At a time when gaming has tried to pursue high cinema and prestige, it’s funny to think of a game inspired by the seminal 1995 Michael Mann crime caper film Heat as anything but prestige. But that’s kind of the charm of the PAYDAY series, paying visual homage to such a film classic while still delivering stupid coop fun as you and your buddies plan and execute the various ridiculous heists.
From the threadbare but promising beginnings of the Overkill Software developed first game, PAYDAY: The Heist, back on the PlayStation 3 in the ancient times of 2011, to its immediate sequel in 2013’s, PAYDAY 2, which saw a long tail of support from the end of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 generation and into its re-release in the PlayStation 4/Xbox One era, this has been the go-to heist centric franchise to play for anyone wanting to scratch their Michael Mann-ish caper fantasies outside the heists of Grand Theft Auto: Online.
Now a decade since the release of the last game, PAYDAY 3 is finally here to continue the caper legacy on a new set of machines. But with the release of this latest sequel, does it justify the long wait after PAYDAY 2 ran the gamut of successful support and prove that there is still juice left to come out of retirement for one last score?
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
PAYDAY 3 picks up shortly after the end of the last game. After completing their last score, the last game’s group of heisters all went their separate ways, leaving their life of crime behind until something prompts the group to re-enter the life of crime, now in New York City, for one last score, again. Being set in the more modern era of the 2020’s, the heisters enter the caper game again at a time of big technological advancements, where things like mass surveillance, the dark web, cryptocurrencies, and software giants are now cogs in the machine standing in front of them for their latest heists.
Even with some of the story concepts serving as wrappers around the 8 different heists available at launch, the core of the meat of this game remains the heists themselves. The available heists have a nice variety to them, from a couple of traditional bank heists to stealing an armored car in an under-construction bridge, infiltrating and capping both a neon disco and an art museum, and assaulting warehouses and skyscrapers, you won’t be doing the exact same thing back to back.
While the content alone may seem threadbare for what’s available on day one (and may be felt big time coming on the heels of all the content that became available in PAYDAY 2 throughout its almost decade-long lifespan with none of it transferring to this sequel as of right now), the content itself is good enough to provide a solid foundational start to what is the PAYDAY series’ first live-service offering (yes people, PAYDAY 2 was a long supported game, but it was not a live service offering).
And if the idea of just having those 8 heists to start may seem like there is not a lot there, when combined with the game’s progression hook tied to the unlockables and loadout system which earns you better weapons and cosmetics for your heister, there is certainly a reason to engage with the heists on offer beyond initial completion. Whether developers Starbreeze and Overkill Software are able to fill up the content quickly in the series’ new live service environment remains to be seen, but at least, with what’s on offer, this is a promising start when it comes to variety and design.
The design of the levels are worthy of note because they seem even more capable of sustaining a very stealthy approach to them which the last game attempted but didn’t quite fully nail. While not all of them are designed perfectly, the majority of the levels within PAYDAY 3 have accounted for this new stealthy approach that is able to provide you alternate routes to level completion that are way different from a loud playthrough. Coordinating with a full group of people as we slinked away through the expertly designed banks to try to sneak into the main vault, only for a random mistake like a teammate mistakenly throwing a grenade while putting their mask on (which, ironically, is the same button prompt) or walking sight unseen into a patrolling guard, making the heist go immediately into chaos, showed a game that can be quite fun following both approaches as all hell breaks loose.
While some levels will require some investment in the now more simplified skill tree to provide you with ways to successfully complete your heists in a stealthy manner, it’s in that investment coupled with the level design that leads to some great replay value with what is on offer, as long as you are willing to invest and learn these levels like the palm of your hand.
Also of note: while this is a game clearly meant to be played with at least one friend for maximum enjoyment (indeed, my enjoyment increased ten fold with a full squad of four to coordinate each of our roles in the different heists), it has at least accounted for the potential of non-full player teams and even solo play with some companion heister A.I. that’s actually relatively solid, all things considered. The A.I. heisters get out of your way if you are attempting a solo stealth run, and they will definitely be next to you in case things go south to help clear waves and waves of SWAT teams and pick you up if you are downed with relative effectiveness.
The only area where they are not effective is if you are expecting your A.I. companions to actually assist you in the mission objectives, whether it is picking up your heist loot or doing things like lock-picking and the like. So this means that you will have to do that all by yourself, in the midst of the chaos of a heist gone south, being the only one that has to carry loot back and forth (with the only way to ameliorate with A.I. being to throw the loot on their back), which can make the heists less fun than if you were playing with at least a friend. While I certainly appreciate that some work was done to give the chance for solo play for those players unable to find a friend to play (the game does offer matchmaking with random players), this is certainly a game made infinitely better with another player that you can communicate with.
UNDER THE SURPHAZE
Among the ways PAYDAY 3 has iterated from its predecessors, it is the series’ most solid entry yet from a gameplay polish perspective. Not that the last game felt bad, per se (otherwise its support wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did), but popping the last game up before playing this new one, there is a rather stark upgrade to the movement and shooting in PAYDAY 3 that makes moving through the game more of a joy than last time. I certainly had no problem smoothly moving in and out of the levels in the last game, popping heads and sliding in and out of cover, but the movement never felt correct. While not rivaling the best shooters in the market, the improved feel of PAYDAY 3 is palpable and makes engaging in the chaotic gunfights in the game’s loud moments more fun than the last game.
But for as good as the improved feel of the game is of great benefit, let’s just say the level of jank at present is pervasive enough to not make PAYDAY 3 feel like an upper tier product. Animation quality is comically stiff, the amount of clipping you get to witness is downright egregious, and the A.I. of enemies and guards can be hilariously finicky. Granted, the finicky nature of the A.I. makes for fun stealth when you are sneaking around these levels, but sometimes the reality breaks where you are seen at weird enough angles or the A.I. pattern breaks protocol enough where you can get quickly screwed over in some less than opportune times.
This lack of overall polish also extends to the game’s basic functionality. The previous games were not the best when it came to a stable product, and, unfortunately, PAYDAY 3 continues that launch tradition in frustrating ways. This is one of those rare games where just the act of menu navigation feels broken at times, with a lot of unresponsive button prompts freaking out after a bit due to some delay with what you are trying to navigate (oh the visual freakout of attempting to go from Loadout to Vendors into my Social menu had to be seen to be believed). Sometimes, even just the act of matchmaking would either take forever or display your allies’ level stats in ridiculous wrong ways before correcting themselves. For basic functionality like that, it’s an issue that Starbreeze and Overkill hopefully fix relatively soon.
From a technical standpoint, even with the game having switched to Unreal Engine 4 (with a promise of a transition to Unreal Engine 5 sometime in the future), PAYDAY 3 is kind of a technical mess, with fluctuating framerate, stability issues, and pop-in hurting it from a visual quality standpoint. The game offers different visual modes that you can tweak to your liking in both “Anti-Aliasing” and “Upscaling,” which will help determine how smooth and how sharp the game can look. I found Performance mode for “Anti Aliasing” and Native in “Upscaling” a perfect mixture to give me the smoothest performance out of its fluctuating framerate, and, even still, it was unstable from a moment to moment standpoint, not to mention the random crashes I suffered by just being in the menu in the middle of one of the heists (something that at least I was able to ameliorate with a quick join back to my multiplayer session).
While it doesn’t ever go down to feeling quite unplayable from moment to moment (I was still able to play the game to completion despite the instability on an Xbox Series S), it is unfortunate that the series’ predilection of launching on a technical messy state, which has been a thing dating back to that initial PS3 release of the first game, still remains amidst everything else the game has improved upon.
ROCK THE CRADLE
Yet that’s the beautiful irony of PAYDAY 3. The caper fantasy experience that the series continues to provide always makes it a good time even when the messy technical aspects threaten to derail it. The amount of fun you can still get from gathering together with four buddies and pulling off a score will always leave a smile on your face, and this was as true back in 2011 and 2013 as it is now in 2023.
Even with the rather threadbare content currently available and the technical mess at present, PAYDAY 3 still manages to feel like a sturdy enough foundation to give Starbreeze and Overkill a solid jumping off point that’ll allow them to support this new entry with hopefully the same dedication that they showed with PAYDAY 2. If what’s there already is any indication, any future content and further polishing can totally make PAYDAY 3 the kind of diamond worthy of a heisters’ dream.
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