Thick as thieves
There is something undeniably addicting about Payday 2, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. The math adds up, yet it doesn’t—at least, for someone like me. And by math, I mean the usual elements we deconstruct games by: visual presentation, audio presentation, control, that nebulous term “gameplay,” storytelling, and characters. The first four of those come together in Payday 2. The last two don’t even matter.
Normally, I’d find the absence of agency through narrative and characterization—no matter how flat—off-putting. Multiplayer tends to only grab me when it’s competitive—when there’s that immediate gratification and intimately personal challenge to besting players who are people, not AI. But because Payday 2 is entirely driven by gameplay, co-op coordination, and communication, the fact that there isn’t a larger narrative scope to the game doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Each job—listed in the CrimeNet database, where they’re also detailed with extremely useful intel (pictures of the target items, blueprints hastily sketched on napkins, et cetera)—is framed like a standalone vignette, but ultimately narrative is formed by the emergent nature of how each heist shakes out. And protagonists Dallas, Hoxton, Chains, and Wolf are given personality through players—their play style, customization of their masks, and the tailoring of the four available skill trees.
So while the firefights in Payday 2 are between players and computer-brained coppers, not other gamers, a different brand of reward and gratification is born out of said co-op coordination and on-the-fly strategizing. There’s a genuine thrill and sense of accomplishment to pulling off a caper, no matter how much the proverbial excrement hits the fan.
All three levels I played went toes-up, as far as getting in clean, quiet, and without fuss or muss goes. The first mission we played was an art gallery job. Get in, grab some high-end paintings, get out. We managed to do the first two well enough, but tripped an alarm somehow toward the end, so “getting out” required cutting down more than a few cops en route to the getaway van. But we made our escape, and transitioned to one of Payday 2‘s new additions: multiple stages in the overarching heist process. In this case, we had to fence the stolen paintings to a third party by meeting them in a train yard to trade priceless art for cold-hard cash. Seemed like it would go off without a hitch, but shortly after we shouldered duffle bags bursting with bills we were double-crossed, and it took another another exchange of ammunition to get out alive.
Of course, this isn’t always how that situation might play out. One of the more interesting aspects of Payday 2 is its dynamic scenarios. There was just as much chance that we’d hand off the paintings, get our money, and leave without incident as there was of betrayal. In essence, there’s a constant state of “anything could happen” at play in Payday 2—partly through how meticulous and expertly players approach each job, and partly through the unpredictability of its NPCs.
That unpredictability reared its ahead again in our next mission, a bank job. Again, it started out clean, but one of us alerted a guard early on, and soon we found ourselves waist-deep in cops and SWAT, who breached the bank much sooner than anticipated—before the tech-oriented player had even set up the drill required to pierce the thick hide of the bank vault. I barely had enough time to lay down sentry turrets at two entry points. When police and SWAT finally showed up in full force, the bank lobby erupted in a hail of gunfire while the four of us desperately tried to hold the bank, dashing to the drill to check how much longer it needed. Three minutes can feel like an eternity when there seems to be no end to heavily armed authorities who have permission to terminate you with extreme prejudice. Fortunately, Payday 2 boasts some very tight shooting mechanics, so being in a hot mess is also a whole lot of fun.
Not to belittle the work the original crew did on Payday: The Heist, but the influence of industry veteran David Goldfarb—lead designer on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3—is certainly evident in the sequel. Everything feels more realized, more refined. I would go so far as to call the original a prototype by comparison, and I don’t think Goldfarb would disagree. Payday 2 is something along the lines of ten times the size of its predecessor. One aspect of that expansion is the random loot awarded after a successful heist, such as a rare mask drop or a new weapon modification. Another is the in-game economy. The money you earn isn’t simply sat on, it’s used to purchase better weapons, new tech and gear. This character progression, combined with emergent gameplay and loads of missions to choose from, gives Payday 2 fully realized depth and longevity in terms of value.
Honestly, were it not for Goldfarb’s jet-lagged exhaustion and more appointments to entertain, I probably would’ve tried to finagle a little more time with Payday 2. Overkill still has a few kinks to work out—twice I started a mission by spawning below the surface of the Earth—but I have faith that these are minor, quick fixes for the studio. And even as it is now, I think Payday 2 is absolutely worth looking into. As loathe as I am to liken the title to something else (because, let’s face it, that’s lazy writing), I think it’s fairly effective to compare it to Left 4 Dead, but with 100% fewer zombies and 100% more Heat-inspired heisting.
I’m sure Payday 2 is plenty fun when played solo, with AI companions, but it’s far more engaging when the emergent scenarios are created by four friends working together in co-op. If pulling off a heist were a team-based sport, Payday 2 would be the digital incarnation.