If films like Heat and Sexy Beast are anything to go by, when you’re in the professional heist business, retirement does not come easily. There’s always that one last job you get called in to tie up some loose ends, rekindling greed and the drive to plan elaborate robbery schemes within you. With the old gang rounded up, Payday 3 now takes us to the bustling streets of New York City, several years after our reign of terror in Washington DC, masked-up and prepared for new challenges in a present-day environment of mass surveillance gadgets, cryptocurrency, the deep web, and more. Having spent a few hours in the internal playtest, followed by the ongoing closed beta, I must say that I’m truly impressed with how streamlined this sequel is shaping up to be.
The test version only came with one location, the SCB Bank, which is carrying an unusually big amount of cash in its vault, awaiting transport. In what feels like a familiar callback to the Payday 2 days, this is your standard bank heist mission, sticking to the four-player co-op shooter formula, that has you bring a personalised loadout of weapons and high-tech gadgets to ease your cashout. Your approach can heavily vary between sneaking in and out without triggering any alarms, or you could take the loud route and blast in with guns blazing, striking fear into the hearts of the civilians. My experience with Payday 3 was a mix of both, starting by meticulously lockpicking my way through the backdoors to eventually culminating in an all-out assault, where my team was surrounded by cops from every angle.
Interestingly though, there’s a bit more freedom in stealth segments, where previously, simply being spotted in restricted areas would set the alarms off. But here, you can trespass in private staff areas or behind counters without wearing a mask and the guards would politely escort you to the nearest public area without ruining your stealth attempt. You only get one slip-up, though. Not to mention, it’s a more realistic depiction of how security would react in a given situation. What I did find perplexing, however, was how you could freely walk up to windows in the lobby of the bank and press a button to close the shutters without raising suspicion. While this would prevent passersby from being able to peer inside the building and watch my team take everyone hostage, its inclusion feels very off-putting — almost as if it was an oversight from developer Starbreeze Studios. Hopefully, it’s addressed in a sensible manner, closer to launch. Regardless, it’s a massive step up from Payday 2, where you mostly just avoided detection and intimidated security.
You can do more with your mask off
Well, what was I doing back there, you ask? Scouting, mostly. Keeping track of important rooms and cameras, and quietly sneaking behind guards to pickpocket keycards that would grant access to the main security control room. This allowed me to hack into and disable the security system without too much hassle — such actions are all tied to a single button press, ‘F’. Stealth is still extremely difficult to pull off though, especially once you put on heist masks to conceal your identity, whereupon being spotted, witnesses would immediately report your presence. However, I did feel a bit pressured into wearing a mask, because there were certain basic mechanics, such as vaulting over surfaces, that Payday 3 kept locked behind the mode. Without a mask, you cannot climb through windows nor can you brandish a pistol. That said, it’s still quite insane how far you can progress in the game with masks off — as opposed to Payday 2 — so with the remaining time, I’d just run around the block to look for any potential escape routes that wouldn’t draw attention.
Once you put on a mask, you can’t take it off anymore, immediately raising the stakes for the heist, as you’re finally allowed to partake in more nefarious activities. Now equipped with guns, your squad can walk around intimidating civilians into submission and tying them up, check corners for cameras and shoot them down, and snap security guards’ necks for no disruptions. I’d recommend investing in a silencer for your pistol ASAP, in order to avoid creating a ruckus, but the most important toolkit in your arsenal would be to remain alert at all times. Dropping guards triggers a small alarm on their radio/ walkie-talkie, which if left unanswered, raises suspicion among the security team. Other times, an unattended civilian might escape and pull an alarm, throwing a wet blanket over your perfect plan. Things could easily go sideways once the mask is on, so it’s best to have a team you could always rely on.
Such nail-biting sequences are peppered throughout Payday 3, though they can be severely eased by evenly dividing tasks among you. There’s a lot more flexibility in how you approach missions, such as sifting through documents for clues on how to open the vault, intuitively following red cables to shut down power to the gates, or grabbing an executive to scan their retina on the bank’s high-tech lock system. Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without numerous failed attempts, where my team and I almost immediately set off alarms, causing the police to come barging in. That’s the beauty of Payday 3 — there’s always something new to learn through repeated tries, making it more rewarding for the experienced players.
Now, you might be wondering how the early games in Payday 3 would work for newer players. Well, usually super loud, because you have zero clue of what’s going on or how things work. So, you’ll end up drawing all kinds of unwanted attention, shooting every guard in sight, and grabbing civilians as body shields to help with negotiation, before getting bored soon enough that you let go of them and shoot them in the back of the head. Guilty as charged. I mean, no witnesses if everyone’s dead, right?
Speaking of going loud, the bank heist mission has you breaking into the vault from the floor above in an aggressive fashion, where you collect bags of thermite, pile them up, and ignite them to gradually breach through the fortified wall. Of course, there are bells and sirens going crazy all around, which just adds to the tension as more cops start storming into the place. There is some method to this madness though, as adding too much thermite to increase the rate of breaching causes the water sprinklers to turn on, effectively reducing the flames and sending you on an errand run to turn it off.
Improved combat, more unpredictability
The combat is a strong highlight in Payday 3, throwing increasingly challenging enemies at you, which gets pretty overwhelming, even with human teammates. While it might seem too daunting and overly difficult for some, the heat level perfectly ties with the premise, where you’re trying to steal a truckload’s worth of cash — it’s a pretty serious crime you’re committing here. You should get punished for making careless moves like not checking corners or standing out in the open and tanking bullets Tropic Thunder style. Taking the fight to the streets with bags of cash strapped to our shoulders is where I had the most fun, mimicking the chaos from the iconic LA shootout scene in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).
As you await your getaway vehicle and run back in to grab more cash, you engage in an all-out battle with hordes of different police types, including far-away snipers who’ve got their laser sights trained on you. I’ll admit, they appear a lot more scary than they actually are — in the sense that the snipers are very slow to react to movement. So, you’ll generally have an easy time dealing with them, as long as you keep sliding around the map. Don’t completely ignore them though, as a single shot from them will instantly deplete your armour, leaving your body exposed to direct hits.
Whatever tactics you had planned at the start of a heist session are completely thrown out of the window at this stage, leaving you to rely on any armour or medic bags you brought along. In merely 10 to 15 minutes since the alarms sounded off, the tone of the game will have changed entirely to a modern-day warzone, with special enemies like the Grenadier who will chuck highly damaging poison bombs, which not only blur our vision but prevents us from sprinting until we step out of the gas. The near-indestructible Bulldozer also returns, armed with powerful firearms and occasionally charging headfirst into you. It’s best to have all four teammates focus on this behemoth at once since trying to take him down solo would result in guaranteed death or quick depletion of resources.
The Heavy SWAT team also consists of a brutish riot shield user, who would bash and stun you if you get too close. I found it super beneficial to just hurl a grenade behind them, causing them to turn around and expose their bodies to my onslaught. Another powerful unit relies on stun guns as well, though none of them seemed to be affected by the difficulty modifiers. All difficulty increments — at least in the Payday 3 closed beta — were based solely on security measures, such as indestructible cameras and a lead guard. This ensured that the enemies you faced in combat had the same health pool across the board, without turning them into mundane bullet sponges.
All of this is bolstered by a robust skill tree, opening room for you to experiment with various builds, whereby performing certain stealth or assault-based actions, you’ll gain bonuses in terms of movement speed, inflicted damage, faster reload speeds, and more. For instance, investing skill points into Tank stats grants defence-oriented perks such as effective armour, while favouring Hacking lets you take remote control of security cameras. You could also double down on stealth abilities to perform faster takedowns and lockpicks or gain ‘Rush’ buffs to escape into hiding quickly. In addition to working toward a setup specifically tailored for you, one could also synergise them with teammates to see which ones offer better success rates.
Just like Payday 2, cash earned from heists can be spent on new weapons and their respective attachments such as scopes, muzzles, and grips to help with heavy recoil. All changes to guns’ stats are neatly shown via a graph, and they can all be personalised with cosmetic mods like paint jobs, stickers, and charms. This forms the core gameplay loop of Payday 3, though for now, I have no idea how the larger story ties into this — after all, we reunited after years to identify and crush an undisclosed ‘new threat.’
Further, you could customise your characters’ appearance with new suits, gloves, and a medley of creepy-looking masks, including the white, perforated hockey one that Robert De Niro wore in Heat! Not to mention, all armour and protective gear is worn underneath your suit, so you don’t need to worry about making a bad impression.
Having only played one heist level, Payday 3 comes across as a remarkable evolution from its predecessor’s ethos, focusing on mechanical depth through a myriad of new high-tech toys to mess around with. The emphasis on stealth opens room for creativity, giving you the incentive to scout locations more freely and tick past an array of meticulous objectives, before donning the mask and going berserk. I also think it’s an excellent choice for this threequel to be set in a contemporary timeline, given the game is designed to grow over time with a regular flow of post-launch content, so it should hopefully feel timeless.