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Payday 3 review: this co-op crime 'em up has lovely levels, but it won't steal your heart

No honour amongst thieves with this matchmaking

Looking at a loose pile of money in a vault in Payday 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Deep Silver

It's been a clear decade since the last entry in this co-op crimeathon FPS series, so I was interested to play Payday 3. Payday is exactly the sort of online multiplayer I can get behind: PvE with clear but theoretically malleable goals (theft!). But although compared to Crime Boss: Rockay City it's a crushing 60st monster truck tyre, Payday 3 isn't really reinventing the Payday 2 wheel. In some respects you might think it's rolling backwards, and while dedicated Payday 2 players may well switch over to the current gen iteration, you get the sense they'll be complaining about things the whole time.

If you, as could be the case, were a literal child when the last Payday released, here is a primer. You play as a gang of top crims stealing stuff from banks, jewellery stores, armoured cars, etc., with the aim being to make off with a bare minimum of loot to clear the level, all while shooting waves of angry cops as much as possible. In a typical Payday 3 level some bonus optional objectives might pop up (find a specific safety deposit box for extra cash), as well as recurring annoyances that slow down your heist progress (turn off the road bollards so your getaway car can drive up). You start every level wandering about in civilian mode so you can case the area, or even dust off a heist stealthily. Generally the quicker, dirtier approach people use is to mask up - in your Nolan-approved clown faces - and go loud, i.e. shoot guards and take civilians hostage.

The front of a club you're about to rob in Payday 3
Breaking into a vault with a laser in Payday 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Deep Silver

It doesn't help that stealth is much harder to pull off before you have the ability to, for example, trick cameras into not seeing you. The more heists you complete, the more you can upgrade and customise your loadout, and better your character with skills to take into heists with you. These may be passive boosts that improve your stealth or shooting or what have you, or gadgety things like the aformentioned camera-spoofing. In general, it's good to achieve as much as you can in a level before going loud, because Payday 3's cops increase in number and strength the longer you hang around a job, until you end up firing fruitlessly at a bellowing Sontaran bullet sponge. As with, I imagine, crime in real life, it's best to all get on the same page before you start.

Unfortunately Payday 3 - a game about planning and completing heists - makes the planning part quite difficult. Payday 2 has CRIMENET as a dedicated matchmaking lobby, where you can select a heist of your desired difficulty and join, indicating if you want to do a bit of stealth, discussing loadouts, and so on. Payday 3 has done away with that - and in fairness CRIMENET wouldn't be a great name IRL for a Tinder-for-thieves network, and should have been called WasteManagementNet or LegitimateBusinessDotWeb. Instead you have a timeline of heists taking place vaguely along a story (which is of so little consequence that you can press R to remove the story cutscenes cluttering the menu), and choose which one you fancy doing today. Matchmaking, unless you specifcally decide to host an invite only or friends match, is random, and you can't talk or text chat in the lobby either, which feels like an oversight. CRIMENET isn't perfect, but it does give you more control.

Aiming at a bunch of cops while we break into an armoured car in Payday 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Deep Silver

Payday 3 ends up being a game where you learn by watching other players. It's they who show you by doing that you chuck your loot bags into a central staging area here to ferry them more quickly to the getaway there; the password for the vault in this level is found on this computer and is accessed like that; we're trying to steal those paintings in particular. There are some levels that force you into stealth, like an early one where your take is mostly in crypto currency (an innovative addition to Payday 3 that'll ensure it remains future proof for many years to come!) on a server that'll be wiped if you trigger the alarm.

I actually like these bespoke levels. As part of the ten-year difference in technology, Payday 3 looks nice - Hitmanesque in some stages, even - and the multi-stage nature of them is great. It feels genuinely gangstery to scan a QR code of an unattended phone and use it to get through a locked door. There's also an increased emphasis on taking and using hostages, which you can trade for time before the police start their assault, or extra resources. It doesn't fundamentally change the game, but it is very funny when you press x to trade hostage and a cowering middle-aged woman gets up and appears to poo a medkit where she stands.

Breaking into a vault with a laser in Payday 3
At your server-ish
This tortured pun is to indicate that, as is traditional, Payday 3's servers absolutely shat the bed on launch. They're working better now, and aside from that I've not had any tech issues or bugs. But that is why my screens are largely from one level I played in a private lobby (there is no offline mode, and Payday 3 loses points for forcing you to sign up to a Starbreeze-specific online account called Nebula to play at all).Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Deep Silver

The maze-like art galleries and banks and specific set ups are good. But they also make it frustrating if you're not sure what to do, or if you're the only one in the group who is. If you don't fully understand the breadcrumbing from the one cryptic email you need to read, it's possible to spend ages running around as more and more waves of cops wash up against your bullets, until you're finally overwhelmed. It's almost better to practise levels alone in an invite-only lobby like you're preparing for a test. And if you do know what you're doing, you have to point out that you can bypass an entire step by just stealing the pass from this corner office, while the less experienced player bungles into a security camera they didn't know was there.

Payday 3 isn't not fun. The shooting is fine, the mastery of a crime feels good, the knowing where to go when and escaping with bags of ill-gotten gains! But Payday 3's level complexity requires a bit more active co-operating than your average 'go here, shoot thing' sort of co-op. The current skill gating also makes it harder to succeed unless you've already played quite a lot, which works against welcoming new players. As such, it makes it harder to have fun with strangers, which is arguably death for an online co-op game. It's not a massive plus, anyway.

This review was based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher Deep Silver.

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