2013 has definitely been a good year for Sweden with synthpop duo Icona Pop’s chart toping hit “I love it” pumping up our summer and eSport champions Alliance making gaming history by taking home the record breaking prize of $1.4 million in the DOTA 2 international.

Now, Overkill software is set to add to the list of popular exports with the drastically updated sequel to its innovative and addictive bank heist simulator, Payday.

Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: OVERKILL – a Starbreeze Studio
Release Date: Out Now
Format: 
PS3, Xbox 360, PC (Steam)
Version Tested:
PC (Steam)
Price:
£24.99

I had the chance to sit down and preview the beta a few weeks ago and while that’s defiantly worth a read, as a lot of what I said back then still applies, time with the full game since its launch has shown off a whole host of other reasons as to why this is a spectacular title that’s absolutely worth checking out.

If you haven’t been following the game or our coverage, Payday 2 places you in the shoes of one of four career criminals and tasks you with pulling off a number of daring heists for faceless contractor Bain, your link to the criminal underworld.  Building a more tactical style into the gameplay popularised by Left 4 Dead, you’ll have to work closely and effectively with your team mates to complete various objectives and manage civilian hostages as you defend against waves of armed police response units.  It’s not all about recreating popular scenes from movies like Heat and Dog Day Afternoon, however, as there is the potential for your team to complete a job without triggering any alarms.  It’s an incredibly satisfying outcome if you’re able to pull it off, but in a game that used Dark Souls as inspiration for its difficulty, it’s not something that will come easily and you can more often than not expect to be staring down the barrel of a gun or two.

Don’t be worried if it does all go south though, as not only does the gunplay make for an incredibly satisfying experience, the game has a heavy focus on replayability.  This is achieved through the introduction of a degree of randomness into each level that affects everything from the layout of the map, to the occurrence and outcome of certain events and even enemy and exit spawn locations.  It’s an aspect that keeps the game fresh to the point where, despite being 45 hours deep into the game, I found myself caught off guard by events I’d never seen before.  It all serves to give you a great sense of hesitance in your approach to each mission even if you’ve done it 100 times before.

Whichever way you choose to approach the heists in Payday 2, the various skill trees on offer, similar to those seen in the Borderlands series, will have something on offer to support your preferred play style.  Using the skill points earned from levelling up players can choose to take on the role of leader and medic as the Mastermind, the damage sponge and ammo specialist as the Enforcer, the explosive expert and gadget aficionado as the Technician or the stealth and reconnaissance expert as the Ghost.

Skill points can be distributed across each of these trees in any way that players see fit, provided they have the capital to fund it, and with a plethora of passive and active bonuses on offer there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out the right build to meet the needs of you and your crew, especially as you won’t be able to unlock everything.  Thankfully, choices aren’t permanent and you can re-spec each of the trees at any point, although it will cost you the substantial sum of 50% of the money invested in it.  It’s a handy system, and with so many choices on offer I’ve gone back and changed up my build a couple of times already as my preferred play style has evolved the more time i’ve spent with the game.

I'm Payday 2 Rich

Yay, I’m rich! Sort of…

Unfortunately, as I predicted in my preview, there is a downside to this system that has caused some players to experience trouble finding a game online, being kicked for being too low level or having an unpopular skill build.  It’s understandable that players will want to be as well prepared for a heist as possible, but it’s also worth remembering that just because a player has a stealthy Ghost build, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be useless to a team of loud, aggressive and explosion happy heisters.

Thankfully, this isn’t a long lived problem as you’ll have pretty much every gun and armour at your disposal by level 39  and your core abilities unlocked about the same time or shortly thereafter, depending on how you’re spending your points.  It’s not hard to get to this point and won’t take too long, even on your own.

Unfortunately, this is also about the same time when you’ll really start to feel the grind set in, and whilst this acts as a mechanic to push you forward to try the increased risk / reward of higher difficulty levels, it may also serve as the point that some players drop out and stop playing the game.  The trouble with the current system is, if you’re aiming, like I am, to blend multiple skill trees, it’s going to be a long time before you get the benefit of this split.  Games like World of Warcraft give you all the abilities up front and then let you spend the majority of your time chasing after all the cool toys using whatever style suits you best.  Payday feels like it’s turned this on its head, as you’re given all the guns and equipment fairly early on and then start to open up different ways in which to use them for the remainder of the game.

Whilst having access to a range of weapons and modifications gives potential for a lot to be considered regarding your arsenal before going on a heist, many will fall into favourites quite quickly – I’ve actually managed to complete plenty of Very Hard missions alone using the 2nd assault rifle and 1st pistol you unlock and had little reason to change.  This focus on weapons, rather than abilities, during the first half of the game makes it feel like you’re limited in the ways that you can play with all your cool toys, at least for a while.  It’s also something that definitely sits at odds with the demands of the online community, who are more focused on the abilities you have on offer than the weapons in your armoury.

Still, this is a very personal and minor point, the system actually works really well to get players up to speed and into a position where they can start to at least contribute something to a team and manages to keep the gameplay fresh as you see your gameplay evolve and adapt on the heists as new abilities are steadily unlocked.

Once you’ve settled on your class choice and the weapons that you’re going to bring along with you it’s time to hit up Crime.Net and accept a contract for work.  Crime.Net serves as an interactive map on which random contacts will pop up offering a number of different heists at different difficulty levels.  Though this works as an original and inventive way to handle level selection, and defiantly goes a way to increase the immersion the game strives for, it was frustrating having to wait for a contract to show up with the right difficulty when there was a particular heist you wanted to do.  Thankfully, in one of the many updates Overkill have released since the games launch in response to community feedback, not only has the rate at which heists appear been tweaked so there’s a greater chance of each option being seen, but they’ve added the ability to precisely set up a heist to your choosing.  This latter option does come with a monetary cost that is deducted from your offshore account, finally giving the ever increasing number a purpose.

Crime.Net can also been viewed in an online or offline mode.  In online mode, you can browse all of the online heists currently in lobby or in progress – as the game supports drop-in-drop-out coop play.  As the map can be quite hectic you can use the filters to narrow your view down certain heists, difficulties or exclusively games set up by those on your friends list.  You can also set up your own lobby by selecting any of the missions that pop up on the map.  Whilst there’s no difference between a private online match and an offline game in terms of difficulty or reward, it is worth noting that the offline missions come with the ability to restart a heist without having to return to the menu – handy for practising or when things go wrong.

In its current form, the game contains 11 different missions.  These missions range in scope from a single day smash and grab on a jewellery store to a three day long heist involving crystal meth and tense back alley deals that feel like something straight out of Breaking Bad.  The single day heists are excellent for a quick fix of illegal activity, whereas the longer multiple day heists can easily sustain lengthier periods of play.  The joy in playing these longer missions is the knock on effect your actions have as the story progresses.  In the Framing Frame heist, for example, if you manage to steal all of the artwork stealthily, the subsequent back alley trade is going to be more lucrative and less likely to have a police presence.  Conversely, if you were less than subtle in your grand larceny not only is that second day trade going to be a lot more tense, but you also have the chance to trigger one of the games various intermittent escape missions that involve brief, but tense stand offs with police that could cause you to lose all of the hard earned loot from the previous day’s work.

There’s a lot on offer here that caters to each of the various play styles available and the inclusion of pro versions of each heist – in which failure leads to a complete termination of the contract - coupled with the already random nature of heists means you’ll have plenty to do to keep your inner criminal busy!

Street

Guess we’re going out the back way…

Given the emphasis on planning a job both before hand to ensure you have adequate equipment and assets available and on the day when casing a joint for security patrols and cameras it becomes clear that this is a game designed to be played with friends.  Though playing with friends does give the experience an additional level enjoyment that can’t be replicated whist alone, it is perfectly playable offline.  I was able to solo the majority of missions on very hard difficulty level, and whilst this meant that some of them were more drawn out than they needed to be and I wasn’t able to get everything out of a heist, having to sacrifice some of the loot to get out alive, I was still able to have a good time with the game.  Still, you’re going to want to rope in some friends to get the most out of Payday 2.

As previously mentioned you have the option to complete a job silently without ever triggering an alarm or to go in all guns blazing.  The former is particularly tricky to pull off and is going to take some careful preparation and excellent timing to achieve.  Generally stealth works really well and ties in with the challenging nature of the game, but some aspects of it don’t stand up under scrutiny.  For example, this isn’t a game about senseless murder – after all you’re punished quite heavily for shooting a civilian – but, prior to an alarm going off, each time you kill a guard you have to answer a pager to convince the guy on the other end everything is ok, which you can only do this so many times before he doesn’t buy it anymore.

To stop a stealth character silently taking out all the guards with a suppressed weapon feels strange, as being able to silently deal with enemies lethally, without making noise or triggering a camera alarm takes some skill – in fact it’s a skill the Splinter Cell series depends on.  It also breaks the immersion somewhat as you have to wonder what the guy on the other end of pager is doing. Does he have a heart monitor trace of every guard? Why doesn’t he do this if you get the guard to cuff himself?  Outside of this, the game does such a great job of keeping you grounded in reality when trying to stealth, such as having guards find suddenly open doors suspicious and coming to investigate noises, that it makes this pager obstacle feels a bit jarring.  Similarly, if guards are going to find open doors suspicious, why don’t we have the option to close them?

If it all does go south and the alarm gets tripped, however, Payday 2 really comes to life and puts your crisis management skills to the test.  Trying to manage a heist as it quickly spirals out of control is a genuinely fun, albeit sometimes frustrating experience as you try to complete your objective, keep civilians out of the volley of bullets and stay alive, but that’s all part of the puzzle of managing the situation.  In these battles the AI team mates do a good job of covering your back and helping you up if you get downed, but that’s about it – don’t expect them to help with objectives, manage equipment or carry bags.   They can actually be quite frustrating sometimes, amounting to little more than an additional gun and often taking unusual routes to get to you that put them directly in the path of danger or standing in your way at key moments.

The enemy AI, on the other hand, seems somewhat more on the ball and can be quite punishing.  Enemies react well to your actions; taking cover when suppressed, finding alternate routes to avoid traps and making good use of their arsenal of smoke and gas grenades to take advantage of flanking manoeuvres or press forward.  The strength of the police response will be dictated by your aggression towards them and will escalate over time, such that you will often find yourself contemplating whether or not it’s best to cut and run before the next wave starts and your health and ammo begins to dwindle.  It’s a device that serves well to build tension as jobs drag on, and you’ll often find yourself shouting for your team mates to hurry up before another onslaught of police units descend on your position.

Should you manage to make it out alive, you’ll be rewarded with experience and money in proportion with the difficulty of and your performance on the job.  You’ll also be presented with a choice of one of three cards that will reward you with additional money, a gun modification, a mask or material, pattern or colour used to customise masks.  It’s an excellent idea that keeps things fresh and makes the success of a heist even more desirable and rewarding – be warned though; this is not a game for completionists as some of the infamous (rare) items have ridiculously low drop rates.  The advantage to this is that, because masks can only be customised once and materials are used up in the process, getting illusive drops and creating an awesome design is far more rewarding and adds a degree of uniqueness to your character that you’ll definitely want to show off.

Payday menu staring the Terminator

It’s ok to be jealous!

Summary

There has been a fair bit of controversy on the forums about Payday 2 being released in an “unfinished state” as a number of incomplete in game items were left out for the sake of quality.  Sure, there is an ethical issue in us parting with our hard earned money and expecting something from a game, only to find it’s missing – and if the safe house customisation was what tipped you to buy the game and Overkill never include it, you’re well within your rights to take issue with that -  but, unlike the games cast, Overkill don’t strike me as a company out to screw us over for a quick buck – these features are coming, and they’re doing the best to ensure we get the right level of quality from their products.

Whilst you can consider this unfinished, if you look at it as a release akin to The Last of Us or Assassins Creed, Payday should actually be thought of in the category of games like Minecraft or COD multiplayer, in that it is an experience that is being tweaked, added to and modified as time goes on.  In the few weeks the game has been out, there have been a number of updates addressing issues and ideas from the community, and with a year of DLC ahead of us, this isn’t a game Overkill are going to let stagnate anytime soon.

The alternative to this would be a possibly lengthy series of delays similar to those we’ve seen from Rayman Legends over the last few months.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have something to do in the meantime. As it stands, the current package of Payday 2 is superb, I haven’t had this much fun with my friends or enjoyed endlessly replaying levels so much since Goldeneye and with plenty to look forward to, it is only going to get better.

Quite simply, Payday 2 is an absolutely fantastic game.