Payday 3 Review
Same heist, different day
It was well over a decade ago when Valve's Left 4 Dead franchise rose to the top of sales charts. The co-operative shooter genre was suddenly at the top of everyone's lists, and for a few years other developers tried to chase the trend, with major standalone releases, mods for existing games, and direct copycats. One of the games from that era was Payday: The Heist, a debut multiplayer FPS from developer Overkill Software and published by Sony to be a PS3 console exclusive, where players and their friends pulled off a variety of heists and police shootouts in standalone levels. It was a success, which meant a sequel Payday 2 followed in 2013, now on all platforms, developed to be a replayable, game-as-a-service model that saw a large abundance of DLC released during its lifespan. A decade on, the developers have shifted their efforts to the new title, Payday 3. And while it has some of the entertaining core mechanics of the franchise still intact and adds a few new ideas, the missing features, technical issues, and generally dated mechanics put this new entry into a hostage situation it may not get out of.
Before we even get into the hostage negotiations however, connectivity and performance need to be addressed. Payday 3 changes its multiplayer structure to be a server-based game, whereas its predecessor was using peer 2 peer communications and had an offline option. What this means is that all players, no matter if you are playing with friends or solo (with bots), must connect to a server in order to play any levels. The goals for the new system are obvious – to provide a more consistent experience, to reduce cheating, and make sure everyone is using DLC they actually paid for. The latter is a tidbit of historical "lore" from the Payday 2 community, where players could download and use DLC they did not pay for, much to the annoyance of the developers.
However, the new server-based multiplayer has one big issue – the servers themselves. The launch weekend has been disastrous for Payday 3, with us and many other players being unable to complete any heists at all due to technical issues on the servers. The developers continuously posted updates that they are working on the problem, but the connectivity remained terrible for days. Without any offline mode, even if you are just wanting to play solo, it left players staring at the matchmaking screen for hours. While this will probably get fixed in the coming weeks, the initial impressions are certainly poor – and given that the game is available on Xbox Game Pass, it's likely that many who wanted to try the game for free will have moved on by now, after being faced with a non-working game at launch. There's little doubt that the existing fanbase will be sticking around, but the huge opportunity to grab a new audience may be slipping away.
Payday 3 doesn't do itself any favours by missing obvious matchmaking options such as searching for any heist on any difficulty – instead, you have to specify which level and which difficulty you want, which splits players into over 20 different queues by our basic math. It's also annoying that everyone must sign up for a third-party Nebula account to play, and the game doesn't even do it automatically from your Xbox credentials.
When we finally managed to connect, we found a rather familiar experience awaited. The co-operative heist experience still sees you tackling a variety of gigs as robbers in the modern day version of New York City. The narrative is thin, and follows the apparent consequences of the robbers and their heists from the previous game in Washington DC. The story is primarily told through cutscenes and audio mission briefings, though nothing really ties the whole experience together, and these scenes are not exactly of high quality. Payday 3 launches with 8 missions to play and replay, with selectable increasing difficulty levels. This isn't a huge amount of content – you can complete them all within 4-6 hours – and it’s less than what PayDay 2 launched with. But with replay value being the focus and new mechanics that expand on variety, it seems like a decent amount. It is annoying though that mission briefings always play during each heist, even if you heard them all before.
The heists remain the highlight of the experience, where you and the three other players are dropped off at a bank or another high value target, and have to get inside, grab the loot, and get out. Payday 3 expands your options thanks to better stealth and breaking up the missions into phases, and switching up the types of security systems you may face in each level. Some of the levels are well designed and incorporate all of these systems together – you could go in the front door, guns blazing, tying up the hostages and killing the guards and the endless police reinforcements that begin to show up outside.Or, you could stealthily explore the interior and put on your robber mask where nobody can see, sneak inside by stealing keycards, take out cameras and guards quietly, while reporting on their radio that everything is OK. If you do get spotted, a negotiation phase - where you've tripped the alarm but haven't engaged in a shootout yet - allows you to trade hostages to the cops in exchange for more time and materials. The new phases help prevent the instant 0 to 100 escalation that Payday 2 had.
The stealth works decently well, especially if you are coordinated, or if you choose to play alone – the AI bots only get into the action if you start shooting, so you can sneak around the level while they wait for you outside. Players will have to visit different sections of the level to interact with items such as security panels, and some require coordination with the team as you split up to chase multiple tasks. However, this does mean you have to do all the leg work, including all multiple objectives of each phase, and make multiple trips to carry all the loot on your own. There are occasional quick minigames and QTEs for some of the interactivity, but it's possible to maintain stealth throughout. This is certainly helped by the extremely basic AI though, who are more geared towards an arcade stealth experience – somewhat reminiscent of Watch Dogs. They have an alert indicator, and it's easy to abuse their limited vision range, forgetfulness, and general indifference. While playing alone makes it easier to maintain stealth, it really drags out the mission times.
But more often than not – especially as you play with others and increase the difficulty setting of the heists – there will be shootouts. The action feels very arcadey and even dated. The weapons and grenades feel very lightweight and don't pack any punch, and the enemy AI are simply swarms of police that occasionally take cover, but mostly stand around and try to overwhelm you with numbers. And you will be overwhelmed – the game strives to impose its difficulty by simply throwing tons of enemies at you with lots of armor, giving them sniper rifles, shields, and so on. Players have limited ammo and health to work with, so it's often a meat grinder to battle your way out – though that's a Payday franchise staple. The interior environments are decently destructible, and the chaos does get entertaining at times; that is a fleeting feeling though, as the action just never feels engaging or gritty, and thus the missions that focus primarily on shootouts are the least enjoyable.
If you are playing alone, the bots are average and probably shouldn't be relied on for higher difficulties. With human co-op partners, you can at least coordinate deploying ammo and medpacks for the team to use – though without built in voice chat, that can be annoying to type out in text in the heat of battle. The game is also missing other key co-operative features, such as even text chat during the loadout selection/lobby, and you cannot un-ready for the match to swap your weapons. There are no options to kick a member of the lobby, nor is there a lobby browser. You also can't stick with your new heist friends after a successful matchmade gig.
You'll want to coordinate with your teammates because having a good team balance is important, especially on higher difficulties. Players can select from a few different character loadouts and outfit them with a variety of weapons, throwables like frag and smoke grenades, deployables like health and armor packs or a sentry, and tools such as the jammer or motion sensor. New equipment needs to be purchased as well as unlocked by reaching certain profile levels. This is where Payday 3 makes another odd choice, as its progression systems are uncharacteristic. The game is chock full of challenges to chase, mostly around different approaches to gameplay as well as using the weapons at your disposal. What this means is that to level a particular weapon, with the COD-like weapon attachment system, you have to keep using it. With a vast majority of challenges geared towards gunfire, being stealthy is not as rewarding to your progress. Once you reach higher levels, you don't even get XP from completing heists at all if you didn't do any challenges. If you like to play a certain way, it's hopefully loud and varied, as finding a favorite playstyle or weapon and sticking with it will slow your progress right down.
There are also skill points that need earning so you can unlock a variety of passive boosts. The core abilities are Rush (10% extra speed), Grit (10% damage reduction) and Edge (deal 10% extra damage). These don't stack and improve as you pour more skills into relevant categories. You can also select a variety of roles for your character, such as being a medic that improves health bags for the team, a role that improves your capability in close-quarters combat, or makes you better at hacking. These roles are then further improved with more passive bonuses and perks. It's a decent system that gives players something to work towards. Another aspect to work towards is of course the visual customization items, such as gloves and masks.
Like the gameplay, the title's visuals are somewhat dated. They skew towards the arcade style action, with swarms of bullets tracing through the air and enemy bodies piling up somewhat comedically in the chokepoint halls that the AI continues to try and storm. At least the game runs well even during the intense action moments. The UI could have used more refinement, as some of the screens need more sorting options and better grouping for items. The audio design is somewhat lacklustre; the voice acting is fine but the special effects for gunfire are subdued, and the soundtrack is forgettable as it loops for the lengthy shootouts.
Payday 3 is a sequel that hopes to target existing fans, first and foremost. And yet that means direct comparisons to its predecessor, which are currently not favorable to the newcomer. The action feels like an arcade shooting gallery, and while that can always have its fun moments, it's all very dated and shallow. New character progression mechanics are hit-or-miss, and while the heists can be enjoyable and the stealth is better, it still remains on the simple side, aimed at creating more multiplayer shenanigans. It's further unfortunate, then, that even if newcomers wanted to give the franchise a try, they were faced with broken servers and a largely unplayable game during the launch weekend – and into the following week. Payday 3 has its moment of chaos, but it's tuned and targeted to returning veterans, and as its brief tutorial demonstrates, there wasn't much effort to introduce new players to a life of crime. Maybe things will get better overtime, but hopefully it won't take another decade to bring the game up to the same content level and feature set as Payday 2.