After a weekend on the beta, where the game crashed and lost my progress and the following missions were so tough that I couldn't claw it back, I'll admit I didn't like Payday 2. I quit, leaving my friend Owen to carry on with random players. But Owen has a way about him. A childish enthusiasm that he constantly fired at me on IM. He was having fun, and he wanted Bopo & Bucko* to team up again. He'd show me the way, he said. Then Jim said we should WiT it. So I threw the mask on, we formed a crime team with a pair of other friends, and hopped back online. Here's wot I think.
In short: it's good, not great. It hasn't so much improved with age as spread out a bit, gaining a gut and adding some wobble to the co-operative first-person crime spree. I've spent about ten hours in-game and there's still loads to do: skills to unlock, more heists to perfect. I honestly didn't think I'd take to it, but from the first map to the ridiculous multi-stage mission we closed off on, we had a seven-hour stretch of uninterrupted shooting at one point. The opening pretty much set the tone.
We were outside a jewellery store, on an easy mission plucked from the baffling server browser that I'll be angry about in a bit. Owen was explaining how the heist would drop: he and Andy would take the back alley, kill the security guards and answer their pagers. I'd be out front with Emily, killing the two cops and taking out any the fleeing pedestrians who might report on us. Then we could grab the loot and escape.
Nothing could go wrong, apart from all the bits that went wrong.
But that's the point.
It's very hard to do a stealthy run through in Payday 2, and the best our team managed was about two minutes of hidden activity before we were rumbled. The first part of most missions allows you to walk around the map and take it in: you can tag guards, spot cameras, plan entrances. Then when you decide it's time, you put on the mask. I pieced together the scramble at the back through Owen's panicked voice-chat: "Put your mask on! Hit him! Again! Now grab his pager. Coolio. Now we... aw!" *Whumwhumwhum!*
Someone had flubbed, but there was no time to figure out who, so we just blamed Owen. The police were on their way. We all gathered in the main store, smashing display cases, and threatening the customers. The loot we would cram into bags that we'd eventually pass into the getaway van. We piled the bags in a corner, to keep them away from the police who could pick them up, and tied up a few of the customers so we could use them to trade. In this instance, there were no safes to worry about, but there were other run-throughs where we'd have to tend to drills boring into the money bins. Then the cops hit.
The police arrive in timed waves: first the beat cops, then the heavies, then SWAT and snipers. By now, any notion of our group having coherence had scattered like coins from the shaky hands of a scared bank teller. I was sprinting between two back rooms, doing my best to keep the police from sneaking in, and the others were weaving between cases. All we were doing was firing and backing each other up, enjoying the hefty feel of the weapons, panicking over health and ammo, and blaming Owen. We weren't the well-knit team who could anticipate each other's every move, but the busy UI did the majority of that work. I could see health and ammo stats, player positions and dropped deployables, at a glance.
We were actually doing well: the body count was high, the pile of loot was undisturbed, and we all had oodles of health and ammo. The car arrived and honked for us. It was time to leave. This is where I made my mistake. Every interaction is timed, so even picking up a bag is bound by a countdown. We all grabbed bags and bolted out the front of the store. It was hectic, and I was in front, crouch-walking towards the van. I tossed out a few suppression blasts and hoped they hit, but even if they didn't the rest team were doing the same, providing some insurance. That many bullets was bound to do some damage somewhere. I got to the van and looked behind me: the team walked like a group of ducklings, waddling with the weight of the loot. As we all gathered, the van didn't move. Then I noticed the loot bag that I was supposed to be carrying was floating away on the other side of the fight. It looked like a ghost as it vanished on the back of a policeman. My clumsy fingers had flubbed picking it up, and I hadn't noticed in the rush to the van. We all watched, now exposed to the wall of police that had surrounded the store, incapable of reacting. Death was mercifully swift.
It wasn't the only time we had victory yanked from us, nor was it the only time that failure still managed to be fun. Payday 2 has a knack of undoing best (and Bopo) laid plans, but in a way that makes you want to return. You can often spot what went wrong and which element of human error you should eliminate. We set off alarms and alerted the entire FBI in one unstealthy assault on their HQ, and though we recovered, that alarm caused a shutter to close on a server room, doubling the length of time it took to break in. That extra few hundred seconds was what done us in, when someone was downed we all swiftly followed.
People are 'downed' in stages: first the person drops to the ground after being injured, but they can carry on shooting. If they take enough damage in that stage, then everything goes grey (for them) and they can't shoot back. If no-one manages to save them, they're taken into custody and you've lost them until a hostage trade is negotiated by the game. We failed two missions just by trying to rescue one player: they'd fall, the rescuer would drop, the rescuer's rescuer would fall, and the rescuer's rescuer's rescuer would fail. If you're going to fail, you might as well fail spectacularly, and in a pile of bodies. We restarted because we just had to win.
While it's one thing to have people replay maps for their own sense of completion, it's another to do so cheaply. It's not until you get to level ten that more missions are added to the meagre amount on the map screen, and that can be quite a slog. The longer we played, the more a touch of Groundhog Day started to settle in. I just checked and I'm sadly not Bill Murray: I don't get to win life by repeating the same thing over and over. While there's a good variety of missions, from a fun run on a nightclub where I demanded everyone report to the dancefloor, to busting into a meth lab and cooking up your own batch, the same bank from an earlier mission cropped up in a multi-stage, which is a tense series of linked missions that you get a huge score from. Though it wasn't quite the same bank, because maps will randomise loot placement and objectives, and some routes will be blocked off. It's a really good system for making each heist just that little bit different each time, and we did have to adapt tactics accordingly, but it feels cheeky when they use it to shove a map I've already played into a sequence with a couple of others. Particularly when the game does its utmost to get you to play them over and over on the map-screen, anyway.
Offering you multiple versions of the same mission at different difficulties is just one of the problems I have with the menu screen. Payday 2 ditches a traditional mission selection menu, instead requiring you to select missions from a map. That'd be fine if the missions were placed on logical part of the map, but they're not. Instead they throb in and fade out, actually disappearing from the screen. Filters don't help, as they only apply to things like enabling friends list and adjusting for ping. It's manages to be less useful than Skyrim's celestial skill-trees, which was my gold standard of terrible until now.
It's not as if they don't know how to do it. The character skill-tree selection is fine, even if the choices are a tad busy. You have four classes, each with three branches. My own selection was the Technician, because he had a skill track that led me to the promised land of a sentry gun. But I could have headed towards a faster drill or better C4. And I still can: there's no stopping me from selecting skills in those tracks as well, or combining entire classes so I can have the power of an Enforcer, alongside the speed of the Ghost, or the crowd-controlling Mastermind. I can even respec.
The equipment screen also works: any weapon can have a number of mods attached, which are earned, bought, or unlocked. The usual spread of handling, sights, suppression, and customisation are there, to improve on the already fun guns. And you can even sell collected upgrades and masks back to the game. Some of the prices are off, sure (a customised mask is thousands of dollars), and it's a tough call to decide between paying for character upgrades and weapons because you'll often not have the money for both. To move from an actual working menu to the broken mess of the mission menu is as jarring as being zapped by a taser.
What a fundamental thing to get wrong. It does a lot right, otherwise. Hanging out in the menu screens, advising on possible upgrades, moving from job-to-job, it's slightly more communal than Left 4 Dead. Everyone joins a map together, and there's also drop-in joining. If someone falls out completely, the AI will ready up, though the squad AI is pretty basic: they don't carry items, which could mean multiple trips for the players. The enemy forces aren't terrible to fight against: the staged waves are more compelling to me than a randomised assault. It's good to know when it'll get rougher to help with the planning and the ammo and health deployment.
Most of the levels are fun, the only downright stinker we came across was a mall heist that required the team to smash $50,000 of stuff. There's only the vaguest feedback given, so we didn't know what to smash, what would cost more, and why smashing up a showcar seems to have no effect. It's miserable to in there, wasting bullets and time when the other levels flood you with information. Drill have timers on them for god sakes, this damn level could have a clearer countdown. Even stages that placed drill locks in quick succession were more bearable.
That's partly because this is a party game. There's no getting around that it works better with friends or friendly faces, particularly people who can take a failure and laugh it off. I haven't found too many in the general server population, to be honest. A lot of hosts see anything below level 15 as a personal insult, and they like to abuse the kick button. That's not too much of a problem if you're comfortable on a microphone and surrounded by Steam friends, but your mileage will vary depending on who you play it with. Which isn't unusual for a co-op game. It's a good shooter, with flashes of brilliance in some of the missions, but I'd only buy it if you have people to play it with.
*Owen is odd.
Payday 2 is out now.