When I sat down to play Payday 2 with Overkill Software, I was told we'd be playing a full job, which would be a series of missions escalating in drama and difficulty. Considering I had just played a few rounds of the original Payday the night before, I thought I knew what that meant. We'd play three to four levels where you break into a bank vault and then make your escape, maybe tied together by a thin narrative. Instead, what Payday 2 provided was the most intense heist experience I've had since watching Heat, only this time I was in the thick of the action instead of watching.
What is this new Payday 2? How did a fairly standard wave-based heist game turn into this manic, adrenaline-fueled foray into crime? I'm still trying to catch my breath.
Our session began with a brief look into customizing our weapons, equipment, and masks. The squad was made up of two members of the press, including myself, and two Overkill developers to help carry the extra burden I brought to the team. Everything in Payday 2's huge selection of weapons and customizations was already unlocked -- content that may take years to acquire once the game is released -- so I asked for some recommendations before we dove into the game. You can read a more detailed explanation of the customization stuff and how cash and unlocks are earned in my E3 Payday 2 hands-on.
Even prior to the mission beginning, I felt like I was already a part of a heist movie. Chatting with the squad about weapons and customizations, I felt like I had dropped into that movie scene where everyone is gearing up, slipping pistols into their waistband, smoking a cigarette while trying to stay calm. Game Director Dave Goldfarb dared us to stay stealthy as long as possible. Stealthy? Wait, what game am I playing here?
With mission start, the differences between Payday 2 and the original are immediately apparent. Our goal is to sneak into an art gallery and steal a number of marked paintings. We're told it can be completed entirely in stealth, so I decide that I won't be the one to break our timing and decide to follow the Overkill guys.
A couple of guys go up to the roof, but I follow one of them through a ground floor door. Almost immediately he gets sighted, setting off an alarm. We lasted a whole 45 seconds before screwing up. Emergency gates fall into place and suddenly I realize I'm separated from my team and have no idea what I'm doing. I quickly rush outside and find a way onto the roof. I'm so nervous about being stuck outside alone with security forces incoming that I leap through an open ceiling window and plummet to the ground below.
“Hey guys, could you help me back up? I had a little fall.”
From there the rest of the mission is a blur. With the alarm blaring, all of the paintings have been locked down behind bars, so one of the squad cuts through the bars, rolls up the paintings and throws them on the floor. We take turns running them to the escape vehicle and covering each other, all while security forces pour through every open door and window in the building. I won't lie. I ended up dying protecting the escape van while my teammates secured the final paintings. I like to think that, without my sacrifice, the squad would have been overwhelmed. But who am I kidding, right?
We escape, we win. That's how it's supposed to go. Instead -- and here's Payday 2's brilliance -- we're thrown into a dynamic event where our escape vehicle is wrecked and we have to get as many of our stolen paintings as possible to another vehicle that has yet to arrive. What. The. Hell. Goldfarb tells us that this is happening because, in part, we were too violent in the first mission; these events can also be random. Such dynamic events are strewn throughout Payday 2 in order to keep every playthrough fresh and blood pressures high. Somehow we manage to escape with all six of our stolen paintings. The new escape vehicle had arrived just as I thought we would be overrun. Like a movie.
Next mission? Nope. Now we have to make the painting drop-off. Goldfarb tells us this scenario could play out a dozen different ways, including one with no conflict at all. In fact, the hand-off occurs completely fine and we exchange our paintings for six bags of money. Only as we start walking away do security forces pour through the woodwork to stop us. Goldfarb had told us we were safe! I'll never trust him again. Still, with a lot of teamwork and shuffling all six bags across the map slowly, we make it out in one piece.
Finally we get to the next missions, and I'll readily admit I am exhausted. We have been dogged by security forces practically throughout the entire first mission (45 seconds in). Not surprisingly, we break stealth almost immediately again on our second mission, despite the use of my handy lockpicking skills and a device that kills security cameras in an area.
I was entirely unprepared for the complexity of this second mission. If we had maintained stealth, perhaps we could have discussed our goals, but the mission instead became a mishmash of holding a server room and keeping two drills running, all while ensuring the power in the building remains on. Oh yeah, and police with shields and machine guns are pouring through the walls. We die. Alone and confused. The demo's over.
45 minutes. That's how long it took for one full mission, two dynamic events and the speedy collapse of a second mission. Whole whole thing felt more like two hours, like a full heist movie. Sure, I'm no Robert De Niro, and my squad was more like the Mystery Van stumbling into success than any sort of professional robbers, but that tension was palpable.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given doesn't come from my own experience, though. Like I said earlier I had two Overkill employees on my squad. With every twist and turn, they were just as surprised and drawn into the experience as I was. The dynamic systems in the game ensured they had no idea what was coming next, even after playing the game over and over – even after making the game. They still carried my heavy-as-all-hell rookie bank robber to victory though, sort of. I can't wait to see how a full job turns out.
Overkill has taken an outstanding concept from the original Payday and redefined it, keying in on a long list of features and mechanics that keep action exciting moment to moment. Not once during my time with the game was the four-player squad able to just hunker down and defend, or "hug it out" as my friends would often say. It was 45 minutes of constant suspense and movement, ending only when the gun slipped from my bloody hands as the cops overwhelmed us.
Payday 2 is pure, exhilarating fun. This is the closest a game has gotten to recreating the adrenaline-fueled, addictive thrill that heist flicks have captured so well over the years. I can say that because I lived it, man. You don't just forget the stuff that goes down in Payday 2. Trust me, it will leave scorching bullet casings in your memory.