Prepare yourself to fend of waves of ludicrously overzealous cops, swear at a barely functioning drill, and barely make a getaway, because Payday 3 is here. The long-awaited co-op heist shooter is coming out of retirement, but it’s definitely not just for one last job. There’s a whole host of heisting to be done in New York!
One thing that I absolutely appreciate about Payday 3 is the no-nonsense approach it takes picking your mission. There is a story arc within the game, charting how and why the gang has been dragged down to New York and a renewed life of crime, but you can totally ignore it. All eight of the heists are playable right from the get-go, without any of that randomly generated masquerade of Crime.Net in Payday 2, and the only thing that’s locked away are the story cutscenes, which unlock if you play the heists in order. Just play the game, in other words.
There’s an air of familiarity to all of the scenarios that Payday 3 throws at you. Even if you ignore that the series draws heavily on heist films and crime fiction in the first place, there’s plenty of well-worn scenarios from the first two games that have been recreated for the third. There’s the obligatory bank branch heist, the jewellers, the armoured truck on a bridge, the night club, and on and on. And yet, while they’re such well-known and understood concepts, just the fact that they’re new maps (and admittedly that it’s been half a decade since I last played Payday 2) helps them feel refreshed and reinvigorating.
The fundamental core of the gameplay also remains very familiar, and it’s very easy for a lapsed player to slip right back into the groove, from the opening stealth and exploration, to when all hell is let loose and you’re fighting off waves of enemies, while defending a shonky drill.
You start off all but one of the missions is stealth mode, enabling you to case the joint, scoping out access points, looking for clues to what you’ll need later on in a mission, and with a little evasiveness, getting into the private and secure areas without raising an alarm. You’re limited to what you do before you put on a mask, though, so there’s no takedowns, no jumping or vaulting, and this forces you to pick and choose your moments.
As with the previous games, the levels are all set in stone, but with some randomised elements for key codes, key cards and clues to find. Still, after one or two early runs (which will almost certainly end up going awry and end in a big shoot out), you’ll have the lay of the land in your mind and can start to get more and more adventurous with your stealth. It certainly helps that you’re still given plenty of leeway when it comes to getting spotted by the dumb-as-bricks guards on patrol, and you can peak out from cover barely a metre away, mark them and the tuck back in, giggling like school kids.
Again, while so many of the mission concepts are familiar and reused, there’s just such a joy to having new layouts, new guard patterns to learn, and the inevitable shenanigans of co-op that this leads to. As things do kick off, there’s more emphasis put on taking hostages, keeping them safe and trading them to buy you more time in peace and quiet, though this is something that’s mainly going to come in handy for higher level plays. On normal difficulty, you can get away with just blasting away and not really caring what happens, while higher difficulties will need more coordinated efforts and specialised players.
Player progression looks to strike a pretty happy middle ground between the purist simplicity of 12+ years ago, and the convoluted mess of currencies and levelling that we tend to find in games now. Fundamentally, you have a player level which earns you points for a skill tree, while cash you earn from heisting goes toward buying new guns, gear and cosmetics. However, those guns are levelled up by using them, which in turn unlocks better attachments for you to buy. You can also point the skill tree progression in a particular direction by selecting what to ‘research’, if you want to make a beeline for a particular style of play and character build.
The main wrinkle I’ve not yet dabbled with is a scheme to trade in-game cash for in-game crypto currency, which you can currently only spend on a specific set of cosmetic gloves. Thankfully, there’s no microtransactions, so even these are simply down to game time and min-maxing your grind.
The only real weakness I can see is that the game doesn’t really push you towards the meaningful character upgrades. Playing on TV (and with the happy banter of co-op buddies), the post-match UI elements were a bit too small and too easily dismissed to notice that I’d gained skill points, unlocked skills to spend them on, and the gun levels and attachments too. Getting better body armour and a pistol silencer is pretty important early on, so making more of these points would be great to emphasise for newcomers to the series.
And in general, I feel that the user interface could be a bit better for console. It’s small things like the social menu having a different button when in the main menu and the in-game menu, having the spot and mark button be on the D-pad when it’s so fundamental, and the D-pad direction icons for items not being distinct enough. It’s also quite odd having very PC-like graphics settings for resolution, depth of field, upscaling and more – the in-game FPS counter is nice, though. On Xbox Series X, the default settings will drop below 60fps when action gets going, so it could be worth dropping a the settings down a notch or two.
One big positive to note, though, is that consoles will be getting plenty of care and attention now. The game is built on Unreal Engine this time, so it will be easier to keep the console versions in lockstep with PC, and thanks to this, the game also supports full cross-play and cross-progression. OK, so the forced sign up for a Starbreeze Nebula account is pretty darned intrusive at first launch, but we’ve had a game connecting PC, Xbox and PlayStation players together and it worked seamlessly – shoutout to Discord being on consoles these days, as well.
There’s not many wholly new ideas within the mix of Payday 3, but it’s a sensible refinement of what those games tick, bringing in some interesting tweaks and gameplay changes to smooth the experience a little. All in all, Payday 3 is a welcome return for the heist ’em up series, and a reminder of why the first two games were so popular.
As review code arriving just a couple days before official launch, we’re yet to play through all of the heists, step things up to higher difficulty levels or really dig into the full character specialisation. Keep an eye out for our scored update to this review in progress once we’ve been able to do so.