Payday: The Heist Review
On PC where it belongs, Payday: The Heist mostly lives up to its lofty potential. Those moments and sessions where everything is working together as intended are some of the best times I’ve had with a shooter this year. A lackluster backend and some minor issues around the edges keep it from greatness, but if you have any friends you can count on to have your back in a frantic firefight, this is a worthy investment.
Payday is basically a modern crime-caper version of Left 4 Dead. The six heists are each half-hour or so affairs that shuffle their objectives and threats around each playthrough, but always challenge your four-person team to work together and accomplish a series of goals en route to pulling off some crazy stunt, like cutting a room out of a building and flying it off on a helicopter.
The gunplay is limited in scope to your basic rifle/shotgun/pistol paradigm, but the execution is tight and works well in the combat spaces you’ll find yourself in. The real meat of Payday isn’t in killing cops by the truckload, though. Covering all the approaches to a drill that’s grinding away at a security door while waves of enemies batter you relentlessly is the most basic of strategies. Layered on top of that are trying to keep someone on overwatch to counter-snipe and take out enemies behind cover, managing your ammo supplies, watching the hostages so the cops don’t free them, and adapting to any curveballs law enforcement throws your way.
Basic cops are hardly any threat. Armored S.W.A.T. officers are more problematic. Snipers can ruin your day in a hurry. Smoke grenades make defending your objectives or advancing far more difficult. Riot-shielded cops need to be flanked. Bulldozers shrug off dozens of bullets as they overrun your defenses. Tasers stun you for precious seconds. Even on normal difficulty, combat is constantly shifting gears to keep you on your toes. Most heists have great mixes of objectives that keep things fresh, flipping rapidly between defending locations, retrieving mission-critical items, and progressing to new places. It seems like there are always five things for the four of you to do, and maintaining that edge-of-your-seat tension is what Payday does best.
I love that Payday is tuned to be hard. I’m far from a shooter newbie, and the random gamers I hooked up with were largely communicative and competent, but I’m about 50-50 on winning or losing heists so far. There’s so much going on that even if you have a decent knowledge of the map, Payday will still surprise you with some new combination of special cops or objective placement. Pulling off a heist feels like a real accomplishment. In a world where most games hold your hand to a ludicrous extent, Payday comes out swinging and doesn’t let up.
Every aspect of the game outside that core mission is some combination of mediocre, non-existent, or terrible. The audio (with the exception of an awesome but limited score reminiscent of ‘70s action movies) is awful, with groan-worthy voiceovers and weak firearms. The visuals are competent at best, but wouldn’t have been impressive a full PC rebuild ago. Forget about matchmaking; it’s back to rolling the dice with browsing random lobbies to find a decent game. A simple progression system gives a moderate hook to keep you playing after you’ve completed all six heists, but I wouldn’t give it a second thought if the gameplay wasn’t enough to convince me to stick around on its own.
Payday obviously comes with some caveats, but it’s a great game when everything goes right. Just don’t bother with it on PS3 (read the full review of that version here), or single-player. I haven’t seen AI this useless in years; Payday is basically unplayable without at least two humans at the controls.