You’d think robbing an art gallery would be fairly straightforward, especially if there are four robbers working together to pull off the job. But when one of those robbers sets off a noisy hand dryer in the bathroom, and another one falls through the skylight, knocking himself out on the hardwood floor beneath, you should probably take some time to reflect. Just not now. Because right now there is a helicopter shooting at you.
Yes, I played Payday 2. Here are some thoughts.
These are all things which happened to our team of criminals during one of my games of Payday 2. Although, now that I think about it, I can’t be sure if the helicopter itself was firing at us, or if it was just the SWAT guys rappelling onto the roof that were blazing their sub machine guns at us on the way down the ropes. Either way, it was a pretty stressful problem altogether, but one that was solved almost exclusively by bullets. Other problems, such as the hand-dryer episode, happened much earlier on – before the alarm was triggered (sorry) – and was solved thanks to a team member who knocked out the guard who came to inspect the noise, put his body into a bag and shouldered it to the nearest toilet cubicle.
Similarly, when one of us fell through the open skylight and dashed his legs against the ground, instantly flooring himself, the leader of our pack rushed in and helped him to his feet before any of the security men noticed he was even there. It was only after the alarm went off (sorry) that things began to fall apart. The shutters came down on the gallery, trapping two of the team inside while I headed to the rooftop to get a good vantage point for all the murder I would soon be doing. The cops were on their way. In the end we managed to scrape our way out with four paintings in our escape van, after the leader shot out the skylight and began throwing me the plastic tubes of sweet, sweet art. It was only after catching the final tube that I looked up and saw the helicopter and everything from that point on is something of a genocidal blur.
The next two missions (this was a three day job, which splits the level into several parts) were spent shooting at every policeman we could see in an attempt to escape and sell off our well-earned art collection. I don’t know if they were Monets, or Manets, or Man Rays, but they were a pretty good bargain for our buyer as far as art goes. Anyway, we were told by the developer guiding us through (ie. the nice man who was constantly saving us from detection, although not in all cases (sorry)) that our escape was only loud and dangerous on day two and three because we had been so obvious back in the gallery. Why was there an ambush waiting for us on the third day? “Because we fucked up,” declared our leader. He insists it is possible to just walk through that last day without a hitch, if you are quiet enough on previous days.
Sadly, I neglected the first Payday, so I’m not sure how familiar this sounds to everyone. Although I am aware of the complaints that first game received. According to all these reviews I just Googled, it was tough, the guns handled a little clunky, and it always came down to shooting everybody dead. Looking at it, the second game feels more of the same in these regards – although the weapons felt perfectly fine to me – except when it comes to what you do with your money. In the first game, you didn’t really use the money you stole. Here, the developers at Overkill have added a bunch of customisation options. In this regard I have seen the lead designer tout this line that they want it to be tough and RPGish, like Dark Souls. On one hand, this is a baffling comparison to make. Frankly, you should not compare your game favourably to Dark Souls, unless the game you are making is Dark Souls 2. It’s just silly. On the other hand, what Overkill means when it talks about this isn’t just the failure/success ratio they want to achieve but also the amount of skills and inventory it has added to personalise each player.
There are four classes of skill here. Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician and Ghost. Each with its own standard ability as well as 18 other skills that can be bought. The Mastermind includes a medic kit, for example, but you can also unlock the ability to intimidate basic security guards, avoiding a fight altogether. He has the ‘Joker’ skill too, which converts one of these subdued guards to fight on your behalf. The Enforcer skill tree is full of tanky abilities, making your melee attacks stronger and better at carrying heavy bags from place to place. Meanwhile the Ghost gets an ‘ECM’ device that disables phones and cameras, a perk of additional damage with silenced weapons and a bunch of ninja-like abilities to make him harder, better, faster. But not stronger. The Technician gets trip mines and a sentry gun (or two if you go high enough up this tree).
The confusing thing here is how to determine which class you are playing as. You unlock things on your skills page between games, but it isn’t clear which of these skills you will have during play. I feel this is mostly a GUI problem. I played four or five games and by the end I was still unsure whether I was more of a Ghost or a Technician, or what role my teammates were playing, because apart from the icons over your health bar there’s nothing to label you. I imagine this clears itself up with time, good communication and a practiced memory but for a new player it’s a bit confusing.
The loadout screen deals with your weapons, which is a mostly CoD-like system of balancing your two guns until they are as ‘bang bang’ or as ‘pew pew’ as you like your guns to be. There are a LOT of weapon attachments though. And this EVERYTHING TO THE MAX attitude toward customisation applies to the masks too, allowing for an impressive amount of creepy possibilities. I wore a mask with three warped ‘Greek Tragedy’ faces made from burnt-looking tree bark, which made me wonder how any police officer could shoot at me straight after having so thoroughly wet themselves.
At the end of a successful heist there is a loot drop – more of these ‘Dark Souls’ shenanigans – whereby you might get a weapon attachment, some assets for a new mission (eg. blueprints of the building you want to ransack), or a shiny new mask. However, this focus of progression and customisation, though done pretty damn well, is only supplemental to the core of the game, which remains mostly a cops and robbers shooter. We are assured that there are stealthy ways to burgle the banks, stores and so on – you can even get through the art gallery level without bashing a guard on the skull and leaving him in a dumb heap of limbs for his security guard pal to disocover and call out the alarm (sorry). But such an attempt at quietness feels like almost like a secondary goal – something to try only after you have raided every level in ‘loud and angry’ mode.
It’s clear from our heisty debacles that Payday 2 is looking to embrace the ‘losing is fun’ philosophy that governs games like FTL and Day Z.But perhaps not fully embrace it. I didn’t get too much of that ‘things are going wrong this is ace!’ feeling exactly because for a bank heist to go ‘wrong’ it implies there was some plan beforehand which has been screwed up in some way, whereas we always just started the level without any plan at all – and everything always seemed to work out okay after killing everybody. Despite this, it’s still good as far as ‘Cops and Robbers’ goes. Or, as we in county Armagh call it, ‘Cops and Wrongly Accused Individuals’. The moment the alarm goes off and everyone groans is a genuinely funny team experience that you don’t get in a lot of shooters and I expect the games will be best when you are a veteran, taking minute details into your teams and timing everything so that you pull off a completely stealthy heist. It’s also important to note there were some tougher looking levels on the map that seem to be offering a lot more of a challenge. (We tried our hand at one of these – a coke deal gone south – only to be torn to ribbons).
Payday 2 might still not escape the shadow of its Left 4 Dead cousins, but Overkill does seem to have invested the time and money in smoothing out some of the problems of its predecessor. That might seem a little understated of me to say, but it really is the heist praise.
Payday 2 arrives August 13th.