Following a middling gameplay reveal trailer during the recent Xbox Summer Showcase, I wasn’t so sure if Payday 3 could still deliver the thrills of its predecessor. Though some elements still need some expansion, my hands-on Payday 3 preview at Starbreeze Studios reveals that Payday 3 is setting itself up to be a bona fide Game Pass hit, whether you’re going in loud or refining your stealth prowess.
Payday 2 left us seemingly safe in the knowledge that our merry band of robbers had achieved larceny nirvana, clinking glasses of champagne and riding off into the sunset. Yet, just like Michael Mann’s Heat prescribes as a mantra, the heat is always around the corner. The original Payday gang of Dallas, Wolf, Chains, and Hoxton is forced back into the criminal underworld, following rising threats from old foes. Brand director Almir Listo explains that someone has to be behind all that cash they stole, and they aren’t happy about it.
Ten years later, Payday 3 is taking its predecessor’s focus on the story deeper. Each heist is integral to the gang escaping an early grave. I had around four hours of playtime with Payday 3, running through two vastly different heist scenarios. The first stage, seen in Payday 3’s gameplay debut, is a signature Payday experience. On the other hand, Payday 2’s focus on stealth returns here via an Art Gallery level overlooking the East River in New York City. Before I even stepped foot into either of these levels, though, I was immediately captivated by the game’s overhauled customization options.
Adding a layer of personality to your character model has evolved considerably in Payday 3. Mask, clothing, and weapon customization returns, but it feels far more personable. You’ll be spending at least 20 minutes of your time experimenting with patterns and colors (now with multiple layers) when it comes to your character’s threads. The preview build of the game didn’t have every cosmetic that will be present on the Payday 3 release date, but the sheer volume of options was already plentiful. There are plenty of absurd mask choices, but I ended up alternating between a Michael Mann homage mask titled ‘The OG’ and a glorious custom creation that channeled the cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane – because, well, why not?
Ensuring my character was suitably dripped up for the New York City streets pales in comparison to the game’s welcome changes to weaponry. Payday 2 offered a limited degree of tweaking to your arsenal. Payday 3 is already coming out of the gate with more creativity as to how your loadout takes shape. It won’t be giving Call of Duty gurus like James ‘JGOD’ Godoy pause to create an Excel sheet of statistics, but the shift to a Modern Warfare 2-style gunsmith system is an excellent change going forward. It feels far more involved this time around, rather than feeling inconsequential in Payday 2, whether you’re purchasing pre-made blueprints or crafting your build.
Immediately, I was drawn to a handgun that bore a resemblance to John Wick’s Taran Tactical Combat Master. Rather than buy a powerful blueprint, I decided to level up the weapon for my preview. Steadily it took shape, with a quick-reload change magazine and a compensator aiding its transition in a pinpoint accurate show of force. At present, Payday 3 only affords players one loadout, which feels counterintuitive to its otherwise sturdy customization. This loadout, however, can be equipped with several unlockable mods/buffs that provide unique advantages, such as keeping the getaway van in closer proximity to the job itself.
As for the first job, the target was Secure Capital Bank. The approach for either level, in my case, was always to attempt stealth first. Casing the joint reveals a wealth of possibilities, with some of them likely still undiscovered, per a chat with community manager Elisabeth Elvestad. Payday 3 introduces phases to law enforcement AI now, with the first of them being a ‘search’ phase. Similar to that of the recent Hitman trilogy, guards will escort you out of restricted areas and question your presence. Repeatedly testing their patience will lead them to up the ante. To avoid that, laser-cutting open windows or picking locks into other entrances became the objective. Using a fireable micro-cam gadget introduces a fun perspective, placing us into the shoes of a guard protecting the bank tellers.
NPCs still roam around with charming awkwardness, but their presence feels ingrained into the level. They’re not just part of the furniture anymore. Sneaking around the second floor of the bank’s administrative area shows employees grabbing lunch together, while others are on the roof during a smoke break. Multiple replays of the level unearth another aspect to this, with some NPCs getting on with different tasks than when we saw them before. It helps to make the world feel more involved – and ultimately adds more pressure. Because as you may know with Payday, one mistake, and the mask is coming on.
Trying to keep the law at bay isn’t easy, but buying time by trading hostages with the police for a few extra seconds of safe haven matters. With the police holstering their weapons longer as the heist escalates, the cat and mouse game between you and a jail cell is a delicate tight rope to watch. Hostages themselves are treated as resources, so while your teammate gets to work on breaking into the vault, ensuring you’re trading them at a steady pace can become difficult – in a good way.
It’s all familiar Payday stuff, but with Payday 3 leaving Diesel Engine 2.0 behind for Unreal Engine 4, roaming around the bank feels exceptionally agile and graceful. You’ll find yourself mounting obstacles easily, but the more advanced movement is reserved for ‘mask on’ gameplay. That movement is accompanied by significant visual improvements. While I was on a high-end PC for this preview, I observed New York City in buttery smooth 144 FPS, running on Ultra settings at 2K resolution. Details on how this will be reflected in the game’s PS5 and Xbox counterparts are yet to be specified, but I speculate that 120Hz support will be present.
Once the guns did come out, I found myself using the franchise’s new sliding mechanic to glide around the level to the point it wouldn’t feel out of place in a fast-paced arena shooter like XDefiant. I do not doubt that someone will figure out how to slide cancel, and you know what, I want to see that. Gunplay is night and day here too when compared to the previous game. Senior game designer Jimmy Karlström tells me during our team-up that active reloading was a conscious decision, making each reload feel vital and a key decision during the heat of battle.
Ejecting a fully empty magazine from my handgun was interrupted by one of the game’s boss-like enemies, the returning ‘Bulldozer’, rendering me useless for a few moments. A quick retreat into safety allows the animation to complete with an immensely satisfying rack of the handgun’s slide. If you’re a reload animation fanatic like me, you’re going to get a lot of joy from Payday 3. Every firefight in my four hours with Payday 3 stepped up to the mark of the game’s inspirations, deploying its love for Michael Mann’s bombastic sound design and palpable tension at each turn.
But while I love unbridled chaos, I do worry whether the game’s small selection of stealth gadgets will present problems down the road.
I had four different gadgets to choose from in the preview, and it is unclear whether the game’s 18 months of post-launch content will add to the roster at this point. The beauty of Payday’s co-op gameplay lies in experimentation and ingenuity. Every player has a different perspective on getting the job done, and while my teammates might use gadgets to varying degrees, I’m hoping that Starbreeze will give gadgetry the same attention that customization has received. The aforementioned second stage highlights this.
Payday experts will likely find it easy, but newcomers might find this particularly difficult stealth stage off-putting, to begin with. The devs explain that this is one of the harder stages in the game so far, and that is apparent as soon as the squad deploys. That isn’t to say it doesn’t play well, but with the game’s transition to the 2020s and a brand-new locale, there needs to be a selection of stealth-oriented items to reflect this. Starbreeze says that Payday 3 can be enjoyed alone or in its intended 4-player co-op, but clarification on how the game scales its threats to solo heisting remains to be seen. If it can overcome the brutal solo play found in Payday 2, there is a new lease of life to be found outside of multiplayer.
It may not be reinventing the wheel, but Payday 3 appears to be replicating the ethos that Payday 2 did so well: delivering a solid sequel. While its stealth options still need more expansion, I’ve already got the bug to play this with friends. That’ll be far easier this time too because Payday 3 crossplay and cross-progression support will bring my friends across PS5, Xbox, and PC together when the Payday 3 release date arrives.
There’s hopefully a long road ahead for Payday 3, and if it can deliver a selection of diverse locations to compliment its wicked gunplay and deep customization, the decade-long wait will pay off.