This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 252.
Payday 2 feels a little less like a co-op shooter than it does a heist simulator. If you were being uncharitable, you might have called the original a Left 4 Dead clone, styled after the shootout set-pieces of Heat. It had its own smart ideas and brutishly amoral charm but it knew its limits – which are surely traits befitting any criminal mastermind.
Judging by my hands-off runthrough of the sequel, Payday 2 has forced those limits to the floor, hogtied them and pushed them into a stationery cupboard.
As in the films that inspire the game, planning is now a much larger part of any operation. You're presented with a city map, spotted with potential jobs. Which ones are available at any given time varies and the range of their objectives is vastly expanded. A Russian mobster might want you to swipe a tiara from a local jewellery store – a two-man smash-and-grab – while a dodgy politician might require a more softly-softly approach when plundering a rival's office for incriminating data. Some missions may be simple, others involve as many as five phases, each lasting between five to ten minutes, and the level of success in one impacting the next.
Which you choose and how you approach it is much more than a casual choice: Payday 2 offers persistent character development and enforces a great degree of specialisation. Your ability to tackle a mission will depend on the divergent skillsets of your crew. Want to nab that tiara without shedding blood? Maybe you'll need to get your mate online, a lightfingered fellow who can silently shimmy open windows and sap cameras. But how are you going to get through that steel door? Your mate knows a guy who knows a guy. They say he can crack any safe in a minute flat. Suddenly your Steam friends-list becomes an underworld web of criminal contacts.
This prospect delights me; it perfectly replicates the fantasy of the heist movie. Can you trust the muscle you've drafted in as insurance? Will someone get greedy and jeopardise the job for a few extra jewels?
This would all be for nought if the missions themselves didn't support multiple approaches. I watch the devs play through the tiara-snatch twice – the first time stealthily, the second guns blazing. Both options seem tense and fun. The stealth playthrough sees the robbers case the joint, wandering nonchalantly round the back to peer through windows, count guards and spot security cameras. After koshing a guard unconscious, they creak open a window, zap a camera, and while one quietly busies himself on the safe the other monitors the security feeds to ensure they won't be disturbed.
This is a disciplined duo, slipping out to the escape vehicle without being tempted by the loot in the next room. Not so much the second time round: pulling on the clown masks straight away, the robbers walk brazenly through the front door. Even this approach requires forethought. Before each mission phase there's the opportunity to spend your ill-gotten gains on preparatory assets: office plans showing the location of cameras, the combination to security doors that might give you an easier exodus or, as is purchased in this instance, the code to activate the store's metal shutters, making it harder for police snipers to get a bead.
Gun skills aren't the only important thing here: the mastermind skill tree gives you crowd-control powers, making civilians more biddable and enabling you to bribe cops to switch sides. Put points into the technician branch, and you'll be able to unlock drills that don't jam when boring out a safe's lock, or explosives. The latter attract more attention, however – our robbers opt for drills, tending them periodically while clearing out the cases of jewels on the shop floor.
Greed comes at a cost: the more bags you fill, the more bags you have to carry. Crime involves some serious heavy-lifting, it turns out. A bag full of gold bullion will severely encumber whoever has to lug it to the escape vehicle. A bag full of coke will leak its monetary value through every bullet hole. A good escape plan may mean two escape plans: one for you, one for your bags, which can be tossed out of windows or over fences to crew members waiting to relay them to the escape vehicle.
It's a potentially thrilling realisation of the theme, letting players carve out a niche for themselves in the criminal underworld and build a career on their particular illicit skills. Importantly, though, the devs explicitly decry microtransactions. It seems like an easy score for a game which channels persistence and specialisation, but that's not how they'll be funding this particular enterprise. Maybe they've watched enough crime films to know what happens when people get greedy.