Back in 2011, co-operative first person shooter Payday: The Heist presented gamers with an interesting role reversal, placing them in the shoes of one of four career criminals out to make a big score. Unfortunately, the title flew under the radar for a lot of gamers, but thankfully Overkill Software were undeterred and have returned with Payday 2. I had chance to sit down over the weekend to check out the closed beta.
Payday: The Heist was unique in that it offered up a twist on the Left 4 Dead style by adding a more tactical level of gameplay, requiring teams to complete objectives and manage hostages as they survived the onslaught of the police response. The game had a heavy focus on replayability as certain events would turn out differently with each playthrough and a basic levelling system allowed each player to fulfil a certain role for the team, such as a medic or a technician responsible for explosives and safe cracking devices. It was an enjoyable co-operative experience, but it wasn’t without its faults. Payday 2 returns with the same premise, but with major updates and improvements to address these issues.
As the game starts you’re prompted to pay a visit to the safe house. This acts as both a tutorial of sorts and in game distraction come playground, much like Monteriggioni in Assassins Creed II. After being introduced to the basic mechanics of the game, you’re given free roam to walk around and visit areas such as the safe to see the piles of cash you have stolen, the weapon range to admire and test all the guns you’ve collected and the safe cracking room to get in some practise – although I’m not quite sure who needs to practise pressing F to deploy an automatic drill. Currently there’s not much reason to spend more than a few minutes down here, but given the game promises the ability to spruce up your pad as you complete more jobs and pull in more cash as well as the expansion possibilities via DLC, there could be enough reason further down the line to pull players back down into the basement.
You’d be forgiven if a red warning light just went off in your head screaming Micro-transactions! There’s no need to worry, however, as Overkill seems to have taken a stance against the controversial game mechanic:
PAYDAY 2 has no micro-transactions…you purchase items for in-game cash, like in any other classic RPG game. – Steam Description
Before jumping into missions it’s wise to spend a little bit of time familiarising yourself with the Skills and Inventory menus so you’re prepared for the coming heists.
The original game had a rather simple levelling system in which you gained experience by doing almost anything in the world, from completing objectives or challenges to picking up cash strewn about the landscape. When you gathered enough experience to level up you would unlock a weapon, modification or bonus akin to whichever of the four classes (Assault, Sharpshooter, Support or Technician) you had selected. It took a while, but it allowed players to eventually unlock everything in every class. That system has been completely reworked for the sequel.
Experience is now earned only upon completion of a job, adding a greater punishment for failure and money. This plays a much larger role this time around and is no longer tied to your level, instead being divided up between an offshore account and cash in your pocket to spend.
The four classes do make a return and are loosely coupled to the originals in the form of Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician and Ghost. The Mastermind is the leader and medic responsible for controlling the environment and keeping everyone alive. The Enforcer is a close range specialist and damage sponge responsible for managing enemy agro and keeping the bullets flowing. The Technician is an explosive and tech specialist responsible for mitigating the enemy’s ability to move around the map and keeping equipment, such as drills, in working order. The Ghost is a stealth specialist responsible for scouting an area, cleaning up bodies and breaking into areas quickly and quietly. However, instead of offering a string of weapons or equipment unlocks, these classes are now presented in the form of more traditional RPG skill trees seen in games like Borderlands or World of Warcraft (prior to the Cataclysm patch that simplified everything).
Instead of automatically increasing a particular class, Payday 2 awards you with an experience point each time you level up. There are reportedly 100 levels in the game and you are awarded a bonus point every 10 levels, meaning you have a total of 120 points to spend. This means that you are not going to be able to unlock everything and will need to create a skill build suited to your play style.
After purchasing the core ability of a particular class, you are then given access to the first of the six tiers that make up the tree. In order to unlock further tiers you must spend a certain number of points across the available options. Unlocking abilities not only costs a certain number of points, but also comes with a monetary value attached, so there may be times when you cannot afford to improve your character. To further drain money from your virtual wallet, each ability in the tree can also be “Aced” for a further investment of points and cash to improve the basic effect already provided, the cost of which only rises in further tiers. On top of this, unlocking at least a single ability in a tier grants you access to a tier bonus to further amplify your own or your team’s abilities.
Thankfully, there are no restrictions, outside of those stated above, on where points can be spent. This means you aren’t as tied down or forced into making too many hard choices as you are in some RPG titles, meaning you can choose to pour all of your points into one tree, or spread them out evenly across all four, it’s entirely up to you. I imagine the majority of players, however, will pick a main specialty and balance out the remaining points amongst the other options in order to compliment or augment their play style.
It all sounds a lot more complex than it is and I found this site useful for experimenting and getting to grips with different builds: http://www.pd2skills.info/.
Don’t worry too much, though, as it’s easy to re-spec any of the four trees at any time, although you will only be refunded 50% of the money invested into the tree upon doing so.
While I do like the new system – it’s more personal but less flexible style in contrast to the first game – it does have some potential drawbacks. To illustrate my point, assume I was max level in Payday: The Heist. If I was to fulfil the role of technician for my team, it didn’t matter if we decided if I should take trip mines or the sentry gun, both would be at the top of their ability.
In Payday 2, I may have built my technician to use sentry guns and not trip mines, removing this choice. You could get around this by having a team containing two technician builds, but it will still limit your play style options – not in such a way that it ruins the game, things just might be a bit dicier and you may find yourself blocked from getting the most out of a level that you would have with a more well-rounded team. Thankfully, the game compensates for this issue via the potential an individual has to have a greater influence on the success of and options available to his or her team via smart distribution of skill points to unlock an assortment of passive skills and abilities. That is to say, the twelve points required to ace one skill relating to trip mines in tiers four, five and six, could instead be spread out amongst tiers one, two and three of another class to unlock far more perks and abilities for you and your team.
I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, on the surface it’s simply a set of choices individuals or teams are going to have to approach with a lot more thought compared to the first game. However, it does come with the potential for players to demand the use of “cookie-cutter” builds or may result in a member of a team being forced to build their character in a certain way that they may not actually want. Whilst it is easy to re-spec a character, it is very costly and many players won’t want to do it regularly. Doing so on a tier six tree can cost a minimum of almost a million dollars!
As well as spending your hard earn cash on your skill build, you can pop over to the Inventory and view all the weapons, armour and equipment you’ll be using in your criminal a career. The majority of these items are either purchased or unlocked by ranking up or completing heists; though some are only on offer to those with a particular skill build. There are plenty of options on offer here and the extra consideration needed in regard to the impact weapons and armour has on your visibility – read: how much you stand out in a crowd – and your movement speed is a welcome addition and makes it feel even more like you’re actually planning a heist.
This level of immersion extends to the mission menu, leaving behind the simple lists of yester-year and opting for an interactive map on which randomised jobs will pop up in various locations. Each job that appears on the map has a set difficulty and risk / reward element that presents you with greater experience or monetary gain for taking on stiffer challenges. Jobs don’t stay on the map for too long though, so you’ll need to make a quick choice as to whether or not it is within your capabilities. On top of this the map can be viewed in an online mode to see all public or friend created matches that are currently awaiting players or are in progress (as the game supports drop-in-drop-out play). It’s a unique way to present level selection, and while it defiantly goes a way to making me feel more like a career criminal scouring the internet for a job, rather than a gamer trying to set up a lobby, it also comes with a degree of frustration when waiting for a particular job to show up at the right difficulty – or even just to show up at all.
The beta comes with a healthy selection of missions [6 at time of writing] that showcase the updates that have been made to gameplay and will have players pulling off everything from a calculated bank heist to a smash-n-grab on a jewellery store and even transporting a cocaine shipment for a drug lord. It’s an enjoyable and varied roster that keeps things fresh, something important in a game so reliant on replayability, by mixing up quick heists with more methodical ones and even those spanning multiple days. Throw in the improved level randomisation in which even the structure of the level itself can no longer be taken for granted and players are sure to be treating their hundredth bank raid with the caution and hesitance they did their first.
Prior to jumping into any one of these missions players are not only given a far more detailed overview of their team loadout and what each of them is bringing to the table, but are also presented with the option to purchase assets to aid on their mission. Alongside obvious assets that can be used improve your chances or plug skill gaps in your team, such as additional medic or ammo bags strewn about the level (note: these are extremely handy when playing alone) some missions come with unique support items or intel that can have a positive impact on how your mission plays out, even though it may not be immediately apparent what it is. It’s a great addition to the risk / reward style of Payday 2 as they’re quite expensive to unlock for a one time use object, but can really save when you’re caught in a tight spot. My only complaint with the system is that only the host can purchase assets and there’s no way for others to chip in or shoulder the burden – this is especially annoying if the host is lacking in funds.
There’s a much greater emphasis on casing a joint prior to starting a heist this time round. Given the previously mentioned updates to the randomisation within levels, you can’t take anything for granted and so will have to keep a closer eye on civilian patrols, potential entry points and security systems. On a future playthrough, a camera that once sat above a door may no longer be there or a previously locked door may have been carelessly left open. All these elements make for nice touches that make the levels feel more alive and add to the tension you can feel when trying to pull off the perfect heist.
When it all does inevitably go south, and for me dealing with a situation gone wrong is what Payday is all about, you’ll be treated to the sight of your character actually putting on their mask. It serves to pull you into the action even more and, for many I’m sure, the fact that this time around one player starting the heist doesn’t automatically force every player to go guns up will be a welcome addition.
Unless you were playing on the higher difficulties in Payday: The Heist, the police were more of an obstacle than a threat. In a single level you could expect to plough through hundreds of America’s finest racking up a body count Rambo would be jealous of. This time, like the levels themselves, things have been toned down and tightened up. The police force will now react in kind to your action, such that the more of them you kill the harder they’ll push back against you with the force and might of their resources. It’s a swifter and harder onslaught that makes the onset of each assault wave more tense than the last as you weigh up whether to stay and get that last bag of cash or to just cut your losses and run as there’s no way you’re prepared to see another wave through. Quite simply, the police force holds far more presence this time around and you really do find yourself considering the “flee” option.
It’s a device that should encourage players to strive for a stealthy playthrough rather than charging in guns blazing like you’d joined a Call of Duty multiplayer match half way through. In fact this is highly inadvisable as killing a civilian comes with an automatic and unavoidable $3000 penalty that can really sting during the early game, so check your targets. Overkill have stated that it’s entirely possible to pull off the perfect heist in Payday 2, although it’s going to be a gargantuan feat that will undoubtedly be quite something to behold. Still, that won’t stop most of us from trying and shouting at one of our team-mates when it all goes pear shaped. For me this tension is paramount to the enjoyment of the experience as I often found myself mumbling “come on, come on” under my breath as I waited for my character to finish picking a lock before a guard came back, or trying to get the drill to kick back into action before the next police wave.
Should you manage to get out alive you’re presented with your final earnings, which are comprised of a contractual day rate, completion bonus and any additional funds you accrued along the way. It can be a bit strange to make $45,000 on a heist, only to walk away with $2,000 in spending money and the rest going to an offshore account – but (and I can’t speak for experience here) it’s perhaps a bit more representative of the reality of the situation, and that seems to be what Payday 2 is going for. Alongside any monetary gain you’re also given the chance to select one of three random loot cards that could grant you anything from an instant cash bonus to a new mask or gun modification. It makes for a nice incentive to keep replaying the levels, not only to collect extra patterns, colours or materials to take advantage of the extensive mask customisation options but to secure the bragging rights that come with some of the extremely rare and enviable drops.
In summary, it’s hard to say anything other than Payday 2 is an absolutely fantastic game. I usually like to save statements like that for the final line of a review, but I can’t help but fight the urge to tell people to go out and preorder right now. While the updates to make it less of an expanded horde mode and more of a bank heist simulation (if there is such a thing) make it feel like a much harder and less forgiving game, even on normal difficulty, it’s not something that should put you off – unless you’re a solo player of course. The demands of a level can be quite punishing when alone, especially during the early game, and you will find yourself missing out on getting the most out of each job, but many would argue that’s the point as it’s a game that absolutely wants to be played with friends.
The biggest and most important change for me is the much more bite-sized mission focus. The fact that the levels were long and convoluted in Payday: The Heist meant that failing a mission was demoralising, more often than not resulting in your team simply unable to be bothered to give it another try. It’s somewhat ironic as you would still receive some compensation for your work, whereas Payday 2 presents you with nothing more than a game over screen should you fail. Perhaps that’s what pressed me to go on in the face of failure, the masochistic desire to at least get something out of it.
Given the first game received decent reviews and captured the affections of quite a wide community, it would have been really easy for the Payday 2 to just be “more of the same”. Throw in some new maps, add a couple of guns and it would have sold – after all Payday: The Heist was a fun game with a fresh idea. That’s not what Overkill has gone for. In receiving clearance to be released as a full retail tile rather than a downloadable exclusive, the game has received an extra level of polish in every way. In light of this, it’s strange that the PC version doesn’t offer controller support, but it’s not a great loss as the keyboard and mouse work well.
From the start, Payday 2 exudes style visually and audibly with the brilliantly re-imagined HUD, the fact your view slants when carrying heavy objects to show how its weight affects your stance, realistic sounding weaponry and another adrenaline pumping soundtrack. On top of everything discussed above, it all comes together to form an excellent package with far slicker presentation, showing that this time around Overkill have come out swinging for the cheap seats.
As we all know, beta tests are just a snapshot of what’s to come and it has left me really excited to see what’s in store for us on
16th August. [EDIT: Release date announced by Overkill as 13th August . (06/08/13)]
Make sure you check some gameplay videos of my time with the game below and be sure to come back for our full thoughts on the game when it launches.