The original Payday was a minor cooperative classic in the Left 4 Dead mold, focusing on four criminals pulling off violent heists in a variety of clever and familiar scenarios, with one bank robbery taking its inspiration from Heat. Wish fulfillment and masculine power fantasies are a big part of popular video games, and who wouldn’t want to be Robert De Niro in the Michael Mann classic? The game was sadly overlooked by most, but with added bonus content from Valve and DLC maps, the game sold enough to warrant a sequel. Unfortunately, Payday 2 is only a sequel in the loosest sense of the word, recycling its predecessor’s formula with unsuccessful upgrades to the gameplay alongside a series of undercooked, uninspired scenarios that fall flat compared to the more tense originals.
Payday 2 is primarily an online multiplayer first-person shooter; players select a heist using the new and unnecessarily confusing “Crime.Net”—an interactive graphic interface that functions as the mission select—before grouping with friends, strangers, or bots to take on the job. Each scenario now has a period of time to “case” the area, to judge the best way to tackle the heist and plot out escape routes. One major change is the introduction of stealth, in which heists can be executed and completed in secret for a higher payout. This wasn’t a good decision, as stealth is rarely successful in first-person games, and it’s made all the more difficult here by the useless AI: Enemies will randomly spot you and activate alarms regardless of how close or illegal your behavior is, and in the unfortunate event that you’re relying on bots in your team of four, you’ll find all too often that they’ll set off alarms or start firing into crowds, ruining any chance of secretly completing a mission. (Not to mention the impossible task of finding people online interested in carefully playing as a coordinated group when they can run into encounters shooting and/or yelling abuse at you instead.)
Payday 2’s embarrassing AI is a major problem. Police, security, and SWAT alike have little regard for their own lives, running headfirst into gunfire and taking cover behind objects that don’t exist. The original game’s enemies rarely got close enough to give away their unsophisticated AI routines, thus not breaking the illusion of reality, whereas Payday 2’s morons run into rooms with you and get lost. Worse, teammate AI simply doesn’t work: AI-controlled allies can’t pick up items or assist in heists and usually become a liability, rendering the single-player element essentially unplayable.
Payday 2’s scenarios take a major step back from the original. The game is limited by a severe lack of imagination. Consider “Mall Crasher,” a mission that invites the player to take part in the destruction of a shopping center: What might have been a thrilling task of causing mayhem in a populated area is reduced to the boring, mundane act of individually destroying items in shops in order to reach a ridiculous destruction “value” before the game can proceed. Conceptually thrilling, but inane and boring in execution. Even the returning, established missions—robbing a bank, raiding stores—become less about exciting criminal activity and more about slowly waiting for drills and other instruments to slowly finish opening locked doors. This is supposedly aided by better equipment unlocked via the game’s RPG system, where players can unlock new skills and items by gaining experience in heists, but it costs hours upon hours of gameplay to gain levels and the really useful equipment demands dozens of mission replays. Because of the limited number of missions on offer those hours are better spent elsewhere.
None of this is to say Payday 2 is bad, just disappointing. None of the improvements or changes add to the experience; even the heists which take place across several days with “branching” sequences become a frustrating chore. (How many times can one idiot getaway driver crash a van?!) Had Payday 2 taken more risks, for example, introducing the ability to turn on teammates to steal their share, a la Kane & Lynch, or attempted a narrative (maybe one that ends with a huge gunfight in the Safe House area that serves as the game’s tutorial) it might have been notable. Instead, it pales in comparison to its predecessor, a far superior game featuring more entertaining heists and little unnecessary padding.