Payday 3’s launch was a bit of a disaster. The servers buckled almost immediately, resulting in people being unable to even play the new cooperative heist game from Starbreeze Studios. Thankfully Payday 3’s disastrous launch issues haven’t affected me too much because I’ve spent the first few weeks of its life playing it alone. I know that sounds insane given that Payday 3 is primarily a multiplayer co-op shooter, but I promise I have my reasons. Sad reasons, but reasons nonetheless.
You see, these days I don’t venture online much anymore. That’s partially because my love of writing about games and reviewing them means I’m constantly jumping to the next title as soon as I’ve finished the last one. Multiplayer games can require a level of dedication that I’m not really interested in providing if you want to avoid being completely terrible and feeling like you’ve let the team down. That’s why when I do jump on with a few friends I enjoy large multiplayer games because within a massive team my own ineptitude doesn’t feel like it’s sinking the ship for everyone else.
That feeling is worse when you’re part of a small team where being the weak link is easy to spot. In something with massive teams, it’s pretty easy to hide in the numbers, safe in the feeling that even if you do badly it probably won’t make a huge difference. If there are just three other players, though, there’s nowhere to hide. So, I made the decision to tackle Payday 3 solo for a while so that I could get a hang of the mechanics and learn about the heists before I teamed up with other players. And to my surprise, I had a pretty good time chilling with the three AI bots, scouting targets and shooting a lot of police because every attempt at stealth inevitably went horribly wrong. Of course, the fact that Starbreeze decided that playing with bots required me to go into matchmaking is barmy, but what are you going to do?
Available On: PC, Xbox Series S/X, PlayStation 5
Reviewed On: PC
Developed By: Starbreeze Studios
Published By: Deep Silver
The game’s very first mission is a traditional bank heist. The target is quite a small place but there’s more money than usual being kept in its vaults thanks to a scheduling error, making it the perfect job for someone feeling a little rusty. Like the past games, I get to start the mission outside the bank as a regular citizen, free to amble around and get a lay of the land. Provided I don’t get caught doing anything shady or going into places I shouldn’t be, I’ll be left to my own devices. My AI partners are also content to lounge around outside, and will actually stay like that right up until an alarm goes off.
First things first, then, I headed into the bank and approached the desk. Who knows, maybe this whole heist could be completed by chatting to the cashier at the front desk. Maybe I could work my charm. I patiently waited in the queue but nothing seemed to be happening, so I sidled past the schmucks waiting to take out their life savings and tried to get the clerks attention. She ignored me. How rude can you possibly be? Fine. Seems like this heist will have to be done the old-fashioned way, then.
I’m a stealthy guy at heart, so I was curious to see how robust the game is when it comes to tackling objectives without immediately resorting to guns. Most missions in Payday 3 kick off in unmasked mode, limiting what you can do in terms of certain interactions but otherwise allowing you to wander around without drawing attention. Once you slip on the mask and bust out a gun, there’s no going back, something which actually disappoints me. I think things could be more interesting if the mask could be taken back off.
The voice in my ear tells me that there’s a couple of layers of security that need to be overcome in order to access the vault. From a playthrough of the game I had watched earlier I already knew the first thing I needed was located behind the front counter, so I checked out a door at the side. There’s a security guard wandering around the foyer and a camera next to the door, but crouching in the corner keeps me hidden and lets me try out the lockpicking – it’s nothing fancy, just hit the button to stop the cursor in the right spot as it spins around a circle. But it’s still a step up from Payday 2 where you just had to sit there. with the door open I saw the lever. The employees briefly see me as I get out of their line of sight, providing a perfect example of videogame logic – they ignore the weird guy crouching into their secure area.
With step one done, I’m told the next objective is to disable the security by visiting the roof. I head back out the front door and start looking around the side alleys. A quick jaunt through the car park reveals a locked gate and a staircase up to the roof, so I quickly pick the gate and head through. I’m too cocky, though, and a guard sees me. I fully expect to enter combat here but to my surprise the dude doesn’t immediately grab his pistol but rather politely but firmly asks me to leave the area. I oblige and he saunters off. Huh. That’s a nice change. It’s a new feature that leads to interesting strategies where one player can essentially distract a guard by being escorted off the premises.
Up on the roof I find out that the security system is kept safe behind a door requiring a keycard. It would have been nice to know that earlier, but that’s the life of a crook, I guess. I find an access door up on the roof, pick it and head down into the bank. I’m firmly in territory I should not be here, so I take my time and head downwards. It takes a few minutes but I spy a guard wandering past with a keycard dangling dangerously from his belt. I wait for the right moment, sneak up and swipe the card before heading back to the roof, opening the door and hacking the computer. With that done I have to head back down to the vault door and switch off the right cable in a panel. That turns out to be easy but then I find the vault itself requires a code. Using a blue light I can see the most used buttons on the pad and could try to guess it, but that seems like a dumb plan. The voice in my ear lets me know an executive could override the security, though. I just have to find someone dressed in a suit. There’s a room full of those back where I came from, so I make my way back through the bank, evade the cameras and enter the roomful of employees. I can’t sneak around in here so I don my mask for the first time, drawing my pistol. They panic but otherwise make no move to run, sound an alarm or otherwise cause too many issues. I need to keep them out of trouble, though, so I go through the slow and annoying process of grabbing each one, shoving them to the floor and then tying their hands. Annoyingly, I can’t just tie their hands even though they are already cowering on the ground.
Anyway, I grab one of them, drag them to the keypad and throw them against it. Nothing happens. Did I make a mistake? I drag them back to the room and on the way wind up shooting a guard in the head. His radio activates and I quickly hold down a key to respond. A brief message flashes up saying I only have a few more radio calls left before the alarm will sound anyway, a mechanic I assume is there to ensure I can’t just stealth kill everyone one by one. That’s smart because all my stealth instincts push me to do just that and build a small mountain of corpses in a cupboard somewhere. But this way, I have to be selective about which people get a bullet. And on harder difficulties, the number of radio calls is reduced.
On the way back to the room I noticed that directly across from me was a room with a placard clearly stating it was the office of the bank’s manager. I curse my stupidity at not noticing this before, toss my hostage back into the meeting room like a bag of potatoes and lockpick the executive’s door. Yup, that’s the dude I need. Just as I shove the hapless idiot into the keypad and it looks like victory is in my grasp, the alarm goes off. A guard has somehow spotted my hostages. Turns out there’s one that roams the bank randomly and he happened to glance into the meeting room. I knew I should have stacked them in a cupboard. Ah well, guns it is.
With the plan in the garbage bin and the police on the way, it was time to enact the backup: thermite. A helicopter drops the gear in the nearby car park, so I hoof it down there, grab the bag and setup above the vault. To speed up the process more thermite is dropped on the roof, so it looks like me and my AI goons will be acting as mules for a while. The cops are hanging around outside by this point, so I get introduced to a new mechanic: hostage trading. I can hand over some of the idiots in the meeting room to delay the initial assault. Just one to start with, but I can send out a few more for extra time. Later, they can be traded for resources, too. I love this because it makes hostages an actual mechanic rather than pointless set-dressing.
Once the police launch their assault, Payday 3 becomes pretty much exactly what you’d expect: a solid shooter where you gun down waves of fairly stupid grunts. The gunplay feels reasonably satisfying, and holding off the waves of cops as they swarm the building is a lot of fun. As they charge into the bank me and my AI pals hold them off, including trickier bastards like the cop wielding a giant riot shield. A few specialists are thrown into the mix as well, like hostage rescue teams or a sneaky ninja that unleashes serious kung fu bullshit. The biggest threat that can be deployed are the Dozers who wear enough bullet-proof armour to protect a whale. They aren’t a lot of fun to fight, though, because they are walking, talking bullet sponges.
I do not like the implementation of the bloom effect when shooting. Unlike recoil which can is visible and can be countered, bloom decreases a gun’s accuracy the longer you hold the trigger but is not otherwise visible. Basically, your aiming reticule gets wider and wider. The result is that your reticule can be directly on an enemy’s head and yet the bullets never hit, whizzing away into the environment while leaving you looking like a fucking idiot. Because the bloom effect is so strong it pushes you toward using careful burst fire.
Once the thermite did its job, we drop through the floor into the bank vault. There’s a bunch of safety deposit boxes in the room and I spend a little while lockpicking them and hoovering up the loose cash. But the real piles of cash are waiting behind a door, and as soon as I open it dye packs will begin to count down and go off, spoiling the money. This is when I realise my AI companions have some serious limitations: they won’t help me disarm the dye packs, so no matter how fast I go nearly half the stacks of cash will be rendered useless. It’s fucking annoying and won’t be the only time the AI shows how limited its abilities are. In another heist in a jewellery store, for example, an optional objective requires a button to be pressed while a keycard is used and my AI goons can’t do either of those things. They also won’t revive each other which makes playing on harder difficulties almost impossible.
But my computer-powered friends can at least carry bags of loot, so I start tossing cash to them and then grab a bag for myself. Maybe we will come back for the rest but for now we need to make for the main road and our getaway. Those bastard cops have raised the bollards, though. So I call in my special Overkill weapon. There’s only two in the game so far: a sniper rifle, unlocked at much later levels, or a trusty grenade launcher. With the power of flying explosives I quickly deal with the swarms of cops and even manage a fairly impressive long-range shot to annihilate a sniper. A few seconds of holding down the F key and the bollards are down, letting the van pull up. We toss the bags in and I decide to call it a day. Not too bad for a first heist.
In total, Payday 3 has launched with a pretty slim selection of just 8 heists and I blasted through all of them with my AI pals in tow. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like enough content to keep people going, so hopefully the devs already have some plans for more heists. But what’s in the game is at least a fun mixture of settings and concepts: there are two bank jobs, a fun mission where you break into an armored van on a bridge, a lavish high-rise, a fancy night club and an art gallery. Each one feels nicely designed with a decent amount of options for breaking in, especially in terms of stealth. Attempting to complete missions silently, or even without masking up, quickly became one of my favourite things to do in Payday 3. In the jewelry heist, for instance, I discovered it’s possible to blackmail the manager in order to open up a special room. Elements like this made replaying levels more fun.
What didn’t make the levels so fun to replay was certain objective types that get repeated. There’s a couple of of these but the worst offender is having to stand in tiny circles so that you can get a better signal. On a few heists, you have to do this a multiple times and it’s frustrating. Forcing players to stand still for up to a minute is weak game design, and doubly so when they have to repeat it. It’s even worse one your own because the AI chumps won’t go stand in the designated spots. That’s a big difference from Payday 2 where the AI could be told to stand in place.
Another thing I don’t like is how Payday 3 handles experience points, though this is tricky to talk about because the developers have already announced plans to roll out major changes based on player feedback. The main method of levelling up to unlock guns and other assorted stuff is based on your Infamy level, and to level up that you have to complete specific challenges. It doesn’t matter how well you do on a heist or how much money you successfully get away with, if you don’t complete any challenges then you won’t earn any Infamy whatsoever. In the early hours of the game this isn’t so bad since challenges are basic: get a headshot with a specific gun, complete a heist on normal, lockpick a door and so on. But around 15-20 hours in I found myself struggling to level up because the challenges had increased in difficulty. You can somewhat counter this by changing up your playstyle, so in my case I prefer stealth, thus to level up quicker I forced myself to go in guns blazing more often.
It’s a rough system that doesn’t feel satisfying because it isn’t rewarding you for being good at the game. And it really doesn’t help that the challenge menu is a wall of text with no easy ways to sort them. The whole list seems completely random, so trying to figure out what to aim for is damn near impossible, nor can you track them in any effective way. That’s a big of an issue when there’s 64 pages of heist challenges, 9 career pages and 41 combat pages.
Thankfully the other progression systems are a lot better, albeit also a lot safer. You level up guns and skills by just using them, and there’s actually a really excellent selection of skills that allow for a range of builds. You can become an expert lockpicker that gets speed boosts whenever they pop open a lock, for example, or far more effective at handling hostages. Or you could just buff up your armour, thrown down a sentry gun and become your crew’s version of a mobile weapons factory.
Graphically speaking, Payday 3 is…fine. It’s fine. It’s certainly an improvement over Payday 2 in terms of detail, lighting and animation, but it isn’t going to blow you away. And unfortunately on PC it can be quite hard to get the game’s performance dialled in. Now, in fairness, I’m running it on an older 1080 ti and a Ryzen 5 3600, so I never expect top-of-the-line performance, but it took a long time to get rid of the constant stuttering. And I don’t seem to be the only one – plenty of people are having problems even with much more powerful hardware. It indicates that some work needs to be done.
Once I started playing with actual human beings more often, I began to notice a lot of quality of life issues, too. Many of them are small, but they add up. Here’s just a few examples: mouse functionality is missing in menus such as weapon customisation, text chat only works within heists and not outside of them, people can’t be kicked from parties, there’s no voice chat whatsoever, no quickplay option, no way to randomly select a heist, challenges can only be viewed from the main menu and you can’t buy single-use mission assets from the mission lobby. There’s honestly heaps more of things that bug the shit out of me, but I’m too lazy to list them all.
When you combine all of these quality of life issues with a selection of bugs and the server problems at launch, you end up with a game that feels like it could have done with more development time.
Overall, Payday 3 feels like a solid addition to Game Pass and it does have a bright future ahead of it. I don’t think I’d pay full price for it in its current state, though. But with a few more heists, changes to progression and some polish, Payday 3 could keep players engaged for a long time to come, which again makes it an excellent Game Pass title. There’s no denying the sense of satisfaction earned by managing to make off with every single bag of loot in a heist, or managing to pull off the whole thing without ever even pulling out the mask. I just wish it was a little more adventurous at times. While there are some good improvements, it doesn’t feel like a huge leap forward from Payday 2.