In Payday's cops-'n'-robbers fantasy world, SWAT teams respond instantaneously to blown heist attempts. They pile into banks and museums with license to shoot on sight, and then they pile up in hallways as you and your team of superthieves gun them down while shuttling riches into a getaway vehicle. You can play Payday 3 like that—a wave shooter with stealing-related chores—but I prefer the harder stealth approach, and my team and I came so close to pulling it off before I blew it.
Payday 3 doesn't stray far from the decade-old Payday 2. The co-op levels I previewed saw me and three heistmates case a building, find a way in (front door, guns out is an option), and then complete a series of semi-randomized tasks to locate and remove its valuables. In Secure Capital Bank, the loud way into the vault involves collecting bags of thermite from the roof and burning a hole through the second floor. The quiet method is much more complicated, and includes the classic heist movie move of sticking a bank executive's face into a retinal scanner. That was the last thing I did before everything went sideways.
My team of thieves was made up of Payday novices, including me, and one Starbreeze developer who patiently attempted to show us Payday 3's deeper stealth system. Two stealth attempts ended because another player accidentally threw a grenade, one of the loudest things a person can accidentally do. One ended because a civilian spotted us climbing a fire escape and called the cops. Twice in a museum level I crossed a laser beam while trying to turn off the laser beams. And one time a guard caught me trying to pick a lock in the lobby of the bank and cuffed me. Not exactly Ocean's Eleven stuff.
You can't be here
New for Payday 3 is the ability to use civilian hostages as human shields and "negotiate" by releasing them in exchange for equipment deliveries or more time between assault waves. That's only an option when you put your Point Break-style masks on and go loud, and on normal difficulty it didn't add much for me, but it may be more tactically relevant on harder difficulty levels.
The much bigger new decision in Payday 3 is whether or not to mask up at all. When aiming for stealth, you can now infiltrate secure areas as a civilian, which significantly limits what you can do, but removes a lot of the risk of being caught: Instead of a SWAT raid, you just get a firm talking-to, at least if the rest of your team stays out of sight.
For our last two stealth attempts on the bank level, my team and I walked unmasked to an employees-only side door by the parking lot—you know, like typical bank customers—waited for a guard to look away, and then picked the lock and entered. Things did not stay that easy, and I was immediately nabbed by a guard. As he escorted me out, he spotted another of us conspicuously crouching behind an open locker door—a four-year-old's hide and seek technique was their best option in the moment—and cuffed him. As the rest of us stood around scratching our heads, our guide masked-up and shot the guard with a silenced pistol. It's still technically stealth.
If no guns come out, being detained can be a good thing: The next time I was being escorted out by a guard, I swiped the security badge off his belt, which would open doors for me later. After being deposited in the bank lobby, I walked right back to the parking lot and into the side entrance. It's silly, but I like the tension between maintaining plausible deniability or masking up. Once your mask is on, there's no taking it back, but the team can divide itself between masked and unmasked players.
After a grenade accident, we voted to restart, and our final attempt started out perfectly. We entered the same way and followed a cable to the second floor to find the big power switch that disables part of the vault's security system. After that we had to hit the correct symbol on a security gate to open it, and these are the kinds of things Payday 3 randomizes so you can't just memorize locations and solutions—one of us had to find a computer monitor with the symbol we needed.
While that hunt was on, I remembered something our leader pointed out during a previous run: that if I entered the door labeled "security" and somehow caused the camera feed operator to stop doing his job, we'd no longer have to worry about being spotted by security cams. Hoping to redeem myself with some extra credit, I picked the security room lock, entered, and instantly panicked: one, because a civilian saw me pick the lock and started freaking out, and two, because I hadn't thought about what I was going to do next.
You can't do anything violent without your mask on, and I hesitated almost too long before slapping it on and choking out the guard. With uncharacteristic calmness under pressure, I remembered to hold down a key to impersonate him over his radio so the other guards wouldn't become suspicious, something you can only do a few times (the exact number depends on the difficulty level). Then I casually walked back out the security room door, grabbed the panicking civilian, bound them up and stuffed them in the security room. Ta-da. Before rejoining the team, I spent a while peering through the security cams and marking guards—it didn't seem to help my team much, but it's a fun role to play.
After we bypassed the security gate, the next step was to find an executive and borrow his eyeballs for the retinal scanner. That was no problem, in part because by this point my team must've had half the bank's staff tied up and out of the way in a server room, so I had free reign to stroll into the guy's office and grab him.
While I held Mr Bank Guy's head up to the vault controls, our leader hacked his computer, which revealed a list of possible vault keypad codes in my HUD's objective tracker. My UV light illuminated fingerprints on some of the keypad numbers, and after the retinal scan I was supposed to enter the code that included those numbers. Except… I didn't know to look for a list of codes on my HUD, so an embarrassing scene ensued where our leader kept telling me over Discord that there are four options on the screen, and I, assuming he was referring to the executive's computer screen, couldn't understand why he wouldn't tell me what the four options were. Even accidental grenade guy was probably exasperated by the exchange.
Before I figured it out, a civilian finally spotted us and called the police, the bank went into lockdown, and the vault became permanently unopenable. We had to switch to the thermite plan, more or less starting the level over.
Knowledge is money
Despite the randomization of specifics, success in Payday depends a lot on experience, aka knowing what the hell you're supposed to do. In the museum heist I also tried, a certain computer tells you which exhibits contain the paintings you're after, a special scanner distinguishes the most valuable painting from its fake, and a USB key in a hidden vault deactivates its security system. When you and your team have that shopping list from the start, you can divide and conquer without all the frustrating fumbling around.
What's left is, ideally, lots of the fun kind of bumbling stealthiness: dropping through a skylight onto the edge of some geometry to avoid falling into a laser grid, scrambling into a ventilation duct to hide from a guard, frantically hiding tied-up civilians in side rooms. When our leader spontaneously slapped on his mask and murdered a guard who was about to call for back-up, it really felt like the moment in a heist movie where the greenhorns realize they've made a terrible mistake.
As a co-op shooter, on the other hand, Payday 3 didn't do much for me during my demo. The enemies were doltish, standing in clumps and doing very little to avoid being shot (some pre-release AI kinks were mentioned). I enjoyed flanking the dudes with bulletproof riot shields, but that was mainly catharsis due to how often I'm tormented by shield users in Rainbow Six Siege. At a higher difficulty level with actually-scary enemies, I can imagine enjoying Payday 3's shooting more. I also only tried a couple guns, and didn't have any cool skills unlocked.
Now I'm wondering how all that stuff I didn't see—including the other heists—will elaborate further on Payday 2. Payday 3 ditches that game's aging engine in favor of Unreal, which Starbreeze says allowed it to add new traversal options, as one example, but it's a conservative sequel without any huge heisting advancement to report. Maybe that's the right idea, given that Payday 2 remains one of Steam's most-played games. Don't mess with success?
Payday 3 will be out on September 21.