Generic multiplayer shooters are a dime a dozen nowadays, but occasionally, a shooter comes along which tries to change the formula slightly. Payday is one of these games, and although it can be a little confusing and needs more polish, it’s a quirky and enjoyable experience.
You play as part of a four-man team of professional criminals (in suits) who attempt six different heists to steal money, gold, diamonds or whatever valuable things happen to be lying around. Only one of these actually takes place in a bank; the settings are varied. One heist takes place on a bridge, another inside a slaughterhouse. There’s none of the sameness here which is so irritatingly common in many modern first person shooters.
Getting to the vault or safe is not an easy process. When you enter, you only have to fight off a few weak guards, but every couple of minutes a police assault will take place, and some of these guys are hard to take down. Some have riot shields, whilst others – known as bulldozers – are wearing full heavy armour. A further challenge is posed by those officers who have tasers which paralyze you for several seconds – enough time to be shot down if enough of his colleagues are present.
When you do go down, you have thirty seconds to be revived, after which time you are taken into custody. Wait a few minutes and you will be resurrected automatically (a jail break, perhaps), but often a few minutes is far too much. Once the current police assault has ended, the police select a hostage to be freed in exchange for your freedom, and your teammates must locate and free that hostage. Hostages can be civilians whose hands have been cable tied, or far more satisfying, police officers who have been forced to give up and cuff themselves. This last feature is fantastic – you have to melee the officer to within an inch of his life and then order him to take himself hostage. More abilities like this would have been welcome, because unfortunately, the game is quite often just a standard FPS, and it’s capable of being far more than that.
Weapon variety isn’t enormous. At the outset, you will have only one assault rifle and one pistol, and an ammo bag to take into the heist with you which can be dropped once and has a limited number of uses. A few levels down, you unlock a tertiary weapon, either a shotgun or submachine gun, and you gain the ability to choose between a few of each weapon category as you progress. Your ammo bag can be replaced by a health kit, or if you want something more deadly, a laser trip mine.
Payday’s levelling system is excellent, but unfortunately extremely hard to understand because of the complete lack of explanation on the game’s part. I had to read another review to figure out how to use it. There are three different upgrade trees: assault, marksman and support. Each of these has its own unlocks. At Reputation 135 (your level is called your Reputation), the Reputation cap, you will have unlocked every single bonus. If you bring up the objective screen in the lobby or during a heist, pressing 1, 2 or 3, or one of the face buttons in the PSN version, selects one of these specialties for your next level-up. You can also choose one when you gain a level, but in the heat of the moment you may well forget. Another failing on the game’s part is that your level progress is not visible anywhere, and the list of the next upgrades in each tree is just a wall of text with no illustration or detail about when you will get that upgrade.
First and foremost, Payday: The Heist is a multiplayer game, which makes it all the more disappointing that the multiplayer is rather flawed. The game in general is similar to Left 4 Dead, and one of the biggest similarities (other than the whole four-player co-op thing of course) is the fact that the friendly AI is pretty hopeless. It can barely figure out how to take cover, let alone split up to cover different objectives. Having three other humans on your team is a completely different story, because you can communicate to create effective strategies.
Unfortunately, this last part is made rather difficult. Voice chat and text chat are present, but the latter takes far too long and is incompatible with shooting things, and the lack of headsets on the PSN is a well-documented problem. They are more common on Steam, but still not omnipresent, and in any game, finding a team of people who can communicate effectively even with headsets is an issue. Some in-built functionality, like that in Portal 2, where you can ping parts of the map and give instructions, would have been brilliant and served to enhance the multiplayer experience enormously, given the teamwork required for success.
Each of the six heists takes about 25-30 minutes, but unfortunately there are only minor differences when you replay them. For example, in the first heist, First Liberty Bank (which is sort of a practice in that it is much more straightforward than the others), the manager who holds a key card that you need can be in one of a few locations, and you have to sneak in undercover to find and kill him. Later in the heist, you need to find a drill and can of thermite, but these are in the same place every time. The heists get predictable after a while without any real change between successive playthroughs; there is no equivalent of Left 4 Dead’s AI director, for example. Enemies come from the same place at mostly the same time, and you do pretty much the same thing in each heist. This means that there are very much only six levels rather than an infinite number.
However, your weapons and equipment do change, and there are four different difficulty levels (Easy being easy, Normal reasonable, Hard a real challenge, and Overkill positively insane). Your first few heists on Hard and Overkill will almost certainly be failures, and the last two heists can only be played on Hard and Overkill, so it will take quite a while to “master” the game. Taking into account the very high level cap, it’s still worth playing each heist several times, so you can easily get 10 hours out of the game, if not more. You can clear your progress and restart from level one, but you don’t gain so much as a shiny badge by doing this, so there’s no real point.
Payday looks reasonably good for an online shooter, and there is a nice range of environments, both indoor and outdoor – each heist has a clearly distinguishable setting, and there are scarcely any grey-brown corridors to be found. However, its lack of explanation of how to play and understand the game has to be held against it. There is no manual, and no in-game equivalent. Most of the game is quite easy to play, but you will still be confused about even the basics for a while, and more complicated aspects of the game, such as the levelling system, may take a while to work out. Each of the four criminals has a different voice, but there is little else to differentiate them. The voice acting is done well, with a reasonable range of accents (one of them is even Scottish). The music is subtle and not really very memorable.
Payday: The Heist isn’t a very deep multiplayer game, but it’s impossible to deny that it’s fun. Things can feel almost scripted on the lower difficulty levels, but enemies become intelligent on Hard and Overkill difficulties, and you need to pay attention and work together with your teammates as far as possible. It’s fast paced and exciting, but disappointingly not as creative as I would have hoped based on the promotional material. Still, it’s worth a try for any fan of co-operative first person shooters.