Some games are celebrated for their narrative, others for their immersion or mechanics. Payday 2 is a reminder that a solid, enjoyable experience doesn’t need to have everything. Not only is Payday 2 a step in the right direction for the series, but it shows that B-tier games still have a place in the industry.
Visual presentation in Payday 2 is definitely unique. The menu interface is pretty slick and has multiple instances of FMV playing in the background, most of which is from the web series that was released before the game’s launch. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the FMVs in the beginning, but after spending time with Payday 2, I honestly couldn’t imagine the game without them.
The game as a whole has a very 1990s crime drama appeal (much the same as the original). Payday 2 borrows heavily from movies like Heat and The Usual Suspects, which, by and large, is definitely not a bad thing. The in-game graphics have been overhauled completely since the series’ first outing. Visuals are clean and crisp, not to mention colorful. Payday 2 doesn’t fall into the trap of “gritty,” muted colors that are prevalent in the FPS genre. Level design is varied and can range from corporate bank environments to neon-soaked nightclubs. Each mission or “heist” comes with a unique visual style.
Character models are crisp as well, but it’s worth mentioning that I played the PC version on ultra settings. Although the models look great, there really aren’t that many variations, at least on the top level. Lots of little details set some of the game’s main enemies (police) apart. For example, the shotgun-toting police officer has extra pockets and a bandolier of shells, and the beat cops who carry submachine gun wear flak vests. These visual touches help to stave off the feeling of shooting at clones. The bystanders could have used more work, though. They have an obviously low poly-count and simple articulation.
The weapon models are outstanding in Payday 2 and function naturally. Shells eject and ricochet off walls and nearby geometry, and muzzle flashes can be disorienting if you find yourself on the wrong end of a gun up close.
Flash grenades ring out, and gun fire echoes in the distance more often than not in Payday 2, so it’s a good thing that the audio design is extremely fleshed out. Sound is another area in which Payday 2 exceeds the accomplishments of its predecessor. The weapon fire is spot on and rivals anything you have heard in top-tier military first-person shooters. For the most part, gunfire is extremely loud and conveys a sense of weight with each round fired. I found myself flinching a number of times when a team-mate opened fire a little too close for comfort.
Payday 2′s music is also exactly what you would expect from a 1990s-era genre film. It is mostly a mixture of heavy bass and synthesizers, which may not be what some players desire. But the music does fit the game experience and does a lot to heighten the tension during police assaults. Sadly, as much as the music fits the game, it’s mostly forgettable. Luckily, players will be spending most of their time yelling at team-mates and enduring gunfire and explosions all around them, so it’s hardly noticeable anyway.
Most of the time I don’t get hung up on voice-overs, unless they are really lackluster. Payday 2′s cast does a mostly respectable job in that department, save for one character — Bain. This really sucks because you hear his voice a lot. I’m not sure if he is an American trying to do a Norwegian accent or the exact opposite, but he is really annoying.
Now this is the real meat and potatoes, ladies and gentlemen. Payday 2 has first-person shooting mechanics down to such an art that I can name only three other games that might equal its mastery. The mechanics are so fluid and intuitive with the 360 gamepad that I only had to make one small adjustment — disabling aim assist.
This may seem like a nonsense rant, but in twitch shooters, if the game is not built around the user interface, it’s already going in the wrong direction. In addition, the transition into fine aim is perfect and only strengthens the overall appeal of the action. The way the weapons react is spot-on as well. Too many times I have seen other FPS games overcompensate recoil as a way to make the weapons feel more powerful, which only leads to an unsatisfying gameplay experience.
Notwithstanding the topnotch shooting, Payday 2′s overall structure could use a little more work. The level-up system is nonsensical to say the least. Once you figure out what is going on with the separate trees for each class, things get a bit better, but I think developer Overkill tried a little too hard. Where character perks are concerned, I felt the previous entry had it nailed.
Weapon upgrades are another story. Splitting them off from perks was definitely the way to go. This system is mostly solid, but a few quirks here and there are annoying. Basically, weapon upgrades exist only in a singular form and have to be re-purchased for each gun you would like to upgrade. These upgrades are also outrageously expensive in the first place, and — wait for it, this is the best part — the only way to unlock them for use is by chance in a slot machine after each mission.
Let me address this particular aspect of the game. The slot machine is a terrible, and I will say it again, a terrible feature. I understand the design or rather business aspects of why it’s in the game, but come on, really? The core gameplay is good enough in Payday 2 that time-sink unlock features should be left out. I don’t want to play so I can unlock the next perk or have a chance at a shiny new weapon mod. I want to play because the gameplay is tight and enjoyable and the co-op aspect works outstandingly in regard to the game’s aesthetic. Putting, and excuse my language here, bullshit roadblocks in front of the customization options is a bush-league, free-to-play MMO move, and such aspects only hurt the experience.
The missions and heist variations, on the other hand, are aces. Even though you will play the same mission multiple times, the “AI Director” will mix up aspects of the levels, and sometimes the overall heist will require a “getaway gone wrong” or “multi-score” mission. I will add that selecting missions is a bit strange, but it doesn’t really hurt the game. Barring a few hiccups in the meta structure, Payday 2 is everything players could want in a co-op shooter.
Since I already made note of some of this in the gameplay section, I will keep it short. There are around 15 different levels, and they can be set up in a number of layouts, so depth is there — which is most assuredly a good thing since you will be playing some of these levels a lot. The success of Payday 2′s lasting appeal does hinge on one aspect that is out of Overkill’s control: does the player have at least two pals to play with? Payday 2 is first and foremost a co-op game, and is nigh impossible to play with the dummy AI teammates or with a group unable or unwilling to vocalize. There are no other game modes.
You get exactly what you pay for with Payday 2, a fantastic B-level co-op experience wrapped in A-grade graphics. The gameplay mechanics alone are enough to earn the score I am giving it, even with my misgivings about the meta-game. If you have a crew of buddies out there, you will hardly find a better multiplayer experience for the $30 price tag.
- Developer: Overkill
- Publisher: 505 Games/Starbreeze
- Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
- Release: 8-13-2013
- TimeStamp: 8-30-2013