The heist genre seems to have been arrested before it even got going: Subversion is serving a ten-year stretch as the new Prison Tycoon; Monaco's team is keeping its head down and hoping for an early release. Only Payday: The Heist is at large, having stolen the nascent heist genre blueprints from under their noses. Here’s Wot I Think.
It's possibly the most slick independently developed game I've happened across. It really does want to be Heat, with Val Kilmer chewing on the scenery, and the team screaming at each other as everything falls apart. It also wants to be Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Oceans Eleven and The Italian Job and that crap one with Gene Hackman and Layercake and every other heist movie ever. It's four-player co-op where every character is effortlessly cool and moody, where you stroll into heavily-defended banks and slums in business suits, where the team's idea of protection is clown masks.
There are only six levels currently, but they're so varied and so tough that this is really plenty to be going on with. It combines solid FPS team combat with something akin to an adventure game; you're always sprinting from one spot to another, frantically trying to reset alarms, hack computers, interrogate civilians or plant C4. It has that breathless relentlessness, like a Hollywood action sequence, conveyed through a classic FPS interface; you don't even qu estion why you can always see your partners' outlines through the buildings, it's become so normalised.
Those six levels are gems, with nothing wasted; they make the game. Every level looks perfect, is cleverly laid out and never feels like you're limited. Thinking back, the pressure to achieve the goals with your teammates and the ease with which the cops kill an isolated team member, keeps you from wandering to try the world's limits.
Those levels are: A simple bank heist, where you start in civilian clothes and have to burn your way into the vault. A blown-up bridge, where you're breaking a prisoner out of a security van, before dispatching from the top of a partially-constructed building and rapelling away for an underwater escape. A drug den, where you're trying to steal an entire safe room by helicopter (very much like the theft of the safe in the first level of Saints Row: The Third, bizarrely, which also shares the blown up bridge.) A betrayal, where you're chasing a traitor through the streets of Downtown LA before burning him out of the van he's crashed.
The last two levels are outrageously tough, and can only be played on the harder difficulty levels; a stealthy diamond heist from the 22nd floor of an office block, which rapidly degenerates into something like Rainbow Six, and an attack on an armoured convoy that goes horribly wrong, pitching a bullion truck into a slaughterhouse full of curiously heavily-armed mercenaries. (I've never lasted more than ten minutes in that one).
Though the levels are open-world, the track through them is often more linear than we were expecting; there is some variance but, like its spiritual twin Left4Dead, it's minor stuff; the biplane might miss the pick-up of the escaped prisoner from the tower's top or the helicopter might drop the C4 in the alley instead of on the roof.
Despite this linearity, you can never relax because of the Assaults. These are the equivalent of the L4D tank moments which get more serious the longer you spend in a level. These consist of hundreds of cops, SWATS and specialists pouring into wherever you're currently holed up, through windows, lift-shifts, and doors, fanning out to fill all the empty space that you've just cleared and generally surrounding you while you blaze away. If one of you goes down during these, typically the heist falls apart as others rush to get him up before he bleeds out and are taken down in turn.
The enemies never get any easier either; they range from the poor schlub security guards and street cops, to SWAT, tough Bulldozers, tricksy shield users. On the tougher levels and difficulties, the enemies are also much better equipped and are often better avoided than engaged with. You can shout at the big guys to warn your pals that they're around, as taking them down is a team effort.
The levelling up process does mean that your first few games are about learning the level layouts and how the gameplay works; you really don't have any equipment options until you've hit level five. Similarly, there isn't exactly a tutorial, so players don't always know that holding Tab down (at any point) lets you change your upgrade path – there are only three,but it's worth switching between them to unlock new weapons, items and upgrades. For us, spoilt by the relentless generosity and pandering of Modern Warfare's multiplayer or a social game, it feels a little restrained early on, though the more you play and succeed, the quicker you unlock upgrades.
Given that, unlike many of these games, the team's loadout really does matter, that's problematic. Ammunition is always short, so if no-one takes an ammo bag, you're screwed, eventually. Similarly, a doctor's bag or extra cable-ties (for taking hostages, who you can swap for captured cronies) are essential. A team of noobs is certainly going to fail a few times, and it's worth taking an AI crook or two with you when you start.
The reason for that is that the allied AI is pretty damn good; whilst their sense of self-preservation isn't great, they tend to be better at surviving than most humans I've come across – and they're certainly more lethal on the easier levels. Often, I've preferred having at least one AI in a team, because he's always the one who helps you up if you get downed, he's normally still standing when everyone else is downed or in custody, he sticks with the team and he obeys orders.
I've played maybe twenty games of Payday so far, each of them only lasting half an hour and they're always a white-knuckle ride. We've succeeded maybe twice, once with myself as the lone (loaded) survivor. Who'd be a bank robber?