Payday is that bit in every heist movie since time began where the poo hits the fan. At some point, our gang of four criminals in clown masks were hunched over a table in a smoky room, working out their every move with mathematical precision. Now they're trapped in a crumbling building with the loot, every policeman in the world is kicking in the front door, and their only hope is to survive long enough to make a miracle. And then do it again on a harder difficulty setting, because Normal mode is for wimps.
The most surprising thing about Payday is that, while it obviously owes Left 4 Dead the kind of debt that gets people's legs broken by angry Russians with tyre irons, it only takes a couple of heists to start appreciating it as a very different experience. Unlike zombies, cops attack using helicopters, smoke grenades and automatic weapons, making the always-ranged battles fast and brutal. Each of the six heists also offers very different experiences, from Heat Street treating you to a familiar leg-it-through-town map, to Panic Room giving you a building to defend while you try to retrieve the stolen loot. Finally, where Left 4 Dead occasionally blesses you with a moment of relaxation, Payday's 20 to 30-minute maps love to keep piling on the pressure.
Getting to the good stuff can be frustrating though. You can technically play Payday on your own, using AI partners to fill the slots, but only in the sense that you can technically drink your own urine. Finding a game can be harder than some of the levels: there's no matchmaking, only a server list, and Payday is yet another of those games that uses RPG-style levelling to render a rookie player practically worthless. You get no weapon choices, no handy items to help the team, nothing. Try to join internet games, and get used to seeing the message: “You have been kicked from the server.”
The idea is that by levelling up, you'll unlock the kit and competence to keep these levels feeling fresh. In theory, perhaps. However, it's unlikely that you'll want to run through them too many times, even on higher difficulty levels. There's no scope for playing especially smart or coming up with your own criminal plans, with the action firmly about hitting up the preset objectives and gunning down cops until the smell of fresh bacon starts wafting out of your DVD drive.
The shooting itself does play out differently each time – especially on higher difficulty levels – though the more grounded subject matter doesn't allow for anything like Left 4 Dead's AI-directed shifts of fortune. There, you get the sick realisation that a Witch is hiding round the corner. Here, maybe you end up retrieving a bag from the roof instead of a balcony, or a bank key that worked last round no longer does, forcing you to take hostages and shoot more police for longer, but you rarely have time to notice such details, never mind care. You will notice other things, like the AI's habit of glitching out, but even then you've usually got enough on your mind to let it pass.
Payday obviously suffers next to Left 4 Dead's amazing polish, but that doesn't stop it being a surprisingly compelling alternative – especially at this price. While flawed in many ways, it easily has enough spirit to be worth checking out next time you're getting friends together for a LAN party. Stuck on your own though – or if you're primarily going to be reliant on internet games with strangers – it's a crime that's unlikely to pay off.