[8 November 2013]
Payday 2 is a first-person shooter cooperative heist game. You and three other crooks break into banks or malls, steal money or jewelry, and then shoot through waves of cops to your escape vehicle. But that latter part is not a given. You can actually do most robberies without setting off an alarm or even firing a bullet. The mere existence of the possibility of a silent robbery is important because it gives us something to strive for other than mowing down an entire city’s police force. As a possible goal, it encourages us to delay shooting for as long as possible, but in practice, the game is completely uninterested in this alternative. Payday 2 feigns interest at first merely by acknowledging that, yes, stealth is possible, but then it does everything it can to trick new players into shooting first and asking questions later. The unfortunate truth is that Payday2 doesn’t actually want you to be stealthy.
First, there’s the lack of any tutorializing. Payday 2 seems determined not to teach you anything. Of course, I already know how to shoot, but the game also assumes I know how, where, and when to use each piece of equipment. I don’t, and learning those tips is a long process of experimentation and trial and error. Thus, stealth is not an early game tactic, but if we don’t learn about stealth in the early game, we won’t ever know when/how to use it in the late game. It has to be introduced in the beginning, even if it’s just as a concept, but Payday 2 doesn’t do that.
You begin most missions in casing mode, during which time you’re supposed to walk around, avoiding guards, identifying exits, and taking note of any potential hazards. It’s all about observation and planning. Stealth comes intuitively while in casing mode. You’re acting like a spy, and spies don’t want to be caught. This is all well and good, but then the game activates several audio and visual cues through the UI and music that discourage stealth and encourage us to treat casing as a temporary pre-game mode, as something to be abandoned once the actual robbery is in progress.
In casing mode, you don’t have a mask on, you don’t have gun out, and you can’t perform “suspicious activity,” which is pretty much everything. All you can do is walk around and observe. This makes sense in the context of casing for a bank robbery, but it creates an unbalanced perception of the value of casing mode. By limiting our options to this degree the game is telling us that progress—actions performed in pursuit of a goal—is inherently tied to guns, masks, and suspicious activity. If you know what to do, you can skip casing mode entirely.
When the mask finally comes out, there’s a distinct tonal shift. There’s a sting of music—a brief hint of the pumping, pulsing, and pounding soundtrack that is one of the best things about Payday 2—and your character says, “Let’s go,” or something to that effect. These cues indicate a shift. Something has changed, and you should probably change in response. Unfortunately, the action music and badass quip get us into the mindset of an action scene, not a quiet heist scene.
You draw your gun automatically when you put on the mask, and the mere visual presence of a gun further changes the tone of the game. We’re trained by every other shooter on the market to understand that when a gun comes out the action begins. That’s not actually the case in Payday 2, but the game does nothing to express this difference to players. You can still observe and plan once you equip the mask and gun, but our instinct is to suddenly treat the game as a shooter, since it now suddenly looks like a shooter. Subverting this established visual cue is certainly interesting, but you still have to let the player know that that you’re subverting that visual cue: The internal logic of your game has to be explained ahead of time or players will apply the logic of other similar games. Payday 2 is hurt because it allows the latter to happen.
Finally, and most importantly, there’s the fact that a perfect silent heist just isn’t very rewarding. An important aspect of stealth is speed: Get in, get out, don’t linger, and don’t get greedy. But this is the antithesis of a successful robbery according to the reward payout. Our spending money is based on how much we stole, the more we take, the more we win. Sure, you can steal the required four bags, but anything more than that is, as the game says, “pure profit.” How can you not strive for that kind of profit? Being silent necessitates an awful payout. So not only does the game not encourage silent runs, it actively discourages them as well.
Payday 2 does everything it can to make stealth unintuitive and unattractive. The visual cues tell you it’s time for action, the music cues goad you into action, and action is the only way to win big. It’s nice that stealth is an option since it gives us something to strive for beyond just shooting a bunch of cops, but it’s such a poorly implemented option that you’ll probably never even think about it.