By Randy Lo Gudice
Contrary to popular belief, robbing banks isn’t often a lucrative endeavor. The FBI reports that in 2010, criminals lucky enough to have evaded cops only made off with $7,500 on average. Add in the likelihood of getting caught — or worse, death — and cinema's romanticizing of the perfect job falls pretty far from reality. Obviously, most of us have the good sense to know robbing banks is a poor alternative to honest work, but that doesn't discount how cool movies make it look.
Payday 2 isn't a crime simulator. Players soak up inhuman amounts of bullets, release from jail in under two minutes, and manage to earn more money than any realistic portrayal of theft. Instead, Payday 2 captures the essence of the imaginary heist. Between the tense holdups, enjoyable classes, and unique multiplayer, Payday 2 delivers.
Players cooperatively tackle missions from the various underworld factions of Washington, D. C. Greater rewards require greater risks. Greater risks require a band of thieves from multiple disciplines, decked-out in the best gear the black-market has to offer. Ascending the ranks of organized crime, Payday 2 takes players from small-time jewel capers, to public enemy number one.
Payday 2 adopts most of its mechanical vibe from Left 4 Dead and Diablo. Instead of zombies, players fight off increasingly difficult branches of U.S. Law Enforcement, while trying to procure mission objectives. While Left 4 Dead generally had players rushing through larger areas, Payday 2 missions take place in small urban settings. This isn't to say Payday 2 is at a disadvantage. Most of the game revolves around protecting tight perimeters and the smaller, more focused maps make Payday 2 manageable and fun. Counting the seconds as a drill wears down a safe, then slowly carving out a secure exit towards the escape vehicle always proves exciting.
Players spend skill points in anyone of the four classes; Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician, or Ghost. Masterminds possess skills that allow better control of civilians and officers. Enforcers are great at close combat. Technicians are master locksmiths and safe crackers, and Ghosts are especially agile and skilled in the art of deception. Earned points are not restricted to any one skill tree, allowing players to customize a build that fits their playstyle. Dumping a point or two into each class unlocks each support item — Doctor Bag, Ammo Bag, Trip Mines, and ECM Jammer — but taking advantage of a class’s more powerful perks will require dedication to one skill tree.
From the beginning, Crime.Net — Payday 2's multiplayer hub — opens the entirety of its content to players. Attempting to mix up the limited number of missions, randomly generated cameras, metal detectors, and guards make each run different than the last. Unfortunately, the variations are so minimal that after a few replays you'll most likely have seen everything each map has to offer. The fact that missions barely change eventually undermines the more tactical aspects that shine early on. With only 11 missions, you can see the shelf life of Payday 2 on the horizon after about five hours. Thankfully, a robust and rewarding skill system carries the game beyond its more repetitive qualities.
Payday 2 integrates its skill system so well, it may become the driving force that keeps players coming back. Subtly, skills guide players how to properly play each class. As the Enforcer, many skills grant aggressor-centric benefits, making the class a natural choice for initiating fights. By the end of the skill tree, the Enforcer is a close-quarters juggernaut, and the skills incentivize you to play them as such.
At higher levels, special tools also unlock within each skill tree. Starting out, players will come across interactive objects that require these tools. For instance, a buzz-saw opens ATM machines and safe deposit boxes, dramatically enhancing how much you can steal and how quickly you can steal it.
Payday 2 relies heavily on coordinated team strategies. Knowing where to be and when to initiate objectives is core to early mission success. If one player decides he or she wants to go against the grain, the game instantly becomes a scramble to hold up and defend. Part of the fun of Payday 2 is when things go really wrong, requiring players to think on their feet, but the goal is to avoid these situations as long as possible. With that, it's extremely satisfying when a heist goes off without a hitch. Robbing a jewelry store without setting off an alarm makes the mission an almost instant smash-and-grab.
There's a lot of balancing and behind-the-scenes calculations that go on in Payday 2, but the feeling the game instills in players is the best reason to play. It's strangely empowering and thrilling to pull off the virtual crimes the game portrays. It just makes you feel cool. Running into a jewelry store, shooting out the cameras, yelling at the civilians to "Get down on the ground!", and taking hostages all plays out incredibly viscerally. Towards the end of many missions, players are offered the opportunity to flee or stay to get more cash. I'd find it hard to believe anyone hasn't learned a lesson about greed from playing this game. Knowing when to quit certainly isn't a skill you unlock, but players will have to make the decision to go before things get out of hand.
It's rare to find a game that hits its intended target so well. Payday 2 doesn't waste time with things it can't pull off successfully. While the focus may be a bit limited, the game distills silver-screen crime flicks and adapts it to the interactive format. At its worst, it can be repetitive, but only after many hours in. At its best, Payday 2 delivers extremely rewarding, cooperative gameplay that truly puts you in the shoes of a criminal.
Randy Lo Gudice is Editor-in-Chief of 1985FM. You can follow him on Twitter @CursingUser