It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with Payday 3. The levels are well-designed, encouraging the kind of outside-the-box thinking that rewards both the bold and the curious. The effervescent glee you feel each time you saunter past a security camera with a sports bag stuffed full of money on your back is unrivalled, and for those opting for a less stealthy approach, the gunplay – if requiring a little acclimation at first – is punchy and impactful.
The trouble with Payday 3, though, is that whilst in isolation, it’s a perfectly perfunctory shooter that’ll happily keep you sated for a few weekends, when compared to its own predecessor, the new game repeatedly comes up short. Yes, we have some new gadgets to try, and yes, there are new ways to manage the civvies caught up in your criminal shenanigans, but ultimately it’s a faded facsimile of what’s come before it – and that’s without taking into account a release so bungled, the game was essentially unplayable for the first five days of its launch week.
For those unfamiliar with the formula, Payday 3 sees you and a gaggle of pals pull off increasingly outrageous heists, using your brain, brawn – and often both – to get the better of the security systems that separate you from your prize. The missions we have – there are just eight right now, which feels like a meagre offering – take you right across New York City as OG Payday stalwarts Dallas, Chains, Hoxon, and Wolf return with some other familiar faces to pull off daring robberies, from the obligatory bank burglary to elaborate art heists.
Oh, and Ice-T. Yes, Ice-T’s briefly here, too. I don’t know why, either.
There’s a story. Kind of. It requires sitting through silent slideshows set entirely apart from the heists themselves, as though weaving a narrative into the playable parts would sully the action, but you’ll never really understand your character’s motivations any more than you’ll understand who the shadowy figures assigning your heists are, or why. No, not all shooters need stories – I fought Destiny’s alien races for years before I ever really understood what was going on with its convoluted storyline, and that didn’t dent my enjoyment one jot – but it’s a curious omission here, and surely one that would enhance the game, not hinder it? As it is, we have short “videos” sandwiched between the missions that consist of little more than storyboards and subtitles. No voice work. No animations. So nothing remotely worth watching, really.
Fortunately, the gameplay – both its combat and stealth systems – is robust enough to carry the game without an engaging narrative, even though you have just those eight missions where you have just two choices: go in quiet, or go in loud. Whether you’re creeping around the gilded interiors of a big city bank or weaving through the neon-soaked shadows of a nightclub, learning how to navigate these playgrounds is endlessly delightful, albeit punctuated by inevitable false starts and do-overs as you tweak and adapt your approach through copious trial and error.
No, the AI isn’t particularly sophisticated. Your AI teammates, in particular, are phenomenally stupid, either refusing to help at all or running into walls and doors and shooting empty spaces when the actual enemies are on the other side of the room, their weapons firmly trained on you. Sometimes it feels like you could moonwalk in front of a security guard juggling your ill-gotten loot, and they still wouldn’t give a shite, whilst other times, they’re on you in seconds, with cops and guards sharing a weird-ass hivemind that often means you can’t escape the room, let alone the mission.
Eventually, though, you’ll learn exactly how much time you have before a security camera will trigger a search, for instance, or which guard will be carrying that all-important key card. You’ll learn how best to manage hysterical civilians – we have endless supplies of cable ties now! – or how to identify the jewellery shop manager by her spiffy outfit alone. Just as you’ll learn that, eventually, some numbnut on your squad is going to ignore all of your careful preparatory work and simply run in, all guns blazin’. Again.
For all Payday 3’s sparse content and server woes, it’s the unpredictability of the randoms I matchmake with that causes the most frustration for me. No, that’s not Starbreeze’s fault, but good grief, I sure wish there was a stealth queue or some other way of knowing a player’s preferred playstyle ahead of time. Without a specific matchmaking option for stealth or any way to communicate your preference with your matchmade fireteam – it may be the year 2023, but there is no team chat in Payday 3 – you’ll only find out for sure when you get into the mission… by which time it’s too late, of course.
That’s not to say all players like blowing stuff up, though – just most of ’em. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I successfully matchmade with heisters as keen to try the stealthy route as I was, and was always relieved when, on accidentally triggering a gunfight, my teammates were as willing as I was to start over and try again.
You see, every heist will feel ever-so-slightly different. There are some delightful RNG elements where cameras spawn in different places, or security rooms relocate to different floors, but even this kind of challenge grows stale once you’ve completed each heist a few times. And therein lies the rub, really.
There aren’t enough missions. There arguably aren’t enough weapons, either (at least not when compared with Payday 2). Yes, there are attachments and customisations, but the choices for those too are limited, and beyond the usual throwables like grenades and flashbangs, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a teammate use their MicroCam or jammer. There are loads of masks to choose from – and my goodness, did I delight in trawling through those – but for the most part, everything feels a tad unfinished and underwhelming.
The telegraphing of mission instructions and waypoints, too, is surprisingly uneven. In some, you’ll find the waypoint icons peppering the screen nothing short of obnoxious, and in others, wonder what, exactly, you’re supposed to do next. Your handler may have told you what was required three minutes ago, but that could’ve been at the same time as you were trying to put down one of gaming’s most aggravating enemies – The Cloaker; ugh, I really hate them – so you missed her instructions entirely (the Under the Surphaze art heist, in particular, suffers dreadfully with this utter lack of instruction).
Also, can anyone tell me why, if your cover’s unbroken and you managed to shoot out a security camera without being seen, you can’t pull your mask back off and slip back into stealthy obscurity once more? I don’t understand this any more than I understand why XP is linked to challenges rather than completing the heists themselves, or why a willing solo player or a four-stack pre-made team has to go through “matchmaking” to play. For every one thing I enjoy – say working through the 17 different skills in the skill stree to pick ‘n’ mix a selection of traits that best suit my style, or the fairly entertaining safe and lockpick mini-games – there are four things that perplex, frustrate, or annoy me in equal measure, such as an excruciatingly weak ping system, perhaps, or that missing team chat.
Payday 3 may have shrugged off the silly ostentation of its predecessor, but right now, this sequel feels less of an advancement of the series and more of an accidental side-step, falling short in almost every aspect of what made Payday 2 shine. Yes, Starbreeze has big plans for DLC and post-launch content, but after such a disastrous launch and a lacklustre offering, it may need significantly more than that to counter this otherwise criminally unadventurous shooter.
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