You know what I love most about Payday 2? Beyond effectively delivering on four-person co-op fun, beyond offering up refined, skill-based shooting mechanics that could easily go toe-to-toe with any dolled up triple-A shooter that relies far too much on sex appeal over substance, it manages to capitalize on gaming habits that have laid dormant in me since walking away from Counter-Strike: Source some ten years ago. I’m talking about total investment in gameplay so that nothing else about the title—not how it looks, not the quality of its writing, nothing—truly matters.
The bottom line is that Payday 2 is just 100% a vehicle for interactive fun. It’s a little rough around the edges, for sure. It won’t be winning any beauty pageants, but it’s far from unsightly. Animation could stand to be more fluid, and the absence of an overarching single-player narrative thread seems like an oversight. But then I remember those aforementioned Counter-Strike days, in which hours were lost to the simple joy of gameplay-driven fun and the personal desire to have at minimum a two-to-one kill/death ratio. Or, on some occasions, random rivalry born out of a consistent killer burned away entire afternoons and evenings. Either way, no stories were spun beyond the emergent ones I arguably created by crafting these fictional rivalries or multiplayer skirmishes.
Payday 2 captures this same feeling but with a different twist. Instead of going head-to-head with another player, I’m collaborating with them against AI. But because of the game’s Heat-inspired heisting, these firefights between computer-controlled coppers and players gains an added layer of complexity. There are civilians to deal with, vaults and safes to crack, windows and doors to secure, precious jewels to procure, and—after all that—the need to survive long enough for the getaway car to arrive.
There are two components to Payday 2 that lend themselves to the game’s potential longevity. The first is the four classes—Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician, and Ghost—and your ability to spec these characters out at your choosing, going as far as to blur the lines between their class distinctions by cherry picking a little of one, a little of another, or a dash of them all. The other is the game’s largely unpredictable nature.
The original Payday was a cult hit itself—and rightly so. But Dallas, Hoxton, Chains, and Wolf’s triumphant return to a life of crime has, on paper, enough noticeable improvements over its predecessor to qualify as two sequels. Where The Heist had only nine missions, its sequel has some 30-plus, many of which unfold over multiple stages. Breaking into a gallery to steal works of art can transition into a “Day 2” scenario, for example. Here, players negotiate with a fence to offload their heisted haul in exchange for laundered money. Of course, this has equal chances of going smoothly or going horribly, horribly awry and ending in a shootout.
Another noticeable improvement in Payday 2 over its predecessor—and no doubt the influence of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 designer David Goldfarb—is the gunplay itself. As a first-person shooter, Overkill’s second foray into the world of bank jobs and high-value thievery touts all the tight controls one would expect from a top-notch multiplayer title. Payday 2 could easily function competitively, as far as I’m concerned, but then a great deal of its charm and challenge-based, cooperatively driven appeal would be lost.
What charm, you ask? I know I said that Payday 2 is bereft of a single-player storyline, but that’s not to say it’s deprived of narrative altogether. Each mission, each job, is framed as a small vignette. The assignment is handed out by one of several shady supporting cast members, detailed the same way they would be in a Hollywood heist film. Blueprints are sketched sloppily on a napkin. Cutouts from magazines are used to illustrate specific targets of desire (like, say, a ridiculously expensive diamond necklace). The intel both lends itself to Payday 2’s strategic nature, which demands communication among all four players to pull off a caper, and also helps solidify the general crime film motif the game unashamedly tries to pull off.
But you know what? I’m cool with that. There are moments where, jokingly, I told a coworker that it’s very evident that someone at Overkill recently watched Heat (a film that, as a crime/noir fan, I return to annually), and like Christopher Nolan’s opening sequence to The Dark Knight, Payday 2 is an homage to that King of Crime Films. The end result is still something very cool, very fun, and very much worth your time, because I can very easily see Payday 2, likeCounter-Strike before it, becoming my go-to source for uncomplicated fun with game-playing friends.