When you ask little boys what they want to be when they grow up, the responses usually fall along the lines of firefighter, policeman or jet pilot; but if the same question were posed to adult males and they were forced to answer honestly, they'd probably tell you they want to be bank robbers. We've all marveled at the intensity and excitement of films like "Heat," and we secretly believe we're capable of pulling off an "Ocean's Eleven" style heist if only given the time and resources to do so. Payday: The Heist attempts to provide such an experience, but it ultimately ends in failure.
Payday offers a collection of six independent missions that can be played in any order and offer no real connection between them. Players take on the role of one of four masked criminals, with the other three slots being filled by a combination of human and AI co-op partners. The levels are actually rather entertaining, with each heist featuring different enough objectives so as to feel unique. For instance, while the opening stage showcases the familiar "break into the bank vault and steal all the cash," subsequent levels find you stealing a panic room via helicopter from a drug lord's den or forcing a traitorous former member of the gang through the streets as police swarm from all sides.
Making these stages more memorable is the inclusion of objectives, which must be completed in order to progress. For instance, during the bank stage, a drill must be deployed to cut through a door. However, instead of a "set it and forget it" scenario, the drill sometimes breaks down and must be restarted by someone on the team. This means a harrowing run out of the safety of your hiding space into a fairly exposed room — all in the hopes your allies can hold off the cops until you get the drill going again. Moments such as this exist in every single level, making the game a bit more exciting than your average shooter.
The gameplay of Payday can probably best be described as Left 4 Dead with guns, featuring both a co-op-heavy focus and waves of bullet-fodder enemies augmented by the occasional "special" unit. For the most part, players will be taking on standard police officers who spawn into the game in waves, who are then augmented by special troopers meant to challenge the player's skills. These unique units include a taser officer, who will shock the living snot out of you until a teammate kills him, and an up-armored riot officer with a shotgun and a superhuman ability to absorb bullets.
The game also seems to try and borrow from Left 4 Dead's Director AI by tailoring the type of enemies spawned to how well you're doing in a stage. While this is a noble cause, it normally leads to unfair and unpredictable difficulty spikes, where you find yourself overwhelmed by snipers and bullet sponges with no real chance of survival. The game falls apart every time the balance is lost, and that's exactly what happens all too often.
Even more frustrating is the dunderhead AI that does little to help on any given mission. Teammates follow you around the level, but they're restricted from completing any objectives, so don't expect much assistance beyond support fire. Particularly irritating are the stages, which require you to run back and forth to an objective, realizing all the while that this would be so much easier if one of your teammates could actually help you. Also, don't expect allies to take up strategic positions or set up intelligent choke points; they merely follow you around, waiting for something to shoot at.
The game is clearly meant to be played in co-op, but the developers have taken a foolish risk in assuming that a PSN game has any chance of building a sustainable community in the era of mega-franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Only once during all my sessions was I even able to find anyone online playing, and try as I might, I couldn't join the session. Unless you've got a group of friends devoted to playing this game together, you're likely out of luck, and I have a hard time believing anyone is going to set aside time for this title.
Topping it all off are visuals and sound design that, while decent enough for a downloadable title, aren't going garner any real attention. Character models aren't really very detailed, and animations are incredibly stiff. The voice-over work is laughably bad, but it can also be written off as campy in a title such as this. It's really about what you expect from a downloadable game: good, but not great, presentation hamstrung by a shoestring budget.
Payday: The Heist is an ambitious game that doesn't quite manage to nail down the little things. Of course, as any good career criminal will tell you, the devil is in the details, and Payday's failure here is the difference in making off with the cash and getting gunned down in the street. The pieces were all in place, but this just fails to deliver in any meaningful way.
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