Payday 3 Review
A strong start, even if the vault is a bit bare at the moment.
From the city street shootouts of Heat to the creepy clown masks found in The Dark Knight’s opening moments, there’s something alarmingly alluring about the Hollywood bank heist fantasy. Fortunately, the excellent Payday series has been letting me live it out for myself for more than a decade without needing to establish a rap sheet. The next chapter in this long-running burglary simulator, Payday 3, has finally been released from custody, and though it continues the series’ tradition of delivering one of the best digital smash and grab experiences out there, the usual horrible Payday bugs, a dinky pool of jobs to tackle, and a predictably weak story mean it’s not exactly the giant leap forward I was hoping for. Still, if Payday 2’s post-launch support is any indication, this is at least a very promising start for what could become another decade of happily pistol whipping cashiers and fixing drills.
Like its predecessor, Payday 3 is a cooperative multiplayer FPS where you and three friends take on increasingly elaborate heists. The extremely thin story focuses on the same motley crew of criminals as they’re forced out of retirement by a secretive cabal of shadowy and generic silhouettes. All your favorite entrepreneurial personalities are back, including Hoxton, the chain smoking mastermind, and Chains, the always hilarious military man. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the story itself is just a sequence of slides with voiceover justifying the string of jobs you’ll undertake with precious little to tie them together. There’s even a mission where you work with Ice-T… for some reason? (And yes, I do mean that Ice-T from all 500,000 episodes of Law & Order.) Payday does love a good cameo, and though it definitely makes for an entertaining little encounter, it didn’t exactly do much to draw me into an already barebones tale. But even if the story never really takes off, it does do a good job at setting the stage while hinting at what that future might bring.
Within seconds of beginning my first robbery at the obligatory “local bank branch” intro level, the movement and gunplay already felt enormously upgraded. You move faster overall and can do more modern maneuvers like sliding, which I found useful in combat as well as for stealth. Weapons feel more punchy and satisfying, even if they are burdened with hopelessly small magazines and long reload times before you’ve spent some of your ill-gotten cash on upgrades. You can even use civilian hostages as a meat shield now, forcing enemies to engage you in melee to avoid hurting an innocent soul, which is a nice touch. After years of incremental updates to Payday 2, Payday 3 immediately feels like a proper sequel in the gameplay department, even if the formula of breaking into vaults and throwing bags of cash into an unmarked van remains identical.
The weapon selection isn’t nearly as strong as Payday 2’s roster, with just 30 to pick from instead of more than one hundred, but the options available at present cover all the bases. You’ve got everything from deadly and accurate rifles to silenced pistols, and there’s a good mix of stealth focused gadgets and tools too, like throwing daggers that are perfect for sneaky tryhards, and devious jammers that can gunk up enemy comms. Weapons can also be customized with mods and attachments that significantly alter how they are used, like putting a scope on a weapon to increase its range, or adding a silencer to a giant rifle to make it an option during stealth runs.
Payday 3 also raises the bar with the quality of its misadventures, as the vast majority of the eight available jobs are super well-designed. Many feel like instant classics, like the art museum heist, Under The Surphaze, with its delicate puzzles and labyrinthine halls hiding priceless art to be pilfered, or the fantastic Gold & Shark bank heist that throws you into the most elaborate old fashioned vault break-in yet. Developer Starbreeze has definitely upped its game in terms of variety and quality with these base stages, and I found myself immediately repeating a completed job more often than not, just to practice my strategies and explore other possible outcomes. That said, there are still some weaker levels, like Road Rage, which is a combat-focused mission that has you guiding an armored van on a bridge with very little room for deploying different strategies and no stealth option whatsoever. Thankfully, that was the only one of the eight that was especially weak, and the highs of the good ones far outshine the lows of the less interesting choices.
While almost all of the new heists are great, it is a bit disappointing that there are so few of them after such a long wait. Presumably that library will expand dramatically over time, just like the previous entry did, but after just five hours I’d already completed all the available jobs and had begun the endless grind of repeating those same gigs over and over again. The saving grace there is that repeating these missions is a lot less monotonous thanks to the variety granted by added stealth options that make most jobs feel like two separate levels in one thanks to how differently they play from run and gun playthroughs.
In many ways the changes to Payday’s stealth mechanics are even more significant than any improvements to movement or combat. Only the most committed and elite players stood a chance of pulling off a totally clean heist in Payday 2, and proper leveling was basically a requirement in order to unlock things like a silent drill to get through vaults before making an attempt was even remotely viable. In contrast, Payday 3 provides new mechanics to support stealth right away, like the ability to pickpocket security guards to relieve them of their keycards, or use environmental objects to lure them away. That means pulling off a clandestine operation here is almost immediately achievable, even with a randomly matchmade group of players only loosely communicating with one another via text chat.
That’s also largely owing to the clever and fantastic way its missions are designed, in which stealth runs are now given a completely different route to success. For example, the Secure Capital Bank level normally requires players to go the humdrum path of using thermite to burn through the top of the bank vault then dive in from the floor above before making off with the loot, but this series of objectives smartly only triggers as your primary path once players have been caught. Before that, your crew can take the much more complex and rewarding route of breaking into various parts of the bank to sabotage electrical systems and deactivate security measures to gain access to the vault without anyone being the wiser, which is essentially an entirely different mission if you can pull it off. In Payday 2, that same kind of bank heist required players to follow more or less the exact same path of drilling through the vault no matter your preferred tactic, and to do it stealthily you just had to not get caught.
But all those new options don’t mean pulling off a stealth run is going to be easy, and that’s thanks to enhanced enemy AI across the board. Guards now respond to your actions, breaking free of their usual patrol routes to investigate suspicious activity and doing a whole lot more than drawing their gun and shooting you when you’re spotted. For example, if you’re found in a private but not entirely suspicious area, like the back office at a bank vs. the vault, instead of immediately trying to kill you, they’ll simply escort you to a public area and give you a good tongue lashing, which can be used by cunning players to remove guards from their posts temporarily. That smarter AI extends to combat as well, where the police do a great job of swarming you from all sides instead of standing around as target practice. They can also respond to your actions and try to obstruct your heist, like how they’ll pull the fire alarm when you’ve lit up that thermite, using the sprinkler system to delay your fire’s progress. Likewise, hostages are now much more responsive to your commands and easier to boss around and control as you use them as collateral in combat or negotiation.
Which leads me to one of the most exciting changes to the heist formula: each job now has specific phases, meaning that instead of either being in unmasked stealth mode or chucking grenades around like a maniac, there are now defined moments in between those two extremes that allow for different parts of the crime fantasy to be more thoroughly explored. For example, the “Searching” phase triggers when you’ve caught the authorities’ suspicion in a minor way and they begin actively looking for you, but all hell hasn’t broken loose just yet, and the “Negotiation” phase begins if you ever get caught outright and gives you a window of time to lock the place down to prepare for a fight or play nice by releasing hostages to delay the authorities storming the place. This added nuance opens up some interesting new strategies, like hoarding as many hostages as possible to draw out the negotiation phase as long as you can. It certainly helps that zip ties required to keep hostages in line are no longer a limited resource, too, so you’re able to stack those poor bystanders as high as your heart desires.
It’s also still a ton of fun to make your way down its role-based skill paths while out committing misdeeds, unlocking more abilities within those roles to bolster your preferred playstyle. That could be the The Hacker path, which turns your lawbreaker into a tech wizard who can hack into security cameras and confound security systems, or the Manipulator path, which grants you a silver tongue so you can intimidate civilians and law enforcement officials alike into submitting to your indomitable will. You can have any four of the 17 available roles equipped at a time and can spend your skill points within those however you like, which allows you to create the perfect villainous cocktail without wasting any cherished points on stuff you won’t use. It’s also nice that you level up and upgrade each of these roles by simply equipping them while out on crime sprees, which really rewards you for picking your knavery niche and sticking to it.
Even though I’ve come around on this new, more streamlined upgrade system, I do still miss the depth of Payday 2’s progression. This new system checks the most important box by letting me curate my very own delinquent based on the role I want to play within the crew, but it’s also not quite as chunky or complex – and it’s particularly disappointing that Perk Decks have been done away with entirely. Perk Decks allowed you to round out your character with minor boons related to their background, which was a nice additional system on top of the skill trees that gave me another reason to grind. Here’s hoping something like that makes a return down the road.
Hopefully that’s not the only update coming, either. As always seems to be the case with Payday, severe and horribly painful technical issues have returned like the cold sting of the law. Not only are the usual connectivity issues back, but there’s occasional framerate hitching, people walking backwards for no reason, and more. Even the menu barely works at times, and I’d often find it completely unresponsive as I spammed buttons before it finally noticed my all inputs at once and did insane things like open the same mission 15 times, triggering its intro dialogue to play all at once, overlapping in a incredibly disturbing way. I’m really hoping they iron this stuff out, but given that past entries have remained busted for months and years before finally becoming stable, there’s definitely cause for concern that we’re in for another rocky ride.
At least when you’re booted back to lobbies due to connectivity issues, you can spend plenty of time customizing your character’s loadout. With lots of masks, paints, and trinkets to unlock, you’ll have plenty to chase and can waste quite a bit of time and in-game money customizing the color and patterns on your weapons or the suits your character wears when out committing grand larceny. Like everything else in Payday 3, it’s a fair bit thinner than Payday 2 for now, but there’s little doubt that will change with time as things are added, and in the meantime there’s still quite a bit to unlock. I will say though, I already miss the little card minigame that we got at the end of every mission in Payday 2, where you had a shot at unlocking the odd cosmetic or weapon mod. All those same things are now earned by leveling up and spending your stolen cash, but that dopamine hit when the match concluded is certainly lost here.
Oh, and as always, the music in Payday 3 absolutely crushes it. Any disappointment I may feel when my stealth run fails is immediately forgiven once the beat drops and a money-crazed murder spree begins, making me feel like a complete badass instead of a heartless psychopath. This certainly isn’t new for the series, but it’s great to see they haven’t dropped that very important ball.
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