As much as I like Payday 2 — What else is any serious Payday fan going to say about this sequel? — it’s nearly criminal how badly developer Overkill has mismanaged the overall experience. I just want to play Payday 2 the way I want to play Payday 2. I just want to grind an easy mission. I just want to quickly jump into a game with other people. I just want to play a practice game to figure out how to mix methamphetamines. Do I use the caustic soda before the hydrogen chloride? I just want to be the baddest bad-ass shotgun toter I can be. But developer Overkill won’t let me.
After the jump, they did it their way.
Where Payday 2 goes wrong is how it takes away control. Rather than finding the match you want online, or even just hosting it yourself, you have to sift through a bunch of dots on a godawful map representing the crime.net website where contemporary heisters go to heist. Here you choose among preset contracts with preset difficulties and preset bonuses, with missions winking in and out on a timer. This is what passes for a server browser or even a “quick join” button.
It’s probably supposed to be immersive. Or maybe it’s supposed to keep you from grinding the same mission over and over again because the developers don’t want you to miss the other missions. But unlike the pointless safehouse, a misguided attempt at player housing that you can safely ignore, crime.net is a mandatory hoop you must jump through whenever you want to play.
Similarly, the drawn-out grind can be really demanding. In contrast to other games with co-op multiplayer and character progression systems — most recently Splinter Cell Blacklist and Saints Row IV come to mind — you’re going to progress very slowly in Payday 2. And often at the whim of other players, who might drop you from a match midway through, which means you’ll get nothing for your time. And don’t think you’re going to get very far in this always-and-only-four-player game with AI players, who still suffer the same limitations they did in the original Payday. Namely, they can’t use the tools necessary to actually play the game.
Weapons upgrades are dictated by random drops, which means you’re probably using a weapon not because you wanted to, but because the random number generator favored the upgrades for that weapon. It’s the opposite of the upgrade system in most games, where you upgrade a gun because it’s your gun of choice. Once again, Overkill doesn’t let me play the game I want to play. I play the game their jumbled front end and random number generator let me play.
But that’s more than enough kvetching for such a finely honed follow-up to a finely honed co-op game with superlative gunplay. Part of the beauty of Payday 2, which was also the beauty of Payday 1, is that there’s nothing else like it. Left 4 Dead is an obvious inspiration, but the overall experience in Payday is shot through with a unique appreciation for cinematic shootouts. Just as Call of Duty wouldn’t be what it is today without Saving Private Ryan, Payday wouldn’t be what it is today without Michael Mann’s iconic sequence on the streets of Los Angeles. The Overkill guys know their action movies.
Although the sequel consists mostly of prosaic heists — there’s nothing as inspired as the first game’s take on Nakatomi Plaza or a suburban cookout — they’re more elaborate, with more stages and more interaction, including some bona fide puzzles, traps, and gimmicks that are uniquely rewarding once you figure them out. It’s not so much rewarding grouped with three players who do it all for you, but that’s the nature of a four-player co-op game where you’ll often resort to pick-up groups because the bots aren’t going to cut it. My favorite feature of the new heists is how Overkill shuffles variables for any given mission. You can’t minimize the importance of changing the location of a vault door or the path to the getaway vehicle, with numerous options for making money. And there’s nothing quite like the uncertainty of having to play an escape battle when you thought you were making a clean getaway. The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft one more mission. Would that a dedicated stealth/sandbox game like Splinter Cell Blacklist or Monaco was this limber!
With all these variations, and with so many maps, there’s far more content than there was in the original Payday, and far more character progression choices to make with the new skill tree. Unfortunately, with all these choices, Payday 2 has some weird imbalances in terms of how best to earn money and experience. I haven’t begun to suss out all the implications of various choices, and I don’t think Overkill has either. Furthermore, there’s less flexibility than the previous game in terms of who can equip which loadouts. There I go complaining again.
The bottom line is that I’m complaining because the action, the gunplay, the visuals, the demanding teamwork, the ultimate sense of gratification from leveling up and mastering the levels are all pretty much unparalleled, even if they could have been situated into a better gameplay structure. Payday 2 is a wonderful shooter that stands alone in a genre full of me-toos, wanna-bes, and coulda-beens.