skill trees, which each featuring six tiers of three possible skills, meaning each of the five different skill trees has 18 skills. Furthermore each skill has a basic and ace version, and to ace an entire tree would cost more points than you can actually gain, promoting the idea that you really to stop and consider how you want to build your character. To this end the game grants you five slots to store different profiles in so that when you join a game you can tailor your skill set and weapons to the plan. On offer includes things like the Mastermind tree which lets you throw down a health bag, tie up hostages faster and even unlock a skill named Stockholm Syndrome where civilians can be convinced to help you out if your downed. The Technician tree has a sentry gun and gives you access to trip mines, while the Ghost is naturally adept at stealth, including abilities that speed up how fast you can pick locks and that let you mark guards and cameras when casing the target. The range of skills is impressive, and can really alter the flow of a heist when used well.
Stepping away from the gameplay, though, let’s tackle the issue of this being a remaster, or re-release or whatever term best fits it. From the very start it’s painfully clear that not only is Payday 2 a product of the last generation, but that it isn’t even a good one. It occasionally manages to look decent, but for the most part Payday 2 is a flat looking game with lifeless environments and textures. Rather than remastering the game the developers have simply bumped the resolution up to 1080p which certainly makes everything look sharper, but it also highlights the general lack of detail. It would appear to match the PC version running on high while running at a steady 30fps. However, it would be unfair to say its’ an ugly looking game. It’s perfectly serviceable, just very dull. The music, though, is anything but dull, featuring some pulse-pounding tunes that match the gameplay brilliantly. Of course the big draw here is the inclusion of all the previously released DLC, making it pretty good value for money. If you already own the game on last-gen consoles, though, and have most of the DLC already, the graphical upgrade simply isn’t worth picking it up again unless you’re a die-hard fan.
There’s a couple of glitches and problems to work around, like dodgy hitboxes that seem to struggle to register shots to the legs or arms correctly, being shot through walls, friendly AI that gets frozen in place, guards spotting you for no reason and a few more. It’s worth noting, though, that there does seem to be a large amount of people having problems with the online portion of the game, including the heist selection screen freezing every few seconds and trouble connecting to other people. I didn’t experience anything past some mild connection problems and an occasional freeze during the action that only lasted a second or two, but I did experience the freezing issue on the heist selection screen, which only affects the online side of things and not solo play. The screen would freeze for up to ten seconds ever 5-15 seconds, obviously making it very difficult to select a mission and get going. It’s a stupid problem, but one that should hopefully be fixed soon, although it has now been about two weeks.
A perfect example of something a little rough around the edges, Payday 2 has some pretty big flaws that belie its budget origins. It doesn’t look too great, the combat is a bit clumsy on console, stealth feels rudimentary and the wave-based combat can become tiresome. But far more important the game is just plain addictive. Despite its own rather repetitive nature the many varied locales manage to keep things fun even though you’re going through the same motions, and it has a strange, compelling rhythm that kept me playing for hours on end. As a co-op game it’s a lot of fun that lets you and your friends sink into the role of hardened criminals and for that reason I’m slapping a recommended sticker right here. Or at least I would be if it wasn’t for the online connection problems that I was having and the freezing issue on the heist selection screen. Because of those I can’t quite give it an all out recommendation, at least on Xbox One. Keep an eye on the forums, and as soon as a patch is released that seems to fix the problems it’ll be absolutely worth playing.