Payday 2 review

Craig Owens at

In theory, the job was easy. But then again, aren’t they all? Me and three other wiseguys would hit this bank, break into the vault and make off with the cash housed within. Being the people person that I am, my job was to make sure none of the customers got any funny ideas about being a hero, calling the cops or whatever.

So after I’d killed the security guard outside and sweet-talked the dispatcher on the other end of his pager, I’d waltz into the lobby – all calm and serious, like – and start tying up those innocent bystanders. In the meantime, our safecracker would kindly persuade the manager to hand over his keycard, shut off the security system and get drilling on the vault, while the two other members of our operation searched for any civilians we’d missed in the backrooms and kept an eye outside. Easy, right?

This is how it went down. The back door was open on this run – which was great, since it meant the manager would probably go for a stroll outside. The problem was an extra guard, patrolling the carpark and heading up on the roof every few minutes. Quick change of plan, then – I’d take out the roof guard, handle the pager, etc, then wait on the roof for my colleagues to take out the second guard and the manager at the same time. Then I’d rush downstairs and start introducing the bank’s patrons to Mr Cable Tie. You’ve gotta know how to improvise in this business, after all – there’s no room for linear thinkers on my crew.

So up on the roof I slip on my mask, whip out my silenced pistol, and everything goes to hell. My pistol’s definitely silenced, but clearly not silenced enough, because a few traitorous decibels leak down to alert one of the civilians inside. They must have had the police on speed-dial, because seconds later we’re treated to the wailing screech of a siren. Time to go loud.

In many ways, the moment where everything goes wrong is the heart of this cooperative first-person shooter. The following seconds of panicked improvisation, when the brilliantly pounding dance music kicks in, plans get reformulated and roles reassigned on the fly, deliver some of the most intense cooperative thrills I’ve ever experienced outside of a game of Left 4 Dead 2. But it’s also the heart of Payday 2 in another respect: it’s the point where vague, unclear game mechanics and a steep, pointlessly restrictive upgrade system lets you down.

Payday 2 isn’t a stealth game, but it pretends to be, as the majority of heists start off with you casing the joint. There’s something powerfully evocative about these moments: the game utterly sells the heist fantasy as you and your friends coolly evaluate the guards and security systems of whatever establishment it is you’re about to ransack – a trap ready to spring. But the developers don’t deliver on this build-up. The moment you don your masks and start taking out security guards, someone blunders, or something goes spectacularly wrong.

Often, it’s your fault: a team member running into the view of a security camera, gun drawn. Sometimes it’s due to fuzzy rules, even if you are still technically to blame, as was the case with my silenced gunshot being heard through the roof. But then there are the incidents where you have nothing to fault but the game: an untouchable civilian on the other side of the invisible walls that bound the arena, calling the police. When my team and I finally pulled off a slick, perfect heist we did so via a zero-tolerance policy toward these unpredictable innocent bystanders: we killed anyone on the periphery who couldn’t be tied down.

The near-inevitability of failure might be designed into the game, but it’s a pity, as it renders the stealthier parts of the various skill trees less valuable. It also means that your choice at the outset of a mission between wearing unassuming civilian clothes or conspicuous body armour isn’t much of a choice at all – unless you’re prepared to restart until you get it right.

Payday 2 wants you to fail because it’s not actually a heist game but a heist-themed siege shooter. Some of the best levels realise this, and give you something to do other than sneak in quietly. Assaulting a meth den, holding off an attacking SWAT team, and then proceeding to cook your own batch of meth is a decent example of the kind of audacious stuff the game can, ahem, cook up, when not limited by missions that entail botched sneaky entrances followed by your team defending a drill boring its way into a money vault. The meth lab mission requires at least one team member to carefully add ingredients to the mixture at the correct time, while everyone else battles heavily armoured SWAT enforcers in the kitchen downstairs.

The gunplay is vanilla, in that there are no gimmicks to learn or unusual game mechanics to master, but it’s high-quality vanilla, with real vanilla pods. These weapons have genuine heft and spit out bullets in loud, percussive blasts.

The game gains a lot from its siege structure, too. The environments you’re defending have multiple exits, floors and entrances, and there’s something about standing in your assigned entrance, counting on your allies to handle their side of the battle, that makes encounters with the increasingly tough waves of law enforcement feel more nuanced and tactical than perhaps they really are.