Payday 2 review: A not-so-perfect crime


A Nerd Reactor review is never late, only marinating.

When the original Payday: The Heist came out in 2011, I was really excited about the concept and dove in with my friends to rob some banks, steal some things, and shoot some dudes. The experience I got, however, was dreadfully underwhelming. It was wracked with technical problems, incredibly inconsistent level design, and a wonky progression system. I’m happy to report that Payday 2 is inarguably better than its predecessor. If that’s all you wanted to know, then you’re all set, hop to it because your crew needs you. If you’re looking for a bit more, though, then let’s get into the nitty gritty, shall we? While Payday 2 is certainly better, it still falls short in a lot of ways. Let’s look into what’s better this time around and what kept this heist from greatness.

For the uninitiated, Payday 2 is a 4-player cooperative shooter where you play as a member of a professional crime ring that does various illegal jobs to score lots of cash and increase your notoriety. You and up to 3 of your friends will be taking on jobs such as the quintessential bank robbery, cooking meth during a police assault, stealing paintings from a museum, and more. The game surely does not want for a variety of setups to your missions, but ultimately many of them play very similarly.


The different missions all feature randomization elements, from the enemies you face, to the location of objectives. The variety in missions available and the randomization in each one allows for that important level of unpredictability that will give your missions tension. However, despite the level having some randomization elements, it rarely felt like it made a huge difference, and each time I played a level it more or less felt like the same level even if an objective was in a different spot or the enemies that came at us were entirely different.

Even between different missions with different objectives and entirely different setups, the game largely feels the same each time your crew rolls out. It’s difficult to see this as a complaint, but the game tries so hard to give you a fresh experience each time that it’s more noticeable how it comes up short.

That’s not to say the game is without cool moments. One in particular was when myself and 3 friends were doing the bank heist mission on one of the harder difficulties. 2 of the crew were down and in custody, the bank vault was open, and a new police assault was incoming. My friend and I both had to grab a bag and just make a run for the van in hopes of succeeding, albeit with a smaller payout. As we booked it to the back door, a bruiser (heavily armored monster who will down you in a second) came in through the door right in front of me with the inferred, “Where you guys going ehhhh?” Without missing a beat, and with quite a scream, I immediately jolted up the staircase directly next to the doorway, and my friend knew to just follow me up without even looking. The bruiser of course followed us up to the roof, where we jumped off into a dumpster, and made a run for it, getting gunned down in the street with the van in sight. Yeah, it was awesome failure.


One large element that play’s to the idea of replayability, however, is the loadouts you can run with. You have a primary weapon, secondary weapon, suit, and mask, all customizable to fit your fit your particular style. At the end of successful missions, along with the experience and money granted by the mission, you’ll also be choosing 1 of 3 facedown cards which will reveal bonus money or experience, gun attachments, or mask components. In-between missions you’ll be able to purchase new guns, put attachments on them such as sights, silencers, or skins, and buy or customize masks that you wear on missions.

Additionally, you’re given a pile of skill points to invest in 1 of 4 skill trees for your character: Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician, or Ghost. Each of these trees give useful benefits that help define your playstyle, and you can respec your points for a cost at any time. The system here is presented in a much better fashion than in Payday: The Heist, but is not without confusion. To purchase a new skill, or to rank it to its “Aced” version, takes both skill points and cash. The system inconsistently jumps around from having too many skill points and not enough cash, to too much cash and not enough skill points. The curve is the farthest thing from smooth, and it’s not particularly clear whether the system is trying to encourage you to branch into multiple trees or to stay focused. It doesn’t feel like it’s leaving the option to you, rather it feels more like it can’t make up its mind.


Finally, before deploying into a mission you also choose what outfit you will be wearing. Now, this isn’t something out of Grand Theft Auto with crazy outfits to adorn. Instead, this is a tactical choice. You have several outfits that range from a standard dress suit, to full body heavy duty armor like you’re ready to swallow a waterfall of lead and hellfire, and several choices between the 2. The choice here is that the more armor you choose to run with, the more gunfire you’ll be able to sustain, but also the more suspicious you’ll be during the “casing mode.”

Many missions in the game start off in a “casing mode” where your mask is off and you’re attempting to blend into the crowd. It makes sense, because you have yet to do anything illegal to cause people to panic. This time is used to scope out the level and setup your plan with your crew. While you’re walking around checking things out, pedestrians and guards will be giving you the raised eyebrow treatment as you question if that extra-long stock on your AK was worth it as it pokes out of your shirt. Of course it was, but they won’t stop staring at you, and it’s making you uncomfortable.

Many guns trade-off power with ease of concealment, and dressing in more normal clothes will keep would-be heroes from sounding the alarm too quickly. Nothing quite says, “I’m about to rob everyone up in this bitch” like strolling in with body armor on. Once you’re ready to get going (or you get detected), you strap on your mask, ready your gun, and the heist is on.

Some missions can be done in a completely stealthy fashion, and at higher difficulties, this practically becomes a requirement. It can be thrilling working with your buddies to systemically remove guards, answer their pagers to keep HQ from sounding the alarm, and snatching up whatever goodies are needed. Alternatively, the often finicky systems can lead to downright frustration as you know that some hero citizen nowhere near you decide it was time to bring in the national guard to whoop your ass.


As with everything in the game, the gunplay is an inconsistent batch, but I also believe one of the game’s low points, which spells trouble for an FPS. First, though, some positives. Shooting guns on the whole is fairly satisfying, with decent sounds and models. A particular standout are the pistols, as there’s something immensely satisfying about quickly drawing one and unloading a clip as fast as possible into the mob coming up the stairs to ruin your day.

Where the problems begin with the shooting is that the AI in this game is ridiculous. The city throws every cop in the entire state at you in a bloodbath so massive, it makes me wonder how there’s even cops around to oppose you at your next mission. I can only imagine the hiring ads for those cops: “Receive no training, wear titanium armor, still die by the hundreds! Enlist today!”

The problem with the AI really becomes obvious as you ramp the difficulty up. Cops turn into bullet sponges straight from hell, and all of them have crackshot true aim, but they’re dumber than the mayonnaise between a pair of bricks. Or worse, dumber than the kid who tried to make a sandwich with said bricks and mayonnaise. You’ll see SWAT teams come running in the door with no clue what they’re doing, and no semblance of tactics. You’ll see a riot shield officer run in by himself, then followed by another, and they’ll beat the crap out of you only because their shields are impenetrable. After they die, their buddies will come in a huge flock, ready to eat bullets like it’s going out of style instead of doing a proper breach of any kind. It’s a total mess.


The game’s obvious inspiration is the very successful Left 4 Dead with its randomized approach to enemies and special variants, but that system actually works great in Left 4 Dead. It doesn’t work well at all here. The special enemies feel very much out of context and are more annoying to face than exciting. Additionally, while a lack of tactics from a horde of zombies makes total sense, when you see cops doing it, it’s just stupid. It’s certainly not the worst shooting experience out there, and it is still better than we got in Payday: The Heist, but the formula as it stands is intrinsically broken. As a result, none of the tension I want from a heist is present. Instead, it’s just a shooting gallery that feels much more like an endurance run than moments of excitement, intrigue, or skill.

To be frank, this is not a pretty game. Many of its textures are downright ugly and look years behind the times. The guns, thankfully, look largely decent, but much of the environment is an eyesore if you bother to get a halfway decent look at it. It does get the job done as it’s not really a game about taking in the sights, but it’s certainly a blemish. Of even worse note is the writing. It’s just awful, and same with the voice acting that accompanies it. I can’t even tell if it was attempting to be campy and missed the mark, but the result is just annoying, and not in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. It’s just bad. It very quickly became a source of mockery in the crews I played in.


What you’re left with here is a game with a heap of problems. However, this doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. More so it’s just abundantly average, as the strengths it does have help carry it to something many people are sure to have some fun with, and at its price of $29.99, average may be all you need to have a good time. If you have some friends who are interested in doing some (fictional) criminal activity, you’ll likely have a good time together in this one despite its flaws. If you don’t have people to play with, I fully recommend you pass on this one, as the teammate AI is next to worthless, only bothering to chew on bullets for you, and get you up when you’re down. They don’t even help with objectives, nor does the game account for the lack of human players, making playing by yourself to be a complete chore.

Payday 2 is in many ways an improvement over its predecessor, but large problems at the core of its systems make it a game that is difficult to recommend unless you have money to burn on the lower asking price, and just want some action to play together with your buddies. Even then, I would recommend its inspiration, Left 4 Dead, over it as simply a far superior product. In a world with so many games available, even an average game is probably not worth the purchase when time and money are in short supply for many people. However, if the idea of doing some heists with your friends is all you’re looking for, then Payday 2 does have a unique appeal that may be all you need to strap on the mask.

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Kyle McArthur
Kyle McArthur 17 posts

Freelance Writer. Game Designer. Poet. Life-long gamer. Jedi enthusiast. DM extraordinaire. Shrimp lover. <a href=""></a>