Stands and delivers
Nobody could ever claim PAYDAY: The Heist wasn't a good idea. Tapping into every human's secret desire to be part of a beautifully orchestrated, flamboyantly daring theft of grand proportions was a masterstroke, and while the execution was spotty, the overall result was a ton of fun.
Overkill is having a second crack of the whip with PAYDAY 2, clutching its clever idea jealously while surrounding it with much more content. A deeper leveling system, greater customization options, and a ton of new heists are all on offer.
The execution is, once again, spotty, but the result is, once again, a ton of fun.
PAYDAY 2 (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Dallas, Chains, Hoxton, and Wolf are reunited for a second string of amoral moneymaking, propelled by a variety of missions involving breaking and entering, classic bank robbery, and even simple property damage across a range of maps that, while often recycled, feature randomized elements to keep things interesting. Yet again, success hinges on teamwork as four players strategize, watch backs, and hold off waves of progressively deadly police forces.
This time around, missions are picked up by accessing Crime.net, a virtual map that locates and displays all active online missions. There is an offline mode too, but the allied A.I. is so utterly useless as to render it an endeavor without meaning. Suffice it to say, you're going to need to go online if you've any hope of making out like a bandit.
Missions appear and disappear in real-time as they become available, and range from simple one-stage jobs to longer, story-based crimes that take place over several days and are broken up into anywhere from two to seven stages. Missions are also graded by difficulty, allowing you to hop right into an easy job or ramp things up by tackling an Overkill mission. The harder the difficulty, the greater the enemy resistance, and the more likely an appearance of vicious special enemies, such as the annoying Shield or terrifying Heavy.
Each mission is impressively paced, and far more varied than last time. In one stage, you'll be tasked with entering a mall and doing $50,000 worth of damage for a protection racketeer. Another involves robbing three stores at once and making out with the goods. One multipart stage involves robbing an art gallery, holding a position from cops after the escape van crashes, and finally executing a shady trade of goods before the police invariably show up. Oh, and yes, there is a mission where you have to break bad and cook up some meth.
A good number of missions can be played either stealthily or noisily. If you go in, all guns blazing, take hostages and decide to smash-and-grab, you'll end up defending your location against timed police assaults before fighting your way out with your earnings. A quiet approach involves sneaking past cameras, knocking out opponents, pretending to be guards over a pager system (which is always amusing), and hoping to Hermes you don't get anybody too suspicious. It's more difficult to pull off a stealth win, requiring both practice and a mastery of special skills, but it's possible. I've not seen it done personally, but it's possible!
Players level up and earn spending money after each successful job, which can in turn be used to gain new skills, unlock guns, and customize masks. There are four skill trees to choose from -- Mastermind, which involves dominating enemies while supporting allies; Engineer, which uses vault drills more efficiently and can use mines or turrets; Enforcer, which is all about combat and shotgun efficiency; and Ghost, the handy stealth class that can sneak in and evade detection.
Guns are all of the standard variety -- pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, etc. -- but there's a heck of a lot of them, and all can be customized with parts randomly won at the end of a job. Masks are also a big deal this time around, the usual clown varieties added to with mummies, demons, and other ghoulish fun. Masks are also acquired as random "drops" and can be further customized with material skins, logos, and colors. With the skills, weapons, and masks combined, there's plenty of scope to create your perfect master criminal, and the encouragement to progress is there in spades.
Everything costs money, though, and while you'll be earning buckets of cash at the end of each stage, it can disappear quickly. Unlocking skills takes both unlockable skill points and an injection of hot cash, with the dollar toll rising to hundreds of thousands in no time. This isn't usually a problem, but if you tend to respec a lot, as I did in the early goings, you'll find yourself playing catch-up as you don't get all your money back.
Each heist is nicely designed, with a terrific sense of escalation, especially when the plan gets chaotic and things start to go wrong. The idea of risk and reward adds an extra level of dynamism to each job, as you have to weigh going back for extra valuables against the army of SWAT specialists now standing between your escape van and goods you've left behind. You can also unlock assets (if you're hosting the game) that add extra benefits during the game, such as a hidden ammo cache or an inside man.
PAYDAY 2 is just as fun, and measurably more involving, than the first game, but some issues get in the way of the amusement. Matchmaking could stand to be more efficient, as joining an existing game holds the match up for everybody, while the lack of any sort of host migration -- which shouldn't even be a consideration these days -- is a real pain in the ass. There are also a number of glitches and bugs that can occur, and the way stages simply end -- as well as a number of missing features such as safehouse customization -- lead to a title that feels somewhat unfinished.
Despite some of these flaws being quite egregious, Overkill has still provided a massive laugh of a game, and it says a lot about the quality of what's there that potentially dealbreaking issues don't really manage to kill the overwhelming enjoyment I've been having with the thing. Matches are tense and the fantastic music keeps the blood pumping, while finally getting to within hopping distance of the escape van provides a sense of exhilaration rarely found in similar shooters these days.
PAYDAY 2 is undeniably rough and needs a couple of updates to fill in a few blanks, but the thrill of robbing banks, smashing jewel cases, and cooking meth is too great for the asking price not be returned to the player in spades. If you're willing to work with a team and get involved in some delightfully chaotic situations, the world of poorly made drills and unnecessary amounts of violence is one well worth investing in.
THE VERDICT - Payday 2
Reviewed by Jim Sterling