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Even though the stealth genre’s seen something of a resurgence, it’s always used in contexts of espionage, assassination or evasion. Theft and larceny are still rather untouched, or used for side-missions or collectibles. It’s especially noticeable, albeit not particularly glaring, given how stealth seems to be most often used in real life for theft, rather than murder. Granted, previous games that have focused entirely on this concept that aren’t named Thief have had a poor track record, but that’s not to say that the more down-to-earth side of the underground criminal lifestyle doesn’t deserve its time in the limelight.

That said, Payday 2 isn’t the best indication of low-key larceny, although it remains a plenty great shooter. Just leave your moral compass at the door.

The first Payday was very disjointed and freeform with its narrative, and not much has changed in the sequel. A member change or two notwithstanding (though they maintain the same aliases), the criminal crew of the first Payday is back from vacation and ready to rob some more. Though they can remain doing freelance jobs alongside their handler, Bain, they can also do contract jobs with the likes of a Tony Montana expy and a corrupt senator. This means that, while classic bank heists still remain, the selection of jobs has expanded to include trades, small-time store hits, drug drop-offs and even classic art gallery espionage. A lot of contract missions now take place over multiple days to accommodate different locations or times of day.

But the meat of Payday still remains the same: shooting waves of cops under pressure of trying to complete some escort or protection task. While a lot of heists don’t start with masks on or under an assault phase, it’s not often long before you’ve placed down a drill or started hacking something that you’ll need to bunker down to avoid being overrun by SWAT.

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The gunplay is arcade-like in mechanics but realistic in presentation, with player damage sound effects sounding flat and quick to drive home how quickly you can fall down. Although snap-lock from Call Of Duty is liberal, you need to be able to use makeshift cover and gadgets to hold off the pure numbers of the police force. It hits that sweet spot between immersive and fantastic.

Much like Left 4 Dead, there are also special units that will be sent in alongside the regular force, including snipers, shield carriers, tasers that can knock you down very quickly and the blast suit wearing bulldozer. These liven up the general gunplay as would be expected, but they don’t pop up nearly as frequently as in the first Payday. This is a welcome change as some standoffs got ridiculous, particularly in the direct crossover with Left 4 Dead. General difficulty is based more around numbers and positioning now, and not on sheer attrition.

Much of your time trading fire will be spent in one spot, either guarding an object or waiting for the getaway vehicle. There is more of a reliance on moving objects this time around, however, and these are some of the most tense and difficult parts of the game. While it’s obviously better to wait until an assault wave is over, there’s never a point where you’re truly safe to move from one point to another, especially if you’re loaded down with drugs, loot or gold. These parts also best highlight how valuable co-operation is.

Indeed, Payday 2 was intended as an online experience, headset and all. Barking orders at each other, calling out locations of ambushes and special SWAT units and laughing off each spectacularly failed attempt of making that last run to the escape car is a codifier of just how magical the co-op experience can be by virtue of just having more humans playing. Netcode and community appear healthy enough, too.

Unfortunately, this also highlights how sour the offline experience is. Overkill were apparently none too keen on including an offline mode in the first place, and I don’t know if I can blame them for how reliant the team AI is, given that Payday’s inspiration, Left 4 Dead, has a similar lack of autonomy on the part of the team AI, but it’s shocking how reluctant they are to merely pick up a bag of loot to join you as you obviously hobble across the street to stash it. They’re okay at shooting back, but on missions that require constant maintenance on multiple points, like drilling through multiple safes, it’s near impossible to manage.

The mission selection screen is vastly different now. Far from the static map/parameter lobby that is often seen, Payday 2 runs on Crime.Net, which randomly generates map choices, difficulty, some layout variables and rewards to choose at one time. It’s confusing at first, and the cursor speed is just plain counter-intuitive, but it works at keeping repeat maps relatively fresh and changing the dynamic flow of your overall progression. When you successfully pull off a heist with Overkill stipulations, it feels well-earned.

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What doesn’t quite work at keeping things new and interesting is the new focus on stealth. While the last game attempted to implement elements of stealth, Payday 2 makes it much more desirable to complete a mission without police interference. What they fail to do is make it any easier. While there are many helpful prompts to tell you when you’re about to be discovered, there are very few ways to prevent this from happening without the proper equipment or skills, like a silencer for your gun or for the drill.

Essentially, the only way to pull off a stealth approach is to prove that you don’t need to, which is a shame because, on some missions, it seems like the only viable option. The art gallery missions are much harder if you don’t have a silencer or buzzsaw, and even ripping off small-time stores silently is difficult. It’s not that the amount of cameras and loose civilians is unrealistic or insurmountable, but that you’re clearly encouraged to circumvent them against all logic.

Of course, it takes time to get to that “prove you don’t need to” stage as well, as the upgrades system has been greatly expanded upon. The first game had a rather linear set of trees that would upgrade each time you hit an experience threshold, but Payday 2 has a more traditional, and open-ended, set of four skill trees, explored with skill points you get after gaining enough experience. Equipment is something entirely separate, as you have to buy new guns, gun upgrades and masks with the money you get from pulling off jobs.

Actually using the money you get is a far better system than Payday 1 just treating it like experience points, but it shares the same problem of the first game. There may be many ways to attack a special unit, or subdue a civilian, or open a safe, but it takes a long time to be able to use anything beyond the default means. Skill trees are so costly, and mods so hard to get (a random chance lottery after each mission) that progression becomes a Catch-22; you can’t do harder missions until you level up more, but you can’t level up much without the higher rewards the harder missions give you.

This is easily the worst part of the game, because it hampers the exotic feel of this untapped concept and sees you just shooting cops for a good many hours until you can take on more nuanced roles with higher quality gear. The shooting is fun, but even the randomiser can’t stave off how redundant playing some missions over and over again can feel. If there had just been a lower barrier for entry into the higher level gear and skills, it would have been enough to kickstart each player developing their own style and strategy, which is what Overkill was going for given their boasts of many combinations of masks and weapons.

If you can get past the first few hours, which are still fun, you will find a great team-based shooter that romanticises that which was portrayed as gritty, and yet feels involving and tense in its finest moments. With the promise of DLC and a healthy customisation, the community ought to stick around before they decide to live off their overseas account for the rest of their lives. It’s worth joining their escapades.

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Payday 2 is currently available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Note that Xbox 360 copies can only be purchased at retail.

An Xbox 360 copy of the game was independently acquired by the reviewer.

Tagged in: Featured, PC/Mac, PlayStation, PlayStation 3, Reviews, Xbox, Xbox One

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