Review: PayDay: The Heist

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There’s a saying in real estate: “Location, location, location.”  Of course, the saying refers to the fact that property sells best when a house is in the best, most popular geographical spot on the map.  The same mantra can be said about games and when a title is released.  New, lesser known titles can be lost in the shuffle of bigger, more highly promoted titles.  A prime example from last year is Alan Wake. Released on the same day as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, the game paled in sales compared to the juggernaut that was the tale of John Marston.

PayDay: The Heist is another such title that has a lot going for it, but the location on the release calendar buried it in the fateful shadow of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3.  Originally scheduled to be released on October 4th, PayDay was delayed by developer Overkill for two weeks, finally making its way to the gaming community on the 18th.  Just one week before Battlefield 3.  One week on a calendar versus three weeks to allow a community of first-person shooter gamers to play, explore and spread word of mouth praise for a game that focuses almost entirely around co-operative gameplay.  Location, location, location.  Did delaying the release hurt the title since gamers’ attention spans are drawn to the next big game thrust in their faces through massive ad campaigns and huge budgets, or was the wait worth it?

PayDay is a squad-based first-person shooter framed around the idea that the squad consists of hired guns given different missions to earn money.  Missions are split into six unique scenarios ranging from a bank heist, stealing a panic room full of money from a drug house, to thieving diamonds from a high rise penthouse party.  Missions are broken into progressive stages that fit within the context of the mission.  Obviously in a bank heist you wouldn’t be able to open a safe without first obtaining either a key or the combination, and thus in the bank mission the first step is to identify and subdue the bank manager.  Once that has happened all hell breaks loose.  Further stages into the bank heist require drilling through the initial vault door, burning a hole in the ceiling of the actual vault and then finally extracting the money.  Throughout the progressive stages, waves of police, SWAT, and FBI are sent in to attempt to stop the heist.

Another heist, and probably my favorite, is one called Panic Room.  The heist revolves around stealing a large vault, or panic room, full of money from a drug house.  To extract the panic room, four points of the vault need to be cut from where it is secured on the third floor of the drug house.  Once those points have been cut, explosives need to be set on the roof, fifth and fourth floors, so that a helicopter can fly in with a magnetic hook to lift the panic room away.  As with the bank heist, each step is met with waves of cops and federal agents attempting to stop your heisting ways.

PayDay has a lot of promise with each of the six levels and the story that is told within each, as long as you have a full squad of friends playing. I say this because while the game can be played solo, the rest of the squad AI is only good for shooting cops.  Since each mission is broken down into progressive stages that require player interaction, only the player can actually do the work.  That drill I mentioned during the bank heist can only be operated by an actual player.  The rest of the squad will comment if the drill stops working, but won’t do anything to fix it.  Playing solo can be a real chore at times, because depending on the mission and the stage within, a solo player could end up running back and forth across multiple floors, through large waves of law enforcement, simply to restart a drill or a saw.  By playing with three other friends, each squad member could potentially camp the drill to make sure there isn’t any downtime while waiting for the drill to be restarted.

Aside from almost intentional crippling of the squad, PayDay has some very fun things going for it. Throughout each level there are plenty of innocent by-standers caught in the cross fire.  The civilians can be told to lay down, and then be tied up and used for ransom.  Sadly, the ransom only really works playing with other real players.  If a squad mate is apprehended by law enforcement, a tied up civilian can be traded for the squad mate, restoring the squad to full.  This is a great way to bring players back into a mission, but when playing solo, the game won’t allow ransom trades to be made if you as a solo player are caught.

Another interesting aspect of this game is the level system.  There are three skill branches available for players: Assault, Sharpshooter and Support.  During any heist a player can select which branch they would like to progress in by pressing the Select button and then the respective face button for the specific skill.  Progression in each skill unlocks various perks that help with any heist.  Perks range from better body armor, more ammo in each clip, more tie clasps for taking hostages, to better guns.  Unfortunately, the explanation of leveling perks is not as clear as it could be.  I know that I had to explain it more than once to folks that I met while playing online matches.

The online experience is definitely the way that the game was intended to play, as each player is able to pull their own weight when it comes to operating drills or saws, or drop ammo bags to help fend off some of the nastier waves of law enforcement the further into a heist the squad gets.  Voice communication is definitely key to pulling off a successful heist, especially with the last two missions, Diamond Heist and Slaughterhouse.  These two missions are intended to be played only on Hard or Overkill difficulty, which ramp up the waves of law enforcement and their armor and fire power.  While the missions can be played solo, playing solo with rather dumb AI is doing a disservice to yourself and the game itself.

Playing the game with a group of good players can be almost as challenging as playing solo.  What I mean by that is entering a game lobby is easy, but the host of a game can just as easily kick you from the lobby. In one play session, I finally found a good group of players who communicated well and knew the maps. But at the end of the game session I discovered that PayDay was not listed in the XMB section of “Players Met” so I couldn’t add the group to play with them again in the future.  I’m not sure why this isn’t just part of all games, PayDay included.

Even with sub par squad AI for solo play, the game is still fun.  Law enforcement is a bit predictable at times.  As each stage within a heist is reached, the same scripted events occur, however there is enough random placement of objects required for progression to make replay not feel quite so déjà vu. Leveling up and the associated skills for each class brings a lot to the game’s addictive play.  I found myself playing a heist, completing it and then immediately starting over just to see if I could finish specific challenges that are also a key component to leveling up.  Challenges range from dropping ammo bags X number of times, reviving squad mates, shooting law enforcement X number of times, to shooting out surveillance cameras in a given amount of time.  Each completed challenge awards money, which is how leveling up is handled within the game.  Oh yeah.  There are 145 levels to be earned in the game.  145 levels.  That is just nuts! Each level earned unlocks new perks or weapons which make playing through each heist just a pinch easier.

So the question I asked earlier still hasn’t really been answered.  Did delaying the release hurt the game? In some ways, I’m sure Overkill would’ve loved to have had the title released three weeks before Battlefield 3, and if the game had been released earlier, my guess is even more folks would be playing it. But there is definitely a community of PayDay players that are active online.  Squad-based play is a blast with the right group of players and it is obvious that PayDay is meant to be played that way. Each heist has its own unique style and story that makes for a rewarding challenge when completed successfully, and there are plenty of perks to unlock and levels to earn to keep you going back for more. For $20, PayDay: The Heist is a crime spree worth going on.

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Pros:
+ Great squad multiplayer game
+ Tons of leveling for better perks
+ Fun, unique maps

Cons:
– Single player AI squad mates can be frustrating
– No local split screen
– Perk leveling isn’t explained very clearly

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN; also available on PC
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: OVERKILL Software
Release Date: PSN – 10/18/2011; PC – 10/20/2011
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.