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Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Arkham City, Modern Battleguys 3… the last few months of 2011 saw some extremely big games released, resulting in some lesser-known titles being swept under the rug. Released in October, just before the aforementioned heavy hitters, PAYDAY: The Heist has been quietly chugging along on Steam and PSN.
With only a couple dozen staff, indie developer Overkill has created something incredibly fun, polished and unique. PAYDAY is a first-person shooter in which four heavily-armed crooks commit elaborate robberies while fighting off hordes of law enforcement. In the spirit of Left 4 Dead, enemies are randomly spawned, making each game a dynamic challenge.
Everybody, Down on the Floor!
Here's a brief rundown of First World Bank, the game's most popular heist. After entering the bank, someone locates the manager, taking a key card that gives access to a room with a hidden stash of tools, while the others secure hostages, kill security cameras and subdue guards. You must then set up a drill that opens a gate to the back of the bank and use a computer to delete the bank's security camera footage.
The police soon arrive and send in hostage rescuers. You must hold off the rapidly escalating assault, while making sure the drill doesn't get jammed. Upon breaking through, you further secure the area and set up thermite to burn a hole down through the vault ceiling. After fighting off angry waves of SWATs, you hop down into the compromised vault to grab the huge piles of cash and gain a final set of escape objectives.
Though the overall script for a heist stays mostly the same from game to game, incidental occurrences like enemy spawns and NPC locations can change dramatically, keeping the maps fresh after many playthroughs. The higher difficulties are intended for specifically higher level players, not only because the assaults are much more punishing, but because lowbies are very badly equipped to handle prolonged heavy combat.
You Gained a Level… and a Badass Shotgun
PAYDAY incentivizes longterm play with a leveling system that unlocks new weapons, tools and perks. It's hugely satisfying to watch your arsenal expand and see your favorite guns slowly evolve into tricked out super weapons. The different perks affect a player's teammates by giving them extra health, better aim, faster reloads, etc, but their presence doesn't seem overpowered, more like small nudges in performance.
With an eventual selection of assault rifles, shotguns and machine guns, there isn't a specific "perfect" loadout, and PAYDAY keeps it simple with no weapons having excessively similar qualities. The aforementioned tools are basic things like droppable ammo and health bags, extra hostage ties or proximity mines. On higher difficulties, it feels necessary to bring only health and ammo bags, making the other options seem like unintentional red herrings.
Some things you won't find in PAYDAY: grenades and flashbangs, tactical flashlights, the ability to lay flat on the ground, weapons with greatly zoomed scopes, a command ring for bots, character class specializations, scout drones or quick time events. Everything is kept relatively simple compared to the glut of military style shooters currently on the market. This is a benefit both in regards to keeping the action very straightforward and maximizing a team's reliance on acting as a team. You aren't playing as four commandoes, but four guys who need each other's help.
Fighting the Good Fight
There are some obvious tactics that distinctly separate the good players from the bad. Examples… once a supply bag is dropped, it is unmovable. A good player drops a bag where everyone can partake without getting shot, while a bad player drops it in a heavy fire zone. A good player stays close to his teammates, watching their backs and helping with
objectives. A bad player will often be seen alone in the distance trying to shoot everything in sight and subsequently getting surrounded, gunned down or incapacitated by a special unit.
The specials, Cloakers, Shields, Bulldozers and Tazers, can be killed solo, but are potentially dangerous enough that a single special can take down multiple careless players. Cloakers are the Sam Fisher ninjas of the game, wall running to avoid your gunfire and downing players with a single melee attack. Shields use a large metal shield to deflect any frontal attacks and must be flanked to be shot. Bulldozers use heavy armor and powerful shotguns, with a small faceplate being their only weak spot. Tazers use a long range tazer attack that causes the victim to involuntarily fire their gun before knocking them out.
The Good Stuff
Depending on sales, PAYDAY generally costs between $10 and $20, which is a steal when you see many dedicated players investing 100+ hours into the game. Despite there currently being only six campaigns, the replayability of the game is huge. An upcoming DLC will add new campaigns and weapons, as well as raise the level cap. Lastly, PAYDAY is the rare game that looks beautiful on PC but doesn't require a super computer to run it.
It cannot be emphasized enough that when the player has good teammates and you support each other through a ruthless bitch of an assault, the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie is awesome. The action can surprise you with how intensely aggressive it suddenly becomes, and this is greatly enhanced by composer Simon Viklund's excellent musical score, which stays at a lower tempo during down times and then ramps up with the action.
Possibly one of PAYDAY's greatest features is the accessibility of its developer, Overkill. Using the Steam User forums as their primary forum, the developers literally interact with members of the community on a daily basis, weighing in on suggestions and offering tidbits of information on upcoming changes and DLC. This level of care is hugely gratifying and enables players to feel as though they're actively helping to refine the game over time.
The Bad Stuff
A few issues can mar the PAYDAY experience a bit. Joining an ongoing game reveals a major design hiccup in that when a new player enters a game, everything pauses for about 30 seconds. When this happens once, it's a little annoying. When it happens three or four times because players keep joining and leaving, it can utterly kill the momentum of a game.
Although the leveling system and difficulty settings offer a satisfying set of ramping challenges and rewards, they also serve to dilute the already somewhat small community into even smaller groups. Especially during off-times, this can result in a lack of available players or a group with wildly varying levels of experience. Waiting sometimes five or more minutes for a group is bad, but mixing hardcore veterans with newbies can be frustrating as well.
Some players bemoan the lack of a player versus player mode, but PAYDAY is actually better off without it, at least as the game stands now. If players could control the special law enforcement units, a well-coordinated group would go through the crooks as if they were wet tissue. Besides, the heart of the game is committing heists and tactically responding to resistance rather than killing everything that moves. A proper PAYDAY pvp match would involve something like dueling heists.
The Bottom Line
PAYDAY: The Heist offers some extremely satisfying shooter combat coupled with lively and unique mission structure. The action is fast, brutal and above all, fair. When you fail a mission, it almost never feels like you were dealt a bad hand so much as your team just played it poorly. As noted above, there is an upcoming and highly anticipated DLC pack that will add a significant amount of additional content, adding even more replay value to an already amazing game. It cannot be stressed enough. Buy. This. Game.