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Boozy guitar riffs ease you into the game’s backstory while shaded figures lament shadier pasts. Before long, you’re thrown into an elaborate crime fantasy. Sneak in round the back, neutralise the security systems then quietly work your way into the bank vault. The alternative? Don the mask, load your rifle, and get ready to paint the town red.
Payday 3 begins with carefully coordinated disaster and chaos yo-yoing the game between stealthy tension and bullet hell carnage. It waxes beautifully, until it wanes. Tight gameplay is undermined by a disappointing catalogue of only eight heists and bizarre technical design choices.
First, though, the good bits. There’s a magical moment often heralded by that split second in-game when you place the infamous clown mask on your face. It’s accompanied by crescendoing alarm bells, the clumsy clattering of guard footsteps, and the helpless screams of bank clerks turned hostages. This is followed by synthy tech-disco tracks that pulsate a vibrant dancing beat to the soundtrack of a wild, impulsive and violent murder robbery. It’s very fitting.
The plot of Payday 3 is pretty loose, thankfully. You’re part of the Payday Gang: Dallas, Chains, Wolf, Hoxton, and Pearl, and there’s a larger crime syndicate out there you’re working with. There’s a distinct lack of villains, which is also appreciated. You won’t get too invested in the narrative thanks to its brief and occasional occurrences. Told through optional cut-scenes rather than woven into the core gameplay, the game doesn’t ever forget what it is: a robbery simulator. It doesn’t need much more than that to get going.
The game’s heists are carefully designed to give the player a thousand and one different ways to bag that coveted cash. You can sneak through missions in casing mode, slipping through most areas undetected dressed as a civilian. The lack of a mask protects your innocence, though the drawback is that it also restricts your illegal activities. One of these, frustratingly, is jumping – which is apparently reserved for felons and miscreants. Equipped with a lockpick, a smartphone, and an automatic rifle in your back pocket, multiple intersecting pathways open up pointing you towards the end-goal.
Unlike the previous game, Payday 3 lets newbies jump straight into stealth. It’s no longer an exclusively end-game playstyle protected by skills and equipment, instead you can jump into it as soon as you start the game. The slight drawback to this was that I found there was a lack of space to invest in stealth and infiltration skills come the end of the game. Without a desperate need for them, this is only a minor gripe.
Throughout my playthrough, I made it a personal mission of mine to try and complete as many heists in casing mode. Often, this meant waltzing as a solo pacifist. If you’re attempting this, you’re going to want to leave your (idiot AI) teammates outside as, in most cases, they’re fairly incompetent.
The reality was that I couldn’t stealth most of the heists. Not because of limitations in-game, but most likely a skill-related issue instead. But, I could feel it. I was close, and as soon as I’m done writing this review, I’ll be back in straight away. Failure after failure doesn’t feel great but with Payday 3’s liquid mechanics and robust gameplay, it’s not always so bad. Instead of swiping my keyboard off my desk, I was always drawn back to the heist. Thankfully, mistakes don’t always lead to failure, just a rockier road to your payday. Each time that moment arrived, I opened fire on the guards that had thwarted my plans, and the ensuing chaos was just as rewarding, if not much clumsier and disastrous.
The game really shines once you’ve cobbled together a willing group of friends. Then, you’re going to be ready to commit the bank robbery of your dreams, which for the game designers was likely the clown heist in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
You’re going to toil with the same level of ruthless violence and power dynamics that the original games introduced, though the decade-long hiatus between games has given the developer time to get things just right. The Payday 2 gameplay loop began to incorporate phases, though Payday 3 is where they really begin to flourish.
While casing a venue, there are instances where the local guards might be suspicious of you. You’ve spent too long under a security camera, picked a lock in-front of a bartender, or you’ve killed a guard and forgotten to answer their radio. Whatever the case, you’ve triggered the Searching phase and you’re now deeply wrapped up in the crime fantasy. Guards are hot on your heels and the vault harbouring your treasure is just about to be locked down. It’s time to kick off the Negotiation phase, where you take a civilian hostage and use them as a meat shield. Hold a pistol to their head and throw them in-front of a biometric scanner to unlock the vault. You’re in. Load up your crew with bags of cocaine, jewels, crypto, and cash, then it’s time to get out of there.
Payday 3 assaults you with an endless bullet storm, which even standard difficulty is pretty tough to deal with. This is where it pays off to have friends. I’d sooner try to balance an egg on a spoon while riding a unicycle than take on these SWAT teams without verbal coordination. I spent a fair few hours getting to know the bot AI. With only a handful of commands available: ‘S***’, ‘Piece of S*** drill’, and ‘Hi’ being a few of the most useful, you’re going to struggle to get them to do your bidding in most cases.
At this point, guns are your best friend. The game has a pretty well stacked arsenal of weapons to choose from. The silenced pistol takes the crown for solo stealth runs, while shotguns and automatic rifles give you a fighting chance against Bulldozers and Cloakers. There’s also a detailed level of customisation available. Weapons mods are unlockable through levelling – which loosely circles back to an issue raised at the start of the review.
There are only 8 heists, so if you’re looking to unlock all of the game’s weapon mods and skills, prepare to get familiar with them. That said, some of the game’s heists are damn iconic: the ennui-scorning Under the Surphaze gallery heist, for example, or the intoxicating Rock the Cradle nightclub robbery. Payday 2’s impressive post-launch support gives hope to what Payday 3’s could receive, and DLC and post-launch heists are already confirmed per the game’s roadmap. But, it’s not enough. The launch title is limited in heist variety, though the scope of creativity and variation within those specific heists certainly negates many of those issues.
The game has ditched the iconic Police Assault in Progress banner in favour of a simple text pop-up, while the UI has bizarrely become far more difficult to navigate. Similar to Modern Warfare 2’s interface nightmare, there’s now a large barrage of ‘panels’ which, admittedly, work alright for navigating your loadouts, though trying to get into a heist is a needless faff. It needs work, though I imagine an overhaul to the UI will arrive eventually. The real disappointment is the lack of a server browser. Again, another issue that can probably be blamed on the Call of Duty franchise’s success. Without any real options to filter your teammates, glitchy games are abundant thanks to a mix and match of server regions, while it’s even harder to find a group of teammates with the same objectives. Again, if the developers are planning for this game to have a shelf life as long as the last, a server browser akin to Crime.net needs to return. Once again, the game’s disappointing design and scope needs to be rescued by its enchanting gameplay and roadmap, though there’s no guarantee that these particular issues will ever see change.
At least though, combat in Payday 3 satiates all the requirements of a player-bot shooter. Enemy AI hordes have all of the danger, threat, and skill that’s needed, while all their brainless and clumsy actions are neatly spread out to give the player a fighting chance. Weapon play has come on leaps and bounds from previous installations in the franchise, with guns having a welcome weight and responsiveness.
The game’s also got a level of visual fidelity that neither disappoints nor blows you away. For me personally, if the gameplay is good enough, there’s no amount of graphical issues that can stop me from having fun, so it wins on this front too. There’s also a healthy amount of attention to detail, my favourite of which comes in overhearing NPC dialogue which is often absurd and scathing, like the wry commentary on coffee snobbery overheard outside the Ashton Fine jewellery store.
Payday 3’s end game is where most players are going to be spending their time, especially considering the limited availability of the heists. There’s over 100 different skills, 17 skill lines to invest in, a decent amount of weapons and plenty of masks to obsess over. Unlocking these different items is pretty trivial and will entail repetitive grinding back and forth. If you’re a completionist concerned with achievements, run, run far away. There’s (roughly) 640 achievements in-game, many of which are different variations of ‘Beat this heist a certain number of times on this difficulty before or after the assault has started.’ Sometimes, the required number eclipses 150, so prepare to be playing for years.
It’s a bit disappointing to approach the end of the review with all of these issues leaving a sour taste in my mouth. If there was a particular game out there to scratch that crime urge (or better yet stop me from robbing a bank), I’d play Payday over Hitman or Grand Theft Auto. As any larcenist knows, all the best robberies begin discreetly before snowballing into a wild frenzy soundtracked to upbeat electronic music. Such is expected from a game about burglary and robbery. Stakes are high, and when the tables are flipped, they’re flipped hard and fast.
You’re not robbed by the individual heist experience in Payday 3. From the black and white stripy burglar to the high-tech gun-toting thug with a taste for money or murder, this game offers up gold for all players with elaborate robberies and rewarding chaos, though don’t expect to get hooked just yet. It just needs a little push in the right direction when it comes to content and user optimisation.