Payday 2: Three Months In

“Why are you still playing that? Overkill ruined it.” Hearing this, I raised an eyebrow. The last patch I played had been fine, and my lack of time with the game had had more to do with us moving on; some friends played Pokemon and Grand Theft Auto V. I and a few others had decided to experiment with Starbreeze’s Syndicate, and we’d discovered in it one of the coolest co-op shooters ever, but more on that later. I was only playing again because the Halloween update had allowed me to prod some friends into the game, and we’d discovered that, lo and behold, we were having fun again!

Suffice it to say, the friend who’d messaged me on Steam was mistaken, for a lot of reasons, but he wasn’t the first to say it. Apparently, some patch had come along that hurt the game, which meant several people swore off the game entirely. I was not one of them, because I was hardly playing by then. I’d popped in to some of the rebuilt maps, thought they were great… and that was about it.

I can’t comment on that patch.

All I can say is that, right here and now, based on my experience and the feedback from people I’ve been talking to about the game, Payday 2 is ever than it’s ever been!

Payday 2: Three Months In

And it's all thanks to these sandwiches! (no idea how to do captions; this'll have to do)

Okay, so, before we get too far into this, I have a REALLY short schedule for the next two weeks, so I’m going to be making the basic assumption that you agree with me on the fundamentals of how FPSes work (tl;dr: movement is a driving factor of the experience, AI is important, weapons should feel awesome). There’s this whole big FPS thing I’ve been working on for ages now, but it’s not done, so you may see some leaps in logic here that leave you scratching your head. If you do, please ask for clarification in the comments/via Twitter.

You know what’s great about digital games? We commonly think of things like “not taking up physical space in cramped apartments” or “the ability to download everywhere,” or “not dependent on discs,” or, fairly soon, “the ability to share long-distance with your friends and family,” but the coolest thing about digital games is how often they can be patched, tweaked, and changed. Where before, games might receive one or two patches, now, developers like the fine folks Overkill can respond to feedback on Twitter and improve their games as a result, which is exactly what they’ve done.

Some of the changes have been popular. Others have been disappointing. Other changes exist only in my head right now, and I’ll talk about them later.

Right off the bat, Payday 2 just feels better. On Overkill, enemies are still bullet sponges (and bullet sponges are never fun to fight unless you’ve got audiovisual feedback like armor being shot away or something, a la Binary Domain’s robot disassembly or Halo’s Elite shield pop), but on lower difficulties… wow. No longer really needing the heaviest of armors, players are empowered to dash around maps in a frenzy of chaos and violence. Guns like the Stryk pistol really shine, blasting through enemies. Much of my glee while playing the game lately has stemmed from using the Stryk to take down two or three enemies at a time. It’s been a personal challenge to see how many I can kill in a quick burst. Few guns have ever felt as good as the Stryk; even when facing a Bulldozer, it feels right. The Izhma feels less useless as well, though I find myself still wishing it didn’t have quite so much recoil and had a bit more range.

Overall, the gun variety seems to have been tweaked, encouraging players to be less reliant on the Mosconi and Deagle combo. Sadly, the Mosconi feels weaker than it used to, which makes it a bit less fun to use. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing games like FEAR and Syndicate, it’s that the most fun in a shooter that’s not a tactical experience (like the 505 Games-published Takedown) is had when you’re moving around all the time, killing enemies quickly. The earlier Mosconi felt great; you did a lot of damage, but if you missed, you were out of luck. Personally, I would rather have seen a range or accuracy tweak to the gun than a damage reduction, because it is oh so fun to watch enemies die, and that seems a bit less frequent now.

Speaking of enemies dying, I don’t know if it’s just that I was too busy focusing on making sure bullet sponges were being killed not to notice, but Payday 2 has some really fun death animations. They’re not on par with Rage’s hilarious “I’ve misplaced my head and I’ve got to run off without it” kills, and they don’t have anything on FEAR’s enemy deaths (have you ever just watched a man explode in a red cloud of mist when putting a shotgun in his face? It is as awesome as it sounds), but still, when you put someone down, it feels right. They drop like a sack of potatoes. It’s great.

You might have noticed I’m saying that a lot, but it’s true: Payday 2 feels better. I’m doing more damage, having more impact. I feel dangerous, a proper purveyor of felonious intent.

Payday 2: Three Months In

This is a mask preview. I think it's awesome, but I love the default skin too, so I don't really want to actually make this mask, since I only have one baby mask. :(

Unfortunately, there is a slight problem with this: enemies are still a tiny bit too bullet spongey on Overkill. I’m not sure why, but the heavy-armored cops in the original game felt like they took a bit less damage than the green-and-brown guys in this game. Team Orphan Meat discussed this a few times, and we came to the conclusion that we’d rather see more enemies than heavily-armored enemies. In the original game, we felt overwhelmed more because we were facing too many cops than because we were facing single cops who were super tough. Two bulldozers is scarier than one super Bulldozer. We’re still largely unhappy with enemies who can hit us with a stream of bullets, because it feels unfair (those revolver guys appear to fire SUPER FAST compared to us).

We want to feel like badasses, so we’d rather have more cops to shoot than cops who are slower to die.

Also, I miss Cloakers, and still feel that the immediate recognizable nature of the original enemy designs (especially for special cops) is superior to their current appearance; plus, I don’t hear them quite as well. There’s an emotional component to this: back when Valve was talking about Half-Life 2, they mentioned that the poison headcrab zombie was fantastic because the sound it emitted caused any player who heard it to be immediately on edge. Enemy special cops in Payday: The Heist pulled that off fantastically, but in Payday 2, where they’re not always immediately noticeable, or where players don’t necessarily hear them right away… I’m just not quite getting that same emotional ride out of the game.

Still, the whole game feels a lot better than it did. I’m not going down nearly as quickly as I used to, and when I fail, I’m more likely to blame myself now than I did before. That’s good: a big problem with the game on launch was feeling that I’d walked into something unfair. We still feel a kind of unfairness where stealth is concerned (detection’s a bit too quick, especially considering that we’re playing with people on different sides of the planet), but not all that much. Overall, the game feels more fair, I feel more like I’m awesome, and the game is just a lot more fun.

Payday 2 puts a huge smile on my face when I’m dashing around the map now. It didn’t do that before. Some minor weapon tweaks combined with a priority on having to think about more enemies rather than just mindlessly pointing at them until they die would be nice.

Payday 2: Three Months In

Okay, so, that said, I’m going to talk about Syndicate for a minute. Why? It’s awesome. Why is it awesome? Because the AI’s amazing, but the weapons feel nice and meaty. All shooter weapons should feel like they’re doing damage; nobody likes a peashooter. Syndicate’s shotgun will absolutely own whoever’s on the other end. Enemies die theatrically. Snipers are deadly headshot weapons (less so for body shots, which is weird). No video game has a flamethrower as effective as Syndicate’s—flamethrowers always kinda suck against bigger enemies, but in Syndicate, it’s like the designers realized that a gun that shoots fire at people might actually make people upset. Healing people from a distance, by the way, is just super cool, especially when someone’s vaulting over cover (also cool is Syndicate’s amazing sense of physicality) to punch someone in the face.

But the best thing about Syndicate? The Agents. The normal AI’s quite nice, and the map design spawns them in largely great locations, making maps seem pretty tough, but fair. Combined with super effective weapons, and it feels fantastic. But… then you fight Agents. Some time ago, folks at Bungie had mentioned that one reasons people loved Elites so much was because an Elite could do just about everything a player could. They had the same health, same shields, strong weapons… for a player to beat an Elite, they’d have to outsmart them. Suffice it to say, shooter AI hasn’t been very good for a while, but then along comes Syndicate, with Agents, and everything changes. The fun of Syndicate’s co-op comes from fighting people who are just as capable as you. Can you heal at a distance? Well, so can they, and when it’s two of you versus four of them, things get pretty tough. You’ve got to out think them if you want to survive. Split one off from the herd so he can’t be healed. Break ‘em up. Take ‘em down.

If a good shooter focuses on movement, and a great shooter focuses on the physicality of its space and violence, then the best shooters focus on thinking about how all this works together, and that’s why Syndicate’s co-op, despite a great deal of flaws, is some of the best shooting I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.

Enemies who can take lots of damage is one thing, but enemies who are as smart as you, shoot only as fast as you do, and take just as much damage at you? They’re a lot more fun to fight. I’m sure that it’s impossible to drastically recreate the AI system in Payday 2, but I would implore the team at Overkill to chat with the Syndicate guys about the AI, because if a Payday 3 with smart special cops gets made, I’d basically lose my mind, and it would be an incredible game.

Basically, if you want your players to feel really awesome, having them outsmart enemies, kill lots of minions, and use sexy guns to do it is a wonderful combination. Payday 2 definitely gets the sexy gunfeel thing down pretty well, and on the first three difficulties, taking out enemies is nice and solid. To that core, basic shooter gunplay, Payday 2’s gone from a two star game to a three and a half star game.

Now on to the Halloween Event! I don’t actually have a lot to say about this, believe it or not. I think someone mentioned getting a seizure from one of the random effects in the special map, but that’s about it. I had a lot of fun with the map, even though it’s just a tweaked variant of the safe house, and I love that Overkill released new masks, a new gun and flashlight, and new patterns, for free. That’s doing events right. They were wise to ensure that the mask drops were guaranteed as the masks that dropped; nobody wants to get drops they can get at any time.

…which is why it’s a bit strange that the patterns weren’t guaranteed to drop. I didn’t get a single Halloween pattern. I got plenty of masks. I even got four or five patterns, and used all of my offshore money to try to get some... But when it came to the Halloween patterns, I got nothing. Okay, I am not Overkill, nor am I Valve. I do not particularly understand the reasoning behind the “limited time” stuff. I mean, I do—you want to get people to buy your game—but… well, I went out of town this weekend. A lot of time I could have spent playing Payday, I spent visiting my family, who I hadn’t seen in months. But I did get a few dozen rounds in on Thursday and Sunday.

Plus, players have limited mask slots and limited masks. If I customize, say, the Brazilian Baby, I will never get to use a normal Brazilian Baby mask ever again. Which means, essentially, that I’ve received the masks, I’ve bought them, they’re in my (limited) mask inventory… and… that’s the end of that. If I run out of space (I’ve got some customized masks I rather like), I’m going to have to get rid of something, which is a bit of a bummer.

Then you’ve got the achievements. Payday’s always been kinda problematic with achievements. Good achievements, ideally, encourage players to play well. Payday’s, historically, are all over the place. Some actively encourage poor behavior (throw a bag of money into the water!). To their credit, these new achievements are pretty good, particularly the Witch mask, which encourages players to engage in a game mechanic (revives) where they might not otherwise… but the achievements can only be earned if you played the event and got the masks to use them.

I love nearly everything they did with the achievement, but the limited time stuff really bums me out, especially with the limited inventory. I’d love to customize the masks, but because I’ll never get them again, why bother?

Payday 2: Three Months In

Thing is, Overkill actually has a solution. Everyone who preordered the game has access to the Skull mask. It’s an infamous item, if I remember right, but it’ll keep dropping, meaning that you can customize the mask to your heart’s content. Future players can't get it, as far as I know, but those who preordered will get it to drop. It might have been nice if players who played the game during the Halloween event can unlock the items for future dropping. Players like myself, who weren’t lucky enough to get the patterns, or players who’d like to customize the masks without having to worry that they’ll never get ‘em again can feel free to do what they’d like.

So, yeah, it’s a great event marred slightly by a problematic inventory and item drop frequency. I’d be less concerned if people sold the masks on the store, of if Payday 2 had an inventory of… what, 500 items like TF2, or if customization wasn’t a thing (I don’t worry about customizing my Halloween hat from the first TF2 event, for instance). I don’t even like TF2, but they definitely do the event/inventory idea right.

What I’m covering next all kind of ties together in what makes for a good FPS; they may seem disconnected at first, but trust me, there’s a method to this madness.

Money and XP values are different, meaning the reward at the end of missions is varied. Some people aren’t quite fond of this: they have this perception that they’re being ripped off, which is kinda funny, since most of them were complaining about having too much money to spend earlier on. Money drops, for instance, were something I’ve mentioned in the past: it had been rather sad playing something like Jewelry Store or Bank Heist and not caring/needing/thinking about scrounging the money bundles placed around the map because they’re not that valuable. For a while, the system was useless.

The patch has changed that: players now get less money in heists, meaning that if they want more money, they’re going to have to work for it. This has a lot of benefits, ranging from making the fairly simplistic missions (still my biggest complaint with the game, and while I understand where they’re coming from, I feel as though more complex maps would be a tremendous enhancement of the experience) a bit more complex with the hunt for money, to encouraging players to move around the maps just a bit more (oddly, the map nobody likes, Mallcrashers, actually does this the best; everything else tends to centralize money bundles/jewelry/the odd safe or two in one or two rooms).

Some people don’t really like it, but I think it’s awesome.

Payday 2: Three Months In

Another change has been to some basic map structures, with Nightclub receiving the biggest change—there are now three possible places where the safe might spawn, encouraging more movement and more alternative strategies. Pick the wrong room, and you’re going to have to rethink how to play the maps. In a rather fantastic change, the safest spot in Watch Dogs will occasionally be unavailable, making the starting strategy of rushing out of the car and tossing cocaine through the window pointless.

Where Payday 2 on launch had ideal strategies for each map, Payday 2’s map tweaks have offered more choice and variety. Some missions are still kind of useless (Mallcrashers, Four Stores), others still encourage basically the same playthrough each time (always best to stealth Big Oil and Framing Frame, for instance), but the tweaks to maps like Watch Dogs and Nightclub have encouraged players to move around a lot more and try new things.

I’ve always argued that movement is the most important part of an FPS, but I’ve never really been able to explain why until now: movement encourages a diversity of play. The fun in an FPS comes from diversity of play, and if you’re not moving, you’re probably not playing a diverse experience: you’re playing at a firing range. People always think about the tools the player uses—the guns—and focus on them as the single most important part in the experience, but when I play a shooter, it’s all strafing and jumping and making sure enemies go where I want them to go and dodging/predicting/aiming/firing projectiles at things. It’s all about the space.

Payday 2’s greatest improvements are the way the money system now kind of encourages movement around a space, as well as the way some of the maps have been tweaked to encourage this. To be honest, encouraging players to do things is really, really good. Remember how I complained about the achivements earlier? Some encouraged players to do bad things (throw your money away, beat the mission while in custody), and others encouraged players to do good things (revive your friends).

Good design encourages diverse play. If you design a game where your players get into a routine and repeat that ad nauseum, you may want to rethink the way it’s been designed. One of the reasons I loved the original Payday so much, specifically the Diamond Heist map, was because I constantly played it differently. Sure, the broad strokes were the same, but the guard patterns, multiple floors and ways to get between them, sapphire cases, and big diamond all affected the way I and my crew moved about the level each and every time.

My hope is that upcoming Payday 2 maps will take this into account. As it stands, because enemies appear to do less damage (or armor takes more, not sure which), players are moving around the levels (Watch Dogs, Day 2 is the best level in the game for this, I think; the warehouse has so many entrances, and enemies can come from so many locations, that players are constantly needing to rove around the map).

Because players are moving around the level, they’re not hunkering down in cover.

Because they’re not hunkering down in cover, they’re not looking for the perfect hiding spot and simply going there every time.

This, I think, was the game’s biggest problem on launch: the way that combat, level design, money, and the health system worked, players had no reason to try new things, to play diversely. Now, players are moving around more, due to these tweaks. The game’s becoming a bit more diverse, even if the maps still could use some tweaking.

So, yeah. My word counter is currently saying 3,366 words, and I’m finally able to say why Payday 2’s better than it used to be:

It encourages more diverse playthroughs. It’s less repetitive. For a co-op game, that’s important.

What can Payday 2 do better?

Payday 2: Three Months In

Okay, right off the bat, more complex missions would be nice. I’ve written about this in the past, and David Goldfarb (he’s super awesome and you should follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. He uses the handle Locust9) pointed out, they’re trying to encourage player choice, so having a lot of steps… well, it doesn’t necessarily facilitate choice.

For the past few months, I’ve been trying to figure out how to solve that, and I’m not sure I have an answer quite yet, but I do have some comments.

Payday 2’s biggest hurdle to choice are the XP and Money systems. Most video game players prefer min-maxing, when given the chance. It’s just a basic human need: we want the most points, the most money, the most anything, and we want it for the least amount of work. So if our missions end with that… then, well, we’re going to find the optimal way to do everything.

Dragon Age: Origins, is probably not the game you were expecting me to begin a paragraph with. I’ve spent more time with it than any other game on my Steam games list. I think it’s awesome. Twice, I’ve beat it with a rogue, each time varying my party layout, my skills, and all that jazz. Yes, there are optimal ways to play the game, but… well, I’ve discovered it’s a lot more fun to try skills that seem “useless,” because, as I’ve been saying, a diverse experience is often a lot more fun than doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve replayed Origins because there’s so much to find—if I’d stuck to mathematically optimal builds, I never would have found this stuff.

I’ve got friends and acquaintances who looooove optimal builds, min-maxing, and all that stuff. A few games where we co-op demonstrates these perfect builds. And, y’know, it’s great that they can cut through the game so fast… but… well, is that the point? Like, what do you want out of this? As a foodie, I want to savor every bite of what I’m eating, and it’s the same with gaming; other people seem to just want to stuff whatever they can down their throat and be done with it, at least, that’s what they do when the game’s systems are designed that way. If they’re focused on builds and leveling, they’re not focused on the gameplay.

You can offer them all the choice in the world, and they’ll say “why would I ever want to do that? It’s not efficient.”

Quite a few people play games as if clicking on something until it dies is all that matters. If that were true, there’d be no reason to design more than one gun. Just design a game in a box where the player presses a button and deletes an entity. Heck, don’t even make it 3D. Don’t worry about controls. Just press one button and the enemy explodes.

Efficiency leads to boring gameplay.

Engaging gameplay should be the chief driving factor of a shooter, at least at a mechanical level.

One of the reasons I like Halo: Combat Evolved is because it’s designed to encourage an incredibly diverse play experience. When it comes to guns, Halo’s weapons are each distinct. Nothing overlaps. This changed slightly with Halo 2, but since players could dual-wield certain guns (SMG) and not others (Assault Rifle), diversity was still maintained. The plasma pistol is not the ultimate weapon. The pistol is not perfect. The needler won’t solve all your problems.

And, of course, that’s not the only reason it’s great. The game’s AI is good—not in the sense that it can out-play you, but in the sense that it reacts appropriately to you, can become afraid of you, and has a complex and diverse set of behaviors that can be discovered based both on the other types of AI that are around (grunts behave differently if there’s an elite covering them) and the game’s difficulty level.

The health system uses the shield to encourage moving around, but has a health kit to make sure you’re still cautious. Grenades can encourage AI to jump into your line of fire, so even failing to damage them can still serve your purpose. The arenas and level design are focused to encourage multiple play styles. The weapon limit doesn’t exist for realism so much as ensuring you’re not just sticking with your preferred gun at all times—if you run out of ammo, you’ll have to pick something else up. This, by the way, is why universal ammo hurt Dead Space 3: it didn’t encourage players to move to different gun types, but rather encouraged them to pick one optimized gun and stick with it at all times.

So, yeah. I think diversity is awesome for shooting, and I’m kinda running all over the place because I’m hardly eating these days, on account of not being able to afford much food. No caffeine and no protein makes Doc a dull boy.

Payday 2: Three Months In

Back on task: how can Payday 2 encourage players to be more diverse? Obviously, killing the XP system would prove pretty challenging (plus, everyone who’s invested heavily in the game would hate that), and it seems as though level design takes a long time, judging by the game’s significant lack of new maps the past few months (two, and one was Halloween only) and repetition of basic elements all over the place (the house asset is used in at least two maps, Bank Heist comes in like four or six variants, etc). I doubt anyone at Overkill wants to randomly tweak values of guns and ammo, cycling in a ‘best weapon’ as the game goes on. Most players would object to that as well.

I hate to do this, but I think Payday: The Heist really did some things better than its sequel. There’s no overlap between weapon types, for instance. In Payday 2, we have more weapons, but also more weapon overlap, meaning that a specific weapon type is decidedly superior to another type. The first game also had unlocks for everyone, meaning that players had a more or less identical build, which meant that players were different not in what skills they had, but what tools (guns, gear, perks) they were carrying.

Discussions in Payday 2 are all “I’m going to do this point or that point,” unlike Payday: The Heist, where it was more “oh, you’re going to carry that? Well, I’ll carry this instead, then.” It added a deal of flexibility, by the way: with Payday 2, you’re basically stuck with whatever character you’ve been building, unless you want to waste cash and respect every game. With Payday: The Heist, players could constantly change things up: the progression system actually enhanced a more diverse approach.

But, hey, these things are cemented into the game’s design. You might be able to change them for the next game, but you definitely can’t do it for this one.

So… I have a kind of solution, but I’ve no idea how challenging it might be to implement, so if you like it, don’t start screaming at the Overkill guys that they should totally do it, because it might not be possible:

Bring back the challenge system.

Look, if people want points and achievements, if people need rewards for their actions… then they’re going to pick the optimal path and play the exact same way every time, unless the optimal path encourages diversity. Two or three possible locations for a necklace in The Ukranian job isn’t going to encourage diversity. A challenge system says “get X number of kills with this gun, that gun, etc,” or “pick up Y total of money bundles/board up Y number of windows.” So you start getting things that encourage players to move around the map, to check out the game’s mechanic. Sure, their reasons are still extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, but you’re encouraging diversity. The people who want points are going to try new things because that’s how they get points.

And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be points. Maybe, for instance, there are five tiers of challenges. For some, they get an XP bonus, for others, cash, and for the top tier, they receive an infamous item, an inventory slot increase, or something like that.

Obviously, more maps with more things to do (for instance, Diamond Heist’s Big Diamond is worth a LOT, so if you’ve managed to sneak, you might as well try to steal it, while its sapphires are worth enough to encourage sneaking at the start rather than simply go loud and rush the map) would be great. I’d love to have a map with more things to do—maybe, for instance, players could run through a map with tasks as complex as Mercy Hospital’s… but there are multiple objectives to choose from, rather than just one guy in a ward. Perhaps the players are stealing organs from a hospital, so they can choose to break into a locker to steal a heart, or they can disguise themselves as doctors to steal a kidney, or something like that. Lots of details to the specific goals, but players can pick which goals they want to do. Maybe they want to press their luck and try to obtain everything. Who knows?

Payday 2’s a better game now than it was, because it’s more diverse.

But it could be even more diverse than it is: just smashing things in Mallcrashers isn’t particularly fun. Just opening one safe in Bank Heist isn’t all that exciting, even if you can play it stealth or non-stealthed, and even if you can open the safety deposit boxes (which don’t seem terribly worthwhile given the time investment/money ratio).

If you want a great co-op experience, check out Payday 2. My attention may have faded for a while there, but it’s been recaptured by the most recent update. I’ll definitely be playing it more frequently. I’d definitely love more maps, larger groups of enemies, and the return of the challenge system, but what I’ve got right now is one of the best co-op experiences I’ve ever played.

Bring on the DLC!

Sorry if this one was disjointed and unfocused; I’ve got about $3 in my bank account right now, and I’m not getting a lot to eat these days, which means my exhaustion/pain issues are significantly worse than normal. As such, I’m not super focused. I’m continuing to look for better employment, but I haven’t found anything yet, so my situation’s kinda dire. As usual, you can follow me on Tumblr, Twitter, and Kotaku’s DocTalk tag.