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Friday, August 1, 2014

PayDay 2

By on 10:14 AM

Payday 2 may look a little like its Left 4 Dead-inspired predecessor when viewed from afar, but there's a pleasingly improved if familiar experience waiting under the franchise's new mask. Before, we were working with rookies who approached every heist with guns blazing. Now, we now have the opportunity to work as experience-hardened masterminds who value stealth over cocky presumption. A few concerns remain, but on this whole this satisfying sequel stands poised to steal away hours of your time.
Payday 2 retains the original's heavy emphasis on multiplayer cooperation among four players, so don't expect to find a compelling storyline that recounts why you're robbing banks and stealing artwork from museums in the first place. All the same, there's much more variety to the experience here, as the numbers of available missions has shot up from nine to over 30, with many taking place through multiple rounds known as "days." And thanks to the random placement of items like security guards, cameras, and getaway vehicles, you're all but guaranteed to have a slightly different experience each time you play through one of them.
Slightly is the operative word here. Payday 2 often shifts the focus from robbing banks to other tasks such as cooking your own stash of meth or wreaking havoc on the local mall, but in the end most missions follow the same routine of securing a spot, getting the goods, and high-tailing it to the getaway car or, on occasion, helicopter. The AI has improved to the point that you'll sometimes find cops flanking you, but not so much that you won't find yourself catching a sniper missing a perfect shot because he's too busy watching the birds. Through it all, invisible walls and drab lifeless interiors detract from the better parts of the action, although Payday 2 can attain something of a rough beauty when it steps out of doors.
This is a world where things rarely go according to plan, but that very challenge is effective in proving why we don't see more thugs taking up our masked quartet's line of work here. Thankfully, Payday 2 gives you some leeway to work towards your strengths through a four-class RPG system, although the effectiveness of the concept doesn't become too apparent until the high level goodies are unlocked. Fortunately, you can mix and match as you choose and sculpt a robber that's who is all your own. There’s the trap-laying Tactician, the gun-blazing Enforcer, the sweet-talking Mastermind, and the stealth-focused Ghost.
Stealth, indeed, is a major new component in Payday 2, although it's as tough as nails to pull off a perfect heist with only the most minimal of casualties. It's not even limited to the Ghost class, as players with the Mastermind skills can bribe cops or convince civilians to join their side through a Stockholm Syndrome perk. Unfortunately, such as a focus requires a well-coordinated group of players to pull off properly. Attempt it in the random groups you encounter through the mission selection interface of, and more often than not you'll find at least one fool who kicks off the heist by pumping bullets into civilians and cops alike.
On the bright side, the need for teamwork remains even then, as Payday 2 can grew punishingly difficult if you're caught with unhelpful players who refuse to put down medkits or extra ammo packs. Or put it this way--fail a mission and you'll get such a pathetically small amount of XP as to discourage even the most selfish lone gunmen from spoiling both the fun and the payoff. Other, smaller, nods to teamwork exist as well, such as an emphasis on lugging heavy bags of loot to the getaway cars. If you're not watching out for your partners in crime as they brave the open street with their stash, in other words, you're missing out on a slice of your own personal fortune as well. There's even a reason to make an extra effort to avoid harming civilians. Not only do they keep your payout high, but the cops will sometimes trade a captured player for a hostage, if you've managed not to harm any.
But if Payday 2 fails terribly in any one place, it's in the offline single player mode where AI goons step in for other players. While they're generally good shots and they do a good job of helping you up when you're down, they're all but useless when it comes to essential acts such as carrying out cash or keeping a faulty drill active as it bores through a safe. It's so awful, in fact, as to give the impression that the offline mode serves no other purpose than to drive you toward working with companions you have an actual working brain.
Even so, Payday 2 manages to remain consistently fun throughout the bulk of the multiplayer experience. When you're giving the stealth component the attention it deserves, random placements and acts such as reporting in through a downed security officer's walkie-talkie, manage to deliver plenty of moments of nail-biting suspense. Even when plans go awry and the action devolves into straight-up gunplay, satisfying sound and music design coupled with capable weapons keeps Payday 2 just as intense and exciting. It's a shame, then, that purchasing some weapon upgrades you ostensibly win through loot rolls at the end of each mission costs more than the payout of entire heists.
Despite its strengths, the original Payday sometimes felt as though it were little more than a Left 4 Dead clone with the zombies switched out for swarms of police officers. A touch of that still remains, but elements such as the new focus on stealth, a multitude of unlocks for gear and marks, and the greatly increased mission variety allow Payday 2 to assume a life of its own, and one far more in tune with the heists we've come to love in films like Michael Mann's Heat. Play it with friends while attempting to pull-off the perfect heist, and you'll find yourself neck-deep in one of the most enjoyable co-op experiences of the year so far.


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