Payday 2 PC Review

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The First Person Shooter genre of games continues to thrive in releases and sales, but lately the increased criticisms from gamers suggest that the fad may have begun to dwindle. Aside from the typical complaint that there are simply too many FPS games with similar aesthetics, another growing complaint is the excessive violence frequently featured in these games. While casualties are inevitable in war, be it fictional or real-life, there has been an argument that FPS games often celebrate the rampant killing of AI enemies without showing any sort of moral consequence, even during heavy-handed storylines that (poorly) attempt to paint the protagonists in an empathetic light. Put simply, the games follow the power fantasy of players filling the role of a Hollywood action hero who can mow down thousands of enemies like some sort of psychotic superhero.

Even if you do not agree with these statements, they make for interesting commentary nonetheless. It is surprising, then, that there has been very little controversy surrounding Payday: The Heist, a recent FPS venture where players take the role of criminals who commit daylight robberies while gunning down hundreds of police who get in their way. In this context, the protagonists are unquestionably bad guys with no moral scruples, and often the game congratulates players for blasting away police officers in order to keep the heat off their stolen score.

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Perhaps the lack of controversy can be attributed to the fresh gameplay innovation. While Payday appeared from the outset to be another typical First Person Shooter, the game’s simplified premise that drew inspiration from previous FPS multiplayer modes (namely the concepts of defending a specific area as well as endlessly fighting waves of enemies) resulted in a cult hit that rewarded cooperation among online players and punished reckless rogues with itchy trigger-fingers. Technical issues aside, Payday proved a success for such a small-scale FPS, and the sequel promises tighter refinement and extra levels as well as more unlockable content.

The story of Payday 2 is as nonexistent as the one in its predecessor; players assume the role of one out of four professional criminals who receive contracts from Baine, an unseen Charlie’s Angels-like mediator who communicates with players at all times. Each mission features a specific objective, be it cracking a safe or stealing a prized heirloom, resulting in a big payout upon successful completion. Standing in your way is an unending squad of police officers, SWAT teams and other law enforcers determined to  slap the cuffs on your bullet-riddled bodies. What follows is a standoff between both sides as players hold off the police until the objective is complete, which usually means waiting for a drilling machine to slowly crack open the safe housing the required meal ticket. Other missions offer more unique objectives drawing inspiration from classic heist films, such as hauling bags of coke onto an escape boat, inflicting millions in property damage in a mall, breaking into a mob bank, and so on. As different as the objectives may be, they all inevitably result in a showdown with the police and the attempted getaway.

For the sequel, developer Overkill Software fixed the most common complaint with the original Payday, which involved the perfect accuracy of enemy police regardless of where players took cover. No longer do firefights feel like every bullet is magically making their way to your skull, though this refinement does not make the shootouts any less intense; enemies will still flank players from all sides, utilize flashbangs and smoke bombs, and also send out special enemy types ala Left 4 Dead. The self-explanatory Shield and Taser enemies make a return, as do the nigh-invulnerable Bulldozers. Sadly, no new enemies were created for the sequel save for improved armored units.

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Another issue addressed was the small number of levels. Payday 2 now features a significant increase in levels, including heists with multiple days (levels) attached to them. These linked levels can also alter their objectives based how previous missions are played out; in most levels, players begin each mission in “case mode”, which allows them to sneakily survey target areas until they decide to don their masks and get robbing. So long as you aren’t spotted by security cameras or guards, it’s actually possible to complete entire missions incognito, though also very difficult. All it takes is one player being spotted or one dead body discovered by a civilian in order to have copes surrounding the place.

Fortunately, Payday 2 also equips players with a significantly improved arsenal of weapons and gadgets to handle any situation that goes south. While the previous game used cash as experience points, the sequel handles it as actual currency separate from experience gained during each area. That currency can then be used to unlock extra weapons, weapon modifications, body armor and masks, which are all unlocked for purchase through gained levels or by earning them as a random reward after each successful mission. In addition to money and exp, players will also earn skill points with every level gained, which can then be used to unlock a new passive ability from each of their specific skill trees (Mastermind unlocks support abilities that benefit the entire team, Enforcer focuses on extra stopping power, Technician adds additional gun mods in addition to an automated sentry, and Ghost unlocks more stealth and strategic abilities for better sneaking around).

Compared to the first game, Payday 2 features far more unlockable weapons, equipment and content. But regardless of what you want to focus on collecting, it all requires a steady amount of cash, especially when talking about the higher tier unlocks. How much cash you earn in each heist is determined by two factors. The first involves how much risk the team is willing to give in order to reap the reward; while each mission features a specific objective and a getaway upon completing said objective, greedy gangsters can choose to prolong the standoff between the cops and themselves in order to secure extra amounts of cash.

The second factor depends on how well the team performs during missions; finishing a level with all four teammates intact earns a cash bonus, as does the speed in which objectives are completed (which can actually result in higher payouts over a shorter period of time, assuming players are good enough to speedrun the heists). There is also a cash penalty for every civilian killed during heists, an odd restriction considering the remorseless killing of hundreds of officers per mission. Naturally, playing at higher difficulties also guarantees a bigger payout upon completion, but this further emphasizes the risk vs. reward sentiment of the sequel, since failure during Overkill missions can end up costing some of your current pocket change.

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Mechanically, Payday 2 is a much more capable sequel, thanks to the small but crucial refinements made within the engine. As mentioned before, enemies no longer possess perfect accuracy, but players can benefit with better controls when handling even weapons with the craziest of kicks. Likewise, the emphasis on weight is also handled in a realistic manner that enhances the experience rather than frustrate it. Carrying moneybags, for instance, results in slower response times as well as tilt the camera at a slight angle, while wearing heavier vests also slow down player speed. Curiously, there seems to be no limit when it comes to sprinting, even though there are skill perks that raise a player’s stamina.

Whether the limitless sprinting is an intentional design choice, there is little debate that Payday 2 does suffer from a few unfortunate technical issues. First and foremost, the game’s online matchmaking follows the outdated and archaic rule that when the host quits, the entire game is forfeit. The lack of host migration and the limitless amount of agitated adolescents may result in more than a few games ending prematurely due to players failing to enter a mission carrying a specific set of equipment (even when they aren’t requested to do so), or for failing a stealth run. The lobby system itself attempts a unique aesthetic by displaying all public online missions as icons on a map grid. While this may look cool, it is in fact an incredibly cumbersome method for searching for games, especially when coupled with the laggy refresh rates and loading of mission dialogue.

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Beyond that, there is one crucial requirement that determines how much fun can be had with Payday 2: a competent group of friends. While not an inherently difficult game even on the Overkill setting, the odds of success improve dramatically with a team that communicates and supports one another. The public matchmaking is too sporadic to place bets on, and the AI bots are even more incompetent, incapable of handling even the most basic of in-game tasks. For those fortunate enough to have an able-bodied crew, Payday 2’s value proposition becomes a must-buy, even with its technical setbacks.

7/10

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Version tested: PC

Also available on: PS3, 360

Developer: Overkill Software

Publisher: 505 Games

Genre: First Person Shooter/Co-operative Shooter