Heist movies, or more specifically the heists in the movies, are wonderful to watch. From The Thomas Crown Affair to Mission: Impossible through to the Ocean’s trilogy heists are art. The planning, the preparation, the skill, the ingenuity, the sleight of hand and the execution all combine to grab each and every viewer in joyous wonder. Most will relate to the protagonists. If it’s simple theft they’ll realise most people want more than they have - it’s human nature. If it’s to stop bad people doing bad things, then even better. Regardless of the reason why an individual job works it is unlikely even one person in the world could honestly say they have seen a cinematic heist and failed to be moved in one way or another. This was the initial expectation as Payday: The Heist installed and loaded up for the first time. Disappointment followed.
The game is not a heist simulator in any way. The menu screen was the first clue with the background illustrating four men wearing clown masks, recalling the Ex-Presidents from Point Break. That particular band of criminals performed robberies. They would enter a bank using force and fear as their main tools, make their way to the money they wanted by leveraging their advantages over the customers and workers who were there already, and then make their getaway once sated by the spoils. This is the right image to have in your head before playing Payday: The Heist. Sans surfing.
Thanks to the above shattered illusions the first few hours with the game were a struggle. There are six ’Heists’ you can choose from and as they scale in difficulty and complexity so does the difficulty on which you can tackle the levels, with only the first two being playable on anything less than normal and the final two only available on hard or above. All are open and playable from the get go and normal is a suitable challenge from the start. Having said that you’re likely to largely ignore the difficulty setting (regardless of the default) as each heist can be completed fairly swiftly and you’ll want to move onto the next one - whatever the difficulty. As you progress through the game your character will build their reputation up unlocking various upgrades (for example, better guns or more ties for hostages). There is a class system incorporated too, which allows you to choose once within the game what you’d like to be (for example a sharpshooter if you fancy picking off all the baddies) and affects the skill tree accordingly. To get to the highest reputation is going to take a lot of time, a lot of repeat play and the completion of a lot of challenges as well as money collection. Given this focus players may want to begin on the easiest levels on the lowest difficulty just to build the rep. quicker and gain more benefits ahead of tackling the more complex tasks ahead.
Challenges are various in-game objectives which can be completed over multiple levels in many cases, or may be specific to a certain scenario and / or difficulty level. Completing a substantial amount of these is where you’ll bank the majority of experience, or reputation points, and start getting the upgrades you need to compete. This is the game’s way of encouraging you to keep coming back after you’ve completed each of the available heists. Sure, you can try and complete the levels in different ways - instead of all guns a blazing you might like to achieve a silent sneaking victory when looting diamonds, for example, but this approach will be very very difficult given the real style of the game and nine times out of ten will turn into a shooting match without too much of a mistake on your behalf. The challenges go hand in hand with the set of trophies the game has. The trophy set here is right at the top end of the difficulty scale and unless you replay this game frequently and often, build your reputation (and have willing partners to achieve certain requirements), the platinum will be out of reach. Do not expect some easy shiny things here.
Eventually the disappointment with the game not being as expected dwindled and it became clear that really, as alluded to, Payday: The Heist was a first person shooter set in the world of crime. Basically, when played alone it is Call of Duty: Modern Crime, and in multiplayer mode Left 4 Dead: Operation Debt Reset. Online with friends or randoms is the best way to get the most out of this title. You are one of four squad members each battling together to achieve the required objectives, and if you do not truly work together and communicate then failure is the only real option. If you have friends who are interested in playing as well that’s going to be the whole game right there for you. If you need to join a game be patient as more often than not, when starting out, you’ll get kicked and kicked from game to game. In that case, single player will be necessary in order to get that reputation up. Except you probably won’t have the dedication to get that reputation up.
The game looks and sounds decent but isn’t spectacular, although given it’s a downloadable title at a low price point this is neither unexpected nor an issue. The AI however is very good with regards to taking down the cops and FBI, or reviving you if you get knocked down. Your teammates and the good guys behave differently each time around, too, depending on what happens. The issue with your co-op NPCs is that you have to do everything yourself in terms of objectives. A fine idea as otherwise the game would amount only to shooting, but each objective is handled very typically with a go to point A order, hold R2 for a period of time and then head to point B - rinse, repeat ad nauseum. It gets rather old very quickly. There just isn’t enough in the game mechanics to warrant repeat play on your own.
Summing up, Payday: The Heist doesn’t do much differently to other shooters and it doesn’t do anything better, either (though it does meet expectations of what a modern day FPS should provide). The levels themselves are enjoyable enough the first time you play them and the challenge is hard as you ramp up through the heists and difficulty levels. But ploughing the furrowed field alone soon stops being fun. If you have three like-minded, FPS loving friends and you all want to enjoy the experience together, this game could be one of the year’s best investments. If you plan to play on your own and join lobbies in the hope of finding a game you’re likely to feel rather short-changed and disappointed. Finally, recognise it as what it is - a squad based FPS. That which it sets out to do then it does ok. It is not a bad game, or a good one. Just ok. Nothing more, nothing less. There’re no surprises, except for the initial one when you realise the game won’t allow you to ninja your way into the CIA headquarters, or rob millions from under the nose of the casino owner.
This review is based on the PS3 version