A lot of people at E3 this year might know this as the game with the American clown mask. If it had absolutely nothing else going for it, the banner at Sony Online's booth for Payday pretty much grabbed your attention from across the room because it's a bunch of evil clowns glowering directly at the Free Realms kiosk. It's always an eye-catcher when one game looks like it's about to mug another.
Payday owes a lot to Left 4 Dead in that both are four-player, first-person shooters with a heavy focus on cooperation, but it owes more to American crime movies. Each stage is a heist, taking heavy inspiration from films like "Heat" or "Point Break," where you and your crew have to case the place, accomplish objectives, defend your position, and somehow manage to get out alive.
I played through a mission on the E3 showroom floor, where the four robbers went in to blow the vault on a midtown bank. The plan was to go in without the masks, to prevent the guards from realizing what was going on until it was too late, and grabbing a security keycard from the bank's manager. Once we had that, the game was up, and we needed to secure the drill we'd smuggled onto the premises, use it to breach the vault's security door, and use a couple of gallons of thermite to burn through the vault's ceiling. Unfortunately, the drill took a solid four minutes to break the security gate's lock, and that was more than enough time for a heavily armored SWAT team to force entry into the bank. Things got a little hectic after that, as we had to deal with snipers, defend the drill, unjam it when it broke, keep the cops from rescuing our hostages, and scrape our idiot buddies off of the lobby floor.
The basic idea is immediately familiar to anyone who's put in as much zombie-killing time as I have, but it adds more layers than that; it's not simply sticking flak vests on the infected. Payday's cops are organized, effective, well-armored, and use some actual tactics, frequently making their attacks under the cover of smoke grenades or supporting one another with irritatingly accurate sniper fire. Running off on your own isn't instantly and immediately lethal, but it's still a really stupid idea given the sheer amount of opposition that pops up. (The newscast that began the mission claimed that the robbery had "gone bad," with 23 dead in the crossfire. By the time we reached the vault, I'm pretty sure we'd killed twice that many.)
The four playable characters begin the game functionally identical, different only in how they look. As you pull off successful jobs, you earn experience for your character, and each level comes with an additional perk that you can pick ahead of time. The options I was shown at the show, as rewards for hitting level 18, included a new assault rifle, the ability to carry an additional magazine, and a doctor's bag.
Payday is remarkably difficult, although recharging health takes some of the challenge out of it (these are the unique and dangerous brand of bank robber who thought to purchase personal kinetic shields), and it's easy to get dropped if you wind up in a crossfire. In the event one of your team members goes down, they're automatically taken into custody by the police. Getting them back requires you to take hostages by tying up the civilians in the area, waiting until a lull in the gunfire and releasing them to the cops in exchange for your teammate.
One of this year's themes for new games is having local and multiplayer co-op, but in that field, Payday: The Heist stands out for having a unique setting and approach. It's easy to jump into if you've ever played a shooter before, and there isn't anything quite like it at the show this year. If you play a lot of L4D, you'll immediately be on very familiar and comfortable ground here, but the subject matter and play style are both dramatically different, both from L4D and from the endless parade of squad-based, military-style shooters that show up every year.
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