Setting Expectations Straight
Quick note: The Payday series has never been AAA, with the original Payday: The Heist being priced at $14.99 on both the PSN store (PS3 era) and Steam. I believe expectations may have been set high due to the rabid fandom from Payday 2, which sold over 40 million copies.
Co-op that Fractures the Experience
Payday 3 went live late last month, and according to both fans and critics, it was a disastrous launch. Connectivity issues, a lack of a single-player offline mode, and a progression system that solely focused on completing challenges in a certain style meant that players simply couldn’t experience the game in an optimal way or play missions their way.
To condense this into one statement: Payday 3 forces you to play with others, can take an interminable amount of time to find a match, and then you or those other players are forced to play a mission with a certain method if you want to progress and unlock gear. Considering every single player I ever matched with bungled the very opening of the beginner-level bank heist, it’s fair to say a lot of Payday 2 veterans are going to have an infuriating time with the game, and newcomers are going to be left confused and stuck at a low Infamy level.
Despite this, I still play the game every day, as there is a lot to like about it. Starbreeze has also gone on record saying that the connectivity issues and random kicks from matches have been dealt with, numerous quality-of-life improvements are coming, and they are even considering overhauling the progression system (despite previously stating that they wouldn’t).
So, how has my Payday 3 experience been?.
My Payday 3 Journey
Luckily, I’ve somehow dodged many of the issues that have plagued other players. I will say I’ve been playing on PC, with friends, with matchmaking set to invite-only. I’m not sure if console players have been affected more by the long matchmaking and random disconnects, but I’m leaning that way.
Getting onto the game itself, it’s clear that Starbreeze has stepped things up from a visual standpoint. Payday 3 boasts better graphics than its predecessor, and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a good-looking game. That being said, there’s still something lacking stylistically in it.
Visual Improvements, Mixed Stylistic Flare
Each heist has its own unique color grading, adding for each to have a small cinematic flair. No Rest for the Wicked, the game’s opening bank heist, has a green filter over the top, resembling the moments in The Matrix where Neo, his team, and the audience itself were inside the Matrix. The bank heist could be more interesting visually, but I believe Starbreeze wants to depict the everyday, 9 to 5 workers as living a mundane experience – something Dallas and the gang could never do themselves.
Other missions are more interesting visually, but still within the realm of reality. The nightclub is the kind of building I can absolutely imagine existing, with its large scale and sense of visual spectacle – but like most nightclubs, it’s full of boring everyday people. I will say at this point that there is a jarring mix of decently-rendered NPCs wandering about, but lots that look like absolute garbage in opening cutscenes. We’re talking almost featureless, low-poly models here.
Evolved Gameplay, Improved Stealth
While the game looks like a slight evolution of the previous game you knew and loved, gameplay-wise, things are very much different. For one thing, each heist requires more learning and has more steps to it. This couples with the improved stealth mechanics to make completing a heist more rewarding. Unfortunately, this also means that things can go south very quickly at various stages of a heist. I’ve made crucial errors at the beginning, middle, and end of a heist, as well as everything in between. Nothing annoys you more than figuring out a grand puzzle only to step in front of a security camera you forgot about right before you got your hands on the loot itself.
Multiple heists also have optional objectives that can be completed for a greater reward, though these also carry with them a higher risk of getting caught. You may be tasked with stealing a hard drive carrying the nightclub’s crypto funds on it, but you can also choose to rob the place of all its money and drugs through various high-security locations. I rarely see these as optional, as I am very much a greedy criminal.
The game introduces some of the optional mechanics in a way that isn’t immediately understood, and it took some practice before I knew exactly what was optional and what was my main objective. I spent far too long trying to liberate buildings of their loot under heavy fire when I should have salvaged what was left of the main objective and left in one piece.
A Positive Departure from Loot Boxes
Gone are the lucky-dip, loot box-style unlocks at the end of a mission (it’s important to note that Payday 2 never actually had microtransactions, just a pick-a-card mechanic that many loot boxes feature in conjunction with them). I’m thankful for the changes made to unlocking gear and rewards, as you’ll never receive an unwanted duplicate item, but the unlock system in Payday 3 is deeply flawed for reasons mentioned earlier.
Much of this review reads as “this is different, and while it is an improvement, it also could use some tweaking or overhauling”, but one area that consistently underwhelms is Payday 3’s soundtrack. Compared to Payday 2’s iconic mix of stealth-that-turns-into-a-rave-when-you-get-spotted, Payday 3 is flat. It’s Payday 2’s soundtrack if you ordered it from Wish, it’s when you want the Payday 2 soundtrack but your mother insists you have it at home and you know it’s vastly inferior. It’s not even diet Coke; it’s mixing Benadryl and soda water, hoping it tastes similar.
Fine-tuning the Core Mechanics for an Immersive Experience
Despite all of this, Payday 3 manages to hook thanks to its refining of the core gameplay mechanics. Shooting has improved significantly, with guns having more realistic stopping power and recoil. I find myself swapping to my pistol when I run out of ammo for my assault rifle at close range, as I’m then able to pop quite a few headshots as I hip fire. While I can kill a sniper from a few hundred feet away with a pistol and a little patience, it’s not something I want to count on compared to a marksman rifle.
New gameplay mechanics work extremely well, for the most part. Players can now grab NPCs to use as human shields in a pinch, opening up an opportunity for retreat. I grabbed an NPC that was on the street after I ran out of primary ammo, then backed away into an alley with them. After dispatching a few police with some well-aimed headshots from my pistol, I shoved my hostage away and bolted down the alley.
You can also pickpocket access cards from guards and NPCs, as well as hack nearby phones for QR codes, passwords, and more. In fact, you can hack security cameras remotely, as opposed to patching in from an access point like in Payday 2. It’s very much 2023, baby – you just need to unlock the skills.
In Starbreeze We Trust
I’m optimistic about the future of Payday 3, even if the situation feels a little Back 4 Blood-esque. I firmly believe Starbreeze has laid the foundations for a must-have game, even if there’s this nagging feeling that development hasn’t been as long as it should be, similar to Cyberpunk 2077. I don’t have anything factual to back that up, just a hunch as a lifelong gamer and 10+ year games journalist.
If you’re a fan of the series, Payday 3 will underwhelm you at first if you’re expecting something as massive (and, let’s be honest, bloated) as its predecessor, but this is still an engaging title – especially with friends. Newcomers may want to approach with caution.