I have stumbled onto a new gaming addiction. And fortunately for you, this addiction has a name: Payday 2. I am here, breathlessly, to talk to you about my new addiction and maybe, just maybe, reinstate my eXplorminator cred after having fallen into the deep end of first-person shooters (FPS). You get to be the judge.
Payday 2 is a somewhat odd choice for coverage here at eXplorminate. It is a FPS game, which is well outside of our usual wheelhouse. It’s also a game that was released back in 2013, so it is not new. Furthermore, the game was recently embroiled in a controversy concerning microtransactions introduced in the Fall of 2015, with aftershocks still reverberating through the community. I’ll save discussion of that for the end. For now, let’s dwell on why Payday 2 has become one of my most played games over the past six months.
Allow me to the set the stage.
Another day on the farm
It was a sunny afternoon. Our crew parked our blue cargo van to the left of the bank entrance, near the loading dock. We took a casual glance up and down the street before heading into the large, classically-styled edifice of Benevolent Bank’s flagship branch. Inside, customers went about their business filling out deposit slips and meeting with loan officers. Sunlight filtered through large skylights stories above our heads, filling the central atrium with an air of mystique. But we had no time to relax and enjoy the scenery; we had work to do.
The first order of business on a heist of such magnitude was to thoroughly “case” the job. I walked around marking camera locations. Dallas scoped out which employees had left security keycards sitting around. He deftly snatched one off a desk. Bonnie snooped through the management offices, keeping an eye on the patrol patterns of the guards and key bank officials.
As we drew closer to “go time,” I took position on the mezzanine level near the management offices, keeping watch. Dallas used the stolen keycard to sneak into a secure server room. He searched for the code we needed to unlock the outer vault security door. No such luck. On to Plan B: locate the code on one of the many employee workstations.
Dallas pinged employee computers while Bonnie, still inconspicuous, identified the necessary workstation in the offices upstairs. Unfortunately for us, there was a lovely customer meeting in progress – we’d have to do this the hard way. I walked into the back office area, threw on my mask, and pulled out my silenced pistol. The heist turned hot. People started screaming but I hushed them down, brandishing my weapon. Then I secured the patrons behind desks out of sight. Dallas kept watch for people coming up the stairs. We needed to keep the office calm and secure.
Then, oh blimey… A guard was inbound. We had to take him down out of sight, which meant waiting until he was right on top of off us. Sure enough, he sauntered in and became alarmed by the number of employees and customers, curiously lying under their desks. WTF?! flashed across his face. We took him down, babysitting him so that we could respond to his pager check-in and prevent the alarm from triggering.
Moments later, Dallas hacked the target computer and found the code to open the outer vault doors. I slipped down the back stairwell, foiling a security camera with a pre-recorded loop trick. Then I typed in the code for the vault door and stepped back. There was a time lock on the security door, meaning we’d need to wait a few minutes more for the access request to clear. It also meant a likely call to the bank manager’s office from the off-site security service, GenSec. I hung around to answer the call and concocted a creative lie to clear our way.
That taken care of, I waited till the doors finally slid open, only to be confronted with another obstacle: laser beams. I spent a moment studying the situation and found a pattern in the cycle that would let me crouch through. This got me into the outer vault area, a sprawling multi-floor layout of rooms and security offices. All the way at the back was our prize: the secure inner vault.
I won’t recount in detail how I dodged the guards and cameras as I made my way forward. Or how I rounded a corner and stumbled into a guard, forcing me to take him out and cart his body to a hidden corner. Or how accessing the inner vault door required another trip to the manager’s office and accessing panels in two separate security rooms before I could open the massive inner vault door.
All that accomplished, I crept through the vault while my comrades stood vigil outside. My palms were sweating, both virtually and in real life. I had to sneak bag after bag of gold bars and hard cash back out of the vault, past cameras, guards, and laser beams to my eager crew. Then Dallas had the thankless job of running bags up the back staircase, getting onto the roof, and tossing the bags down two floors to land next to our blue cargo van.
In a final, gut-wrenching moment, we realized we didn’t get the loading dock doors open, which meant we needed to walk right out the front door, instead. Bonnie spotted for us while Dallas and I made a deft dash out, praying that no-one would see. We crept around the corner and started loading the bags into the van. It was all going fine until noticing that one bag hit something on the way down and landed in front of the van, right in line with the sidewalk and a street vendor selling delicious looking hot dogs. Dallas went to grab the bag and the hot dog patrons got suspicious. No time to lose! I dropped an ECM to block their cell phones while Dallas ran like hell to load up the last bag. We hopped in and peeled out. Millions of dollars. All in a day’s work.
Things could have gone wrong at any moment. I could have made a misstep and gotten caught in a laser beam. We could have taken out too many guards and made the security company suspicious. A customer could have seen us sneaking into the back and alerted the entire first floor. Had one of those things happened, the heist would’ve turned from a “stealth” operation to a “loud” one. Rather than using codes and keycards, we’d be using heavy drills and C4 charges to blast our way through the layers of security as quickly possible. All those stealthy skills and abilities would be useless as we would find ourselves struggling to manage health and ammo in a sustained firefight. It would be possible to shoot our way out, as we had done many times before, but there would have been no guarantees.
This time we came and went with only a whisper.
Payday 2, from what you might have gathered, is a 4-person cooperative FPS game about conducting heists and other nefarious activities in pursuit of infamy and incalculable wealth. And the game delivers. Developer Overkill has done a remarkable job creating a challenging and, dare I say, strategic FPS game. Superficially, the game reminds me of other cooperatives like Left 4 Dead or the more recent Warhammer: Vermintide. Yet it also strongly rekindles my memories of the early Rainbow Six days, a brutally unforgiving game. Like Rainbow Six, there is a critical planning element to many heists, a careful consideration of what skills and gear to bring on the assignment, and a discussion of the necessary tactics.
Yet Payday 2 eschews some of Rainbow Six’s adherence to realism, opting instead for a high level of action theatrics. This conjures up tones of Way of the Gun or notes of Heat, both heist and gunfight movies that look and seem plausible yet are utterly absurd if you take a step back. Payday 2 rides this same line and executes the drama exceptionally well.
Payday 2, contrary to so many games released today (particularly the much maligned rail shooters) gives players a wealth of choice and consequence. There is little hand holding. The objectives of any given heist are clear, but it is up to the players to stitch together a plan for how to accomplish them. Loud or stealth? ECMs or saws? Health or ammo? Part of what drives the need for choice, and in turn makes these choices interesting, is that the game is especially complex for a shooter. The “Long Guide” for Payday 2 on Steam, an essential reference manual for the gameplay mechanics, is over 88,000 words long. I cut and pasted it into Word and it was over 200 pages. 200 pages!
The game’s complexity manifests in a number of different ways. There are mechanics around stealth, detection and concealment. There are systems for crowd control and hostage exchanges. The gunplay contains a wealth of options for weapon accuracy, spread, and damage. There is a delicate balance between armor-centric versus dodge-centric playstyles. And of course, there are many means for breaking into things, be it by drill, saw, lockpicking, C4 charges, ECMs (electronic countermeasures), or security cards.
What brings these mechanics to life is how they dovetail into the RPG and character progression elements of the game. In Payday 2, your character earns both cash and experience from successful heists. Experience earns you levels (up to a max of 100) and in turn up to 120 total skill points that can be spent across five different skill trees. Each skill tree contains 36 different skills and uses a tiered system where skills cost more the higher in the tree you go.
As for the skill trees themselves? Mastermind skills are about team support, revival and hostage handling. Enforcer offers toughness, damage dealing, and saw use. The Technician has C4, trip mines, sentry turrets, and drilling. Ghost gives stealth, movement, and ECMs. And Fugitive provides dodge, support, and healing. All in all, there are 180 skills! There is also a secondary skill system called “Perk Decks” that players invest experience in and can be used to hot-swap pre-built perks to compliment their skills.
What makes the character advancement even more intoxicating is that you can combine skills in all sorts of different ways. Yet with the limited number of skill points available, you’ll have to make plenty of tough choices, as realistically you will only be able to reach the highest tier skills in one or two trees. Fortunately, Payday 2 avoids one of my biggest pet-peeves with most action RPGs, which is that it is often cost-prohibitive to respec skill trees. In Payday 2, you can freely respec individual trees and even get a substantial portion of the initial cost back. This lets you easily rectify bad planning or remove skills that don’t gel with your playstyle.
More spectacularly, as you level up you also unlock new “skill set” slots, meaning you can swap between different character builds. Maybe you have an awesome Techforcer you love to use for smash and grab heists. But then there’s that Masterghost build you love for sneaky operations. You can have both at your fingertips without having to create multiple characters and level them both up independently. So awesome.
The Ying to the skills’ Yang are the weapons. Players will build up their own armory of rifles, shotguns, pistols, and more, purchased with the money earned from heists. More so than the guns themselves (and there are many), are the modification options available. Take the CAR-4 (M4 clone) for example. You can modify barrels, foregrips, trigger grip, upper and lower receivers, stocks, sights, gadgets (laser pointers, flashlights), suppressors, and compensators. Each category may have half a dozen or more options, which allows you to kit out weapons for specific roles and heists. Maybe you need high concealment, or long range fire support, or upfront damage, or sound suppression. Finding the perfect combination that “feels right” in your hands is an ever-moving target based on need and experience.
This brings me to the loot system. While weapons can be freely purchased provided you have the right skill level, mods are earned through gameplay and come in limited supplies. In the base game, a random “card” reward is handed out at the end of each mission to compliment your normal cash and experience rewards. These cards could represent even more money or experience, but also masks or weapon mods. It’s a random system, so getting the mods you want for a particular weapon will take time.
There are dozens of DLCs for Payday 2, which add more masks, weapons, mods, and heists to the game. In many of the DLCs, weapon mods are tied to certain heist-specific achievements, giving you focused goals to work towards. There are also daily “side jobs” that will let you narrow down your reward to a mod for a specific weapon, increasing your chance to bag something you are actually hunting for.
I should mention the diversity of the heists themselves. Overkill has shown some serious inventiveness in their mission design. There are the expected conventional heists, but other scenarios get more creative. There is a breakout mission where you bust your comrade Hoxton out of custody and battle your way down a city street while escorting an armored pick-up truck. Part 2 of the operation has you blasting your way into an FBI facility so that Hoxton can hack a central computer and figure out who framed him. The follow-up to that mission involves infiltrating an FBI safe house and finding the rat that framed Hoxton and liberating them from a safe room, by force or stealth.
One of my favorite heists takes place on a highway overpass after an earthquake. Players need to break into two armored trucks and steal the incredibly heavy safes from within. Getting out involves hijacking a different truck, loading up the safes, and holding out while waiting for a helicopter to airlift you and the truck to safety. This just scratches the surface. There are multiple different bank heists, raids on warehouses and shipyards for ancient artifacts or nukes, drug running operations, and breaking into casinos and art galleries. I haven’t done a full tally, but the base game has at least two dozen different heists with another dozen or more available through the DLCs. It will keep you busy.
But this time, with feeling
I have to admit that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to FPS games. As someone who cut their teeth on Quake and Half-Life (and its offspring, like Counter-Strike), the “feeling” of weapons and movement is really important to me. Thankfully, Payday 2 holds up well. When the shooting starts, the controls are tight and responsive. Aiming and position matter. This is important because you will be facing an array of opponents. The security forces that are thrown your way have multiple levels of toughness. There are also numerous different types of special enemies: taz0rs that stun you, guards with bulletproof shields and cloakers with l33t ninjitsu skills who ambush you through vents and knock you down to the ground instantly. All in all, the combat feels both great and dangerous.
The stealth gameplay is also well executed, testing your situational awareness and teamwork skills. Stealth heists often involve everyone having very specific jobs and roles that they need to execute in concert with one another while you dodge cameras and guards. There is a delicious tension that ramps up over the course of the mission. It might be going perfectly to plan, but then a wandering pedestrian sees through the window, screams, and all hell breaks loose.
Overkill also really nailed the game elements that make for an addictive experience. The gunplay, stealth and teamwork, as mentioned, are all solid elements. But when you couple this visceral in-the-moment excitement with an RPG progression system that you can spend hours pouring over (not to mention the “just one more level” syndrome), a loot system that triggers your pleasure sensors at just the right intervals and a mountain of nearly 400 achievements and challenges (with tangible rewards!) it’s easy to see why the game has such a passionate following.
If only that was the end of the caper…
Controversies and calamities
Payday 2 is a lifestyle game, the sort of experience that attracts players willing to spend 1000+ hours on it, honing their skills and abilities. It’s the kind of game that can build up an awesome community. The downside is that, if something about the game changes for the “worse” in the eyes of the players, that same community is going to get loud, angry, and hostile. I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t share recent events in the Payday 2 world.
In October 2015, as part of Overkill’s annual Crimefest event (a multi-day annual Payday celebration), a new microtransaction (MT) system was added to the game. As seen in games like Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2, after a mission there is a chance for one of the card rewards to be a “safe,” which, when opened, contains a special item in the form of a weapon “skin.” The first rub is that you have to spend $2.50 to open the safe just to get a random reward with a variable quality level. That’s unpleasant enough. The real kicker is that there is a chance for these weapon skins to come with a stat boost along with the cosmetic changes. The stat boosts, while mostly minor, crossed a line for the community. Even more damaging is that Overkill promised, much earlier, that there would never be microtransactions in the game and shame on you for thinking there ever would be. You can imagine the poo-storm that’s been swirling around since.
However, Overkill has been trying to make amends with the community since the introduction of the microtransaction system. A subsequent patch added new weapon mod “boosts” that can drop from the normal card drops and provide the same benefit as the stat-boosting skins (and even override skin boosts). You can even do monthly side-jobs to earn boosts, and the safe drills have a chance to drop as a mission reward as an alternative to purchasing them. All in all, this move greatly helped diminish many of the community complaints that the game was becoming Pay2Win (which was somewhat odd given the game is PvE only), but resentment and a lack of trust in the developers still lingers.
It’s all about your crew man!
Controversy aside, I want to end on a high note. Payday 2 has been the game that helped pull my crew of (real-life) friends back to playing games together (well,at least more often!). If you can get a few of your buddies assembled for some multiplayer heisting the experience can be surreal. You can also play the game solo with AI bots, which can be great for practicing or when you don’t feel like interacting with others. However, the bots struggle to complete the more complex heist operations, which limits what you can do playing solo (or requires and lot more skill and patience to pull off solo!). Generally speaking, multiplayer is where the game thrives.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Left 4 Dead (even my wife loves playing it!). Payday 2 builds on that concept but layers in so much more. The level of teamwork and coordination involved in pulling off the perfect heist is tantalizing. Planning your character skill advancement and hunting down the perfect set of mods or accomplishing a challenging achievement is addictive. There are many times when I almost want the heist to go bad, just so we can break out the big guns and revel in our own action fantasy for a moment, trapped in the balance between hardcore realism and over-the-top theatrics.
I was late to the Payday party, but I’m glad someone finally sent me an invitation. It’s been one hell of a ride.
TL;DR: Payday 2 is a 4-player cooperative FPS game about heisting. You know the stuff: knocking over banks, stealing cash, money, and drugs, smuggling weapons, penetrating gold-plated casino vaults, raiding FBI offices. Overall, the game provides a tantalizing mix of stealth and gunplay action. This is coupled with a deep character progression and skill-tree system, loot drops, and weapon customizing that will keep your inner min-maxer well-satiated. Excellent and diverse set of missions and approaches will you keep you and your best buddies entertained. But plan to have some buddies along for the ride, the game is best as a multiplayer endeavor by a long shot.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You like cooperative FPS games in the vein of Left 4 Dead – especially ones with a high degree of skill for both stealth and shoot-y gameplay
- You are obsessed with heist and gunplay movies like Heat and Way of the Gun, and you soooooo badly want a taste of the action for yourself
- You enjoy being the bad guy and engaging in nefarious activities (see below)
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You have a strong moral objection to any of the following nefarious activities: taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you, cooking meth, selling people cocaine then shooting them and taking the coke back, shooting public safety officers, zip-tying and occasionally killing hostages, smuggling nuclear weapons, rescuing drug-stuffed goats, stealing priceless artifacts and works of art, and committing political espionage
- You have a strong physical hatred for FPS games, which might inflict any of the following on you: nausea, motion sickness, seizures, dissociation, and/or involuntary narcissistic rage
- Look at the pictures – you will know
Oliver has played over 320 hours of Payday 2 (please help me!) on a MSI GX-640 Laptop with a Core i5-430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5)