[originally posted at Total PlayStation]
Who are you? Who do you want to be?
All video games are about role-playing. Not just RPGs, the eponymous genre that typically involves fantastic locales and lots of statistical exchanges. In every game you play a role. Maybe it’s a plumber in a mushroom kingdom, or a grizzled marine in outer space, or a psychopath in a cape and cowl. In any case, a large part of a game’s appeal can come from the role you inhabit and the locations and situations that role will experience.
That’s why I was so excited when I heard the premise for Payday: The Heist. Even with the likes of Grand Theft Auto and its imitators, the chance to step into the shoes of a criminal who carries out a string of high-profile heists is still a very novel concept. Navigating a series of obstructions and making a getaway from the police? Sign me up. Payday skips the downtime of open world exploration and opts solely for six action-packed scenarios. Throw in Left 4 Dead-inspired cooperation and you’ve got what sounds like an amazing combination.
Unfortunately, the execution of the game’s mechanics is about as sloppy as the criminals’ capers. You’d think that with adequate preparation these guys should be able to carry out their robberies without casualties, but no such luck. Each level quickly devolves into a veritable torrent of bullets as unplanned eventualities throw a wrench in our antiheroes’ plans. This might be exciting if the gunplay was tight enough to match the literally endless waves of cops, but everything feels kind of loose and light. Spraying seems to be more effective than bothering to line up an accurate shot, making the game feel like a panicked run-and-gun marathon as you sprint from one objective to the next. Oppressive squads of police officers approaching from all angles add to the disorienting atmosphere of the game.
The game sometimes does force you to hunker down and protect an area, usually by some contrivance that requires you and your buddies to unkink a hitch in your plans. Electric buzz saws have to be babysat merely to function properly, gas cans must be found to smoke out an uncooperative NPC, streets need to be cleared for a helicopter to approach. There’s even a literal escort mission where you have to prod a limping NPC down streets lined with the fuzz. These objectives are mostly carried out by looking at a highlighted object and pressing or holding down the interaction button. You also take hostages in the same manner. As a result, all your actions feel unengaging and bland.
Replaying missions also feels stale and repetitive despite the random events peppered through each scenario. This is unfortunate since numerous playthroughs are required to upgrade your character’s loadout. Dozens of playthroughs. Maybe hundreds, even. There are 145 levels of character progression in Payday, which seems insane to me for a game with only six actual missions. I assume DLC is on the way to provide a breath of fresh air for hardcore grinders.
Truth be told, the game isn’t so bad with some good friends who work well together. But then again, even the worst of games is almost tolerable when those conditions are met. Teamwork didn’t even feel too necessary aside from reviving downed companions, as most of the required objectives in the game can be completed and moved along by a lone ranger. This gives the game the odd feeling that your buddies are mostly expendable, and the other players are at times more useful as bullet sponges than actual accomplices.
There are too many technical and design issues, including some wonky animations and AI behavior, that hold back Payday from living up to the exciting promise of its premise. It’s a good effort from the developers, but its flaws make it hard to stand out in an overly saturated release calendar. Payday: The Heist is one game that’s stronger in concept than execution.