Payday 2 is an online cooperative heist game. Four players (or you and three AI) team up to rob a place while fighting off waves of cops and SWAT. This is the general structure of every mission, yet Payday 2 never feels repetitive. Sure you always want money, but how you get that money is always changing. There is an impressive variety of missions within that narrow co-op framework, so when you are in the middle of a heist Payday 2 is great. However, it doesn’t make a good first impression. It has very little interest in explaining itself to you, which leads to several usability issues that threaten to paint the game as an amateurish, incomplete mess.
There’s the mission select map that only allows for random games: You look at a map of a city, and every few seconds it will “ping,” like radar, highlighting several online games in progress. You can’t filter the list by mission or difficulty or number of players, all you can do is browse this ever-changing grab-bag list of games until you see something you might want to play. You can’t even create your own games, just join empty online lobbies and wait for others. It’s weird to see a modern game lacking something as basic as a “Create Game” option.
After your first robbery you’ll get bunch of money, but you only get to keep a miniscule amount of your total take, 5% to be specific. This is the cash that you’ll use to buy equipment and upgrades. The other 95% of your money goes into some arbitrary, invisible offshore account. It’s frustrating to watch your big payday constantly whittled away to a fraction of its initial number. Why can’t I keep all of it?
You can win weapon mods after each heist, but they’re random, and you can win mods for guns that you don’t even own. It will likely be several hours before you get anything useful out of this system.
Finally, there’s mask customization, in which all of these irritations come together to ruin something potentially awesome. You can win masks after each heist, and some of them are intimidating as hell, elaborate monstrosities that make you feel like a powerhouse killer just by looking at them. You’ll want them all, but again distribution of these items is random. After several hours, I had a grand collection of one mask. You can immediately wear whatever you win, but you can also craft designs into it. This would be a fun means of customization if it wasn’t so expensive. Money that you use for guns and upgrades is also used to craft masks, and as far as I can tell, there’s absolutely no practical benefit to crafting a mask. It’s a waste of money. This cost, randomization, and the lack of explanation as to why masks are useful, makes this a cool system that I never want to play with.
All these annoyances exist outside of the gameplay. They are issues of presentation and explanation—or lack thereof. Thankfully, once you actually don that mask and start smashing jewelry cases, nothing matters but the heist.
Missions are varied enough so that it never feels like you are doing the same thing over and over again. Subtle changes have big impacts. Extraction by helicopter is very different than extraction by car because the helicopter forces you to stand out in the open. Your targets grow as well, from small banks and street shops to malls and nightclubs. Then there are the long missions that link multiple jobs into a story: Steal paintings from a gallery, then put cameras in them, then plant them in a politician’s office. The best level has you trying to cook meth while fighting off the police. I blew up the lab on my first cooking attempt, killing my team and failing the mission. I love that you can mess up the formula as it makes the process scary. You can’t mindlessly follow onscreen prompts. You have to know what you’re doing or just get lucky. In this moment, the game’s lack of tutoring works wonders.
In addition to the variety of settings and objectives, most missions can be completed silently as well. It’s very hard to pull off and you’ll need a well-trained crew and the right equipment, but it is possible. This adds an important element of suspense to the game. It’s always fun when a plan goes wrong, but it can only go wrong if it can also go right. Knowing this is possible gives you something extra to strive for and encourages you not to treat Payday 2 as a generic shooter but rather as a genuine heist game. Case the joint, take hostages, and don’t shoot on sight. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus cash or experience for being stealthy, so while it’s fun to try, most online attempts at stealth are halfhearted at best.
The one major issue that does affect gameplay is how cops act when shot: They keel over, but as they get back up, they’re invincible. You’ll shoot someone pointblank in the chest, then stand over them patiently waiting for them to get back on their feet before shooting them again. It looks bad, it feels awkward to play, and it artificially extends any firefight. It feels like a bug because it doesn’t make sense in the design of the game, but it’s such a debilitating issue that it can’t have gone unnoticed; it must be purposeful, though I have no idea why. It’s a persistent source of frustration that makes you waste ammo and time, makes hard missions harder, and prevents the game from being a mechanically sound shooter.
Part of me wishes for more multiplayer modes like those in Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days, in which you could kill your fellow crooks at the last second to take their share of the cash or you could play as an undercover cop whose only goal was the prevent everyone else from getting away. But that’s just my personal wishful thinking. Payday 2 is still good as it is, but it’s nowhere near as good as it could be.