This is not a review of Payday 2. I started out writing a review of Payday 2, but then I started writing this instead. “Why I don’t love Payday 2,” seems like an apt description; it’s a good game with some complicated problems, and right now, I’m more interested in exploring those problems than I am in telling you whether or not you should buy Payday 2. For those of you looking for a review of Payday 2, here it is: it’s a great, albeit problematic game that you should buy right now. Just be forewarned that most people don’t really enjoy playing it solo or with randoms, so if you’re going to play, play it with friends. If you do, you’ll have a blast.

Part two is coming; after I published this piece on my blog, I had a chat with David Goldfarb, the game's director. Suffice it to say, I've got more to say, and it'll be incoming in a day or two.

Review over. Now the dissection begins.

I am not sure how to begin talking about Payday 2. It’s got all these wonderful little improvements, after all, like detection meters, the ability to see how much ammo your team mates have, the ability to check on the progress of your crewmates as they interact with objects, the ability to throw bags at people… honestly, there are so many good things going on underneath the surface that I feel kinda sad when I hop back into the original game and finding myself havingmore fun.

Payday 2 may be the first game I’ve played that improves greatly on its predecessor at the expense of fun, and I’ll do my best to explain why.

While playing as a ghost one day, I found myself on the roof of the bank punching a guard. It shouldn’t have been an issue; I was, if I recall correctly, equipped with the lowest-visibility gear and the shinobi perk. The guard went down, and almost instantly the camera directly below me, inside the bank, caught me, blowing my cover. Yeah. Somehow, it saw through the floor, undoing all my machinations.

It’s not an isolated incident, either.

While playing Framing Frame, I was caught by a guard who was looking the other way. I had been hiding up on the roof, directly behind the guy, and decided to peek through down at him through one of the skylights. The guard’s alert meter filled instantly, he spun around, and started shooting. On the final map of Big Oil, I was spotted from about thirty meters away by a guard… despite the fact that a wall stood between us.

Netcode issues can cause problems too—a friend got caught yesterday because he saw a guard fifteen meters away from where the host saw him. I’ve seen guys pour in through boarded-up windows, revolvers miss six shots in a row against guys two meters away, and even the occasional teleporting enemy. According to a thread in the Steam Community, visibility is currently working backwards: wearing a suit, a tie, and a low-visibilty gun will get you caught faster than if you wear full body armor.

Bugs plague Payday 2, though, to Overkill’s credit, they’ve been pretty good about squashing them. Of course, my favorite games is STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, and it’s arguably the buggiest video game ever shipped. Bugs I can handle. Questionable design, on the other hand, I have a bit more trouble with, especially when it’s coupled with poor communication.

This frustration comes, in part, from the expectations I have of sequels. Age of Empires II HD has been my go-to game this summer, especially after having recently beat the original game, and Ensemble’s RTS classic is a perfect example of what a sequel should be: it takes the elements of its predecessor and improves upon them tremendously. That’s what I had hoped I’d get from Payday 2, and in many ways, it is—the random mask drops are cool. Being able to customize guns is fun, even if the system caters to min-maxing more than, say, creating mission- or class-specific builds. The in-mission UI is a tremendous improvement. You can stealth a lot more maps in Payday 2 than the original. But… then again, in some ways, it’s a huge regression: players can’t pick whatever they’d like anymore without spending stupid amounts of money for no really good reason. Special enemies are a lot harder to pick out of a crowd and don’t communicate as well as they did in the previous game, with loud shield bangs and exclamations of “Bulldozer coming through!” or “Tase that guy!” While you can stealth a lot more of Payday 2’s maps, it also reuses one of those maps—Bank Heist—four or five times, with assets from other maps (like the house in Rats/Big Oil day one) being virtually identical.

I Want To Love Payday 2, but... (Pt. 1)

When you can beat a mission and earn $1,000,000+ in cash, only to receive a random drop of $3,000 or even $13,000 extra, it tends to feel more like punishment than anything else. As it stands, I know more people who go into the random drop saying “I hope I don’t get cash,” than people who say “I hope I get…” The random drops seem rather purposeless, to be honest. Masks, patterns, and colors drop infrequently; I never seem to get the gun mods I want, and even when I get them, it costs money to add them to guns (also, this isn’t a complaint, just an observation: why not have weapon skin drops?). In addition, one mask cost me about $400,000 to craft (though the game told me it would cost considerably less), but, if I sold it, I would have received $17,000 in return.

The cash system on the whole just doesn’t make a lot of sense—and even worse, it makes playing the game on lower difficulty levels practically worthless. I’d seriously love to sit down and chat with whoever designed the cash system and figured out all the values for money, because it stands, neither I nor the people I play with can suss out any logic in the system.

Some skills, items, and weapons fail to communicate how they work. Why, when I have aced the perk that limits fall damage to armor, do I still find myself downed when dropping into the sewers on the second day of Framing Frame? Just how much does Lucky Charm improve my ability to gain better items? What are better items? Payday 2 says “this is better,” or “you’ll get more of this or that,” but it’s not very clear on what that means, much of the time. Okay, I can pick locks faster, but how much faster?

Speaking of lock-picking, it seems like a waste most of the time, especially considering the level the player has to be to use it. Why pick a lock when a friend can just use C4 or a saw? Great skills from the previous game, like the ability to sprint in any direction or make cops take themselves hostage, are now limited to specific skill trees. Additionally, players can’t unlock everything in the game, which means that public players will boot people who haven’t got the skills they want them to have, or, if your crew consists of more than four or five people (or people of varying skillsets—I’m the guy who loved teaching low-leveled players how to do the game), you may end up with a less-than-optimal matchup. As it stands, the skill tree is great when you’re playing with a crew of four that’s built themselves to complement each other, but for every other outcome, Payday 2 provides less-than-adequate results.

Then you’ve got body armor.

I have yet to be able to figure out what body armor does. I mean, in broad terms, I get it: the heavier the armor, the slower you move, and the more damage you’re supposed to be able to absorb. Of course, when I’m wearing the heaviest armor in the full game, with full health, an assault wave ends, and I sprint to the van on Jewelry heist, taking one or two hits, and losing almost all of my armor and most of my health, I find myself throwing up my hands in confusion. Why is it that, upon immediate revival in Rats, I can climb up the stairs and be downed by just one cop who enters from the balcony? I have the second most-powerful armor in the game (only Enforcers can wear the most powerful armor), so why do I feel like I’m made of soggy toilet paper? It’s almost as if Payday 2’s half-heartedly playing at being a tactical shooter.

A week ago, my crew and I decided to go play some of the original Payday. The next few hours were filled with exclamations of delight. “Bwahahaha, I can takeso much damage!” “Look at me, I can sprint backwards!” “Cop, arrest thyself!” “Oh, man, challenges are back!” “The Brenner is the best gun ever,” “Hey, the AMCAR doesn’t suck!” “Yay, we can pick missions again!” “Oh cloakers, how I missed you!” “Look, Payday’s specials telegraph who they are and what they’re doing so much better than in 2!” We were having fun, messing around in the game, doing our thing, and loving every second of it. And it made us kinda sad, knowing that we didn’t take this much delight in Payday 2.

I’ve got one other problem with Payday 2.

As a sequel, Payday 2 makes some fantastic improvements—it provides a great deal of tools for players to do things in new ways. Having a lock pick back on Diamond Heist, for instance, could have meant that to access some tablets, players would have to unlock doors, heightening the chance of being caught by guards. Likewise, they’d have been able to take a few guards out easier, not to mention transporting their bodies to better hiding spots, enhancing the stealth experience.

I Want To Love Payday 2, but... (Pt. 1)

Other changes, however, reshape the experience in ways that actively diminish the enjoyment of the experience. While we were messing around in the original Payday, we struck up a conversation about map size and complexity. One thing that came up was how, due to the differences in the health system and map design, players aren’t encouraged to move around anymore; instead, they’re encouraged to hunker down, wait for enemies to arrive, and kill them. Most of the time playing Rats is spent in the top floor of an abandoned house. If you get attacked in Nightclub, you can simply hunker down in the office, fixing your drill as necessary, until it’s time to escape.

Payday 2’s maps are weird.

Simple example?

Here’s a ‘complex’ Payday 2 level (the most-used map in the game, in fact—it’s used in five different missions), Bank Heist: Get drill > drill vault > get loot > take loot to van.

This can be slightly more complex if you stealth the map: Wait for the three guards/manager to move to a quiet spot and subdue them > take out guard in security room > Get drill > drill vault > get loot > take loot to van. If the vault is in a non-optimal location, you may also have to subdue hostages and plant an ECM jammer.

Here’s Mercy Hospital from Payday: The Heist: Take out security cameras > subdue patients > answer phone > subdue maintenance guy > find file > subdue guard > place fake sentries to subdue patients > wear disguise > fake it as doctors until you find the guy in quarantine > snip the wire leading to the guy’s room > take hostages/subdue guards > get blood/test it > call elevator > turn power back on (multiple times as enemies shut it off) > get in elevator > open door > escape.

As you can see, there are a lot more steps in a heist from the original game. Not always, mind you—take Diamond Heist, for instance: Place all three tablets > get to the vault > get diamonds > get to helicopter and escape.

It might not sound very complex… but there are many ways this can go wrong or change. The codes to the vault might be wrong, and you might have to find and interrogate the CFO. He might not have the codes, at which point, you’ll have to find Ralph. If the red diamond spawns, you’ll have to return and get the bolt cutter. Oh, and did I mention that the map has 10 sapphires to find that get locked up as soon as you get found by security guards? Additionally, if you haven’t placed all the tablets and the security guards find you, you’ll have to plant those tablets and let them run through the heist.

A rather simple mission, Undercover, has a bit of random generation that greatly affects the amount of cover that players have during the escape and in the interrogation/server room. It also drops a car that needs to be opened in random locations which, again, can greatly affect the amount of cover that the players have. As such, players have to use their resource—twenty sets of planks—wisely. Players have to make decisions that… well… consider Payday 2’s Rats, one of its more complex missions:

In Rats, you have to gather the three ingredients to make meth. The map essentially encourages you to stay in one room (cutting the power only makes it harder to see cops outside, and you can easily beat the mission without turning it back on), and the three planks that spawn in the mission are only needed to board up three specific windows to help the players avoid snipers across the road. You make the meth, then leave. The next mission has you placing bags in a truck, then talking to some guys to acquire information. You may get attacked or you may simply walk away. Finally, Rats has a mission where you shoot your way to a bus, steal some cash from it, and… yeah, then escape. It’s very simplistic—you’re not having to make decisions, and there aren’t a lot of points where the game can branch.

It’s also a pretty great example of the game’s ‘sameness’ in the mission endings: while each mission in Payday: The Heist featured a gauntlet run the players would have to make to beat the game, they were delivered in a lot of different ways. Counterfeit required players to go to one of two possible exits, pry open a grate, and escape through sewers. Diamond Heist featured a roof helicopter extraction. First World Bank required players to run through an cover-less lobby before blowing a hole in the building next door and escaping through its basement.

I Want To Love Payday 2, but... (Pt. 1)

Payday 2’s missions almost all end the same: players have to run through an area with almost no cover whatsoever in order to escape, the only exceptions being Four Stores and the final day of Watch Dogs. Jewelry Store requires players to run across or down an open street swarming with cops, as do plenty of other missions, like Bank Heist, the final mission of Rats, the first mission of Watch Dogs, the second and third missions in Firestarter (the first requires that you run up a hill)… and on and on. When your armor feels like it’s made of wet tissue paper, this becomes an annoying experience.

The way I see it, Payday: The Heist was a game where things COULD go wrong. It was a game that put a bunch of possible permutations of a scenario in your face and let you deal with that. It took the age-old idea that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and ran with it. Everything about Payday—from enemy spawn numbers and locations to what item stops running when to the layout of the map to… well, just about everything was all oriented towards creating a linear experience that still managed to be very different every time.

It was a game where cooperation was important in order to make sure the mission was pulled off as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Payday 2 isn’t about that. Payday 2 is about failing missions. It’s about being the Dark Souls of FPSes, as they’ve said. And I think it kinda suffers because of that. In Payday 2, cooperation is required to avoid dying, not to make sure you complete all objectives as efficiently as possible. “Working together” in Payday 2 basically just means that you’re making sure people don’t go down and those who do get revived quickly. It’s a game where the only thing that ever seems to go wrong is when an inordinate amount of enemies come through an entrance.

It’s why you can beat Payday 2’s missions relatively quickly, even on Solo. A crew of four can beat Jewelry Store in twenty-five seconds or so. It only takes a few minutes to stealth the first mission of Framing Frame, and Four Stores isn’t that hard either. Bank Heist can be done in about five minutes. Rats only takes a while if you want to make all seven bags of meth and shoot the gangsters andavoid using C4 or a lockpick to open the safe quickly.

I’d like to see missions with more steps, more complexity, more chances for things to fail than “move the coke to a safe location > move the coke to the truck > get to the car (and if you fail) > get to the chopper,” followed by another day that’s “move the coke to a safe location > move the coke to the truck > get to the chopper.” I’d like to see missions with optional objectives, like the blue sapphires in Diamond Heist.

I’d like to play missions that take place in bigger spaces, that don’t just letplayers run around, but encourage it. I’d like to see enemies and levels function more like they used to—breaking up players, trying to keep them from bunching together and hunkering down in just one location, because that’s poor shooter gameplay. I’d like to see missions that try new things, like, say, having two players observe, point out enemies, and snipe, while two more players conduct criminal activities down below. I’d like missions to feel, as one NeoGAF member suggested in the Payday 2 Official Thread, as if they were actually stealing things of value. Maybe the player could break into some NASA facility and blow up an experimental rocket, or sneak into a huge museum, like one of the Smithsonians. I’d like to play a game where there’s a lot more to do than there is in Payday 2, and yeah, I’d like to be able to pick whatever map I want and play it on the difficulty I want without having to pay for it.

The bugs annoy me, but Overkill’s tremendous patch support make them easily forgivable. The design frustrates me, because it seems muddled and confused. But the maps? The maps are the biggest reason I find myself falling out of love with Payday 2. They’re small, boring, and lacking in complexity. I can put up with annoyances and frustrations, but disappointment… not so much. I don’t look forward to playing Payday 2 all that much with my friends, and I don’t wantto feel that way. There’s a wonderful gem of a game hidden in this experience, and it’s something everyone should to play, with the understanding that Payday 2 is not a good sequel to its predecessor.

Overkill must be commended for their efforts, but I find myself wishing that their efforts had been channeled into improving what was already there rather than trying to be the Dark Souls of shooters without realizing that a four-player co-op shooter isn’t going to benefit by attempting to emulate it. As of now, the experience just seems muddled—aiming at different things, but not really capturing any of them. I’d hoped for a game that was actually Payday 2, and what I got was a game with some great ideas that fumbles the execution a bit and ignores some of its predecessor’s best attributes. It’s a fun game to play, and I’ve put almost thirty hours into it in two weeks, despite a busy schedule, but I’m thinking, more and more, that I’ll be returning to the original game.

Here’s hoping Overkill will squash the bugs, adjust some aspects of the design, and most importantly, provide us significantly bigger and more complex missions.