2023 is turning into a year of nostalgia, with plenty of iconic games like GTA 5 reaching decade milestones. Payday 2 has captured the hearts of millions over the last 10 years, but the next era of crime is here with Payday 3. Rather than resting on the laurels of its predecessor, Starbreeze Studios’ highly anticipated sequel strives to overhaul the franchise with a wealth of refinements. While not all of it comes together cohesively, I couldn’t shake the itch to get back into another heist after putting the game down.
Just like my Payday 3 preview back in June at Starbreeze Studios HQ, the game’s teeth instantly sank into me. That instantaneous hook of trying to one-up each attempt hasn’t faded away, coming back even stronger. There are 8 Payday 3 heists to master, just shy of the 11 that comprised Payday 2’s base game heists. But less is more in this instance, as each heist offers plentiful variety. The game’s first heist, No Rest for the Wicked, is classic Payday action to get you into the swing of things.
I’m tasked with robbing Secure Captial Bank, a bread and butter level for Payday players and a solid foundation to bring in newcomers. I’ve already spent hours alone figuring out how this level ticks, taking that fascination with me outside the game too. I’m watching newly minted Payday 3 experts blast through levels on YouTube, I’m seeing incredible runs on TikTok. It feels like a return to the gritter roots of the first game, both tonally and gameplay-wise in Payday 3. There’s no mention of ancient overlords to be found, instead, the new setting of New York City takes you to nightclubs, art galleries, penthouse suites, and seedy dockyards.
Heists like Rock the Cradle offer refreshing dynamics, with two separate outcomes available depending on your actions. Mess it up, you’ll be prepping to rob an underground vault beneath the dancefloor. Do it quietly, and you’ll be hacking into cyberspace to steal crypto. I feel like I’m slipping into the guise of a criminal mastermind with each attempt at stealth, diving deeper into the ‘Hollywood heist fantasy‘ Starbreeze is so keen to deploy.
Stealth is far more approachable for new Payday heisters now. Payday 3 introduces phases, which take a few notes out of the Hitman 3 playbook. Guards won’t just shoot you on sight, they’ll escort you out of private areas, as long as you’re compliant with their demands. Get caught briefly in their vision for too long or do something out of the ordinary, then the ‘Searching’ phase will begin. This heightens the atmosphere and leaves you and your squad to maneuver without raising further suspicion. There’s a great sense of freedom running through Payday 3 as a result. Going loud is fun, but the adrenaline of trying to loot and escape without getting caught is still an unmatched co-op experience.
Alongside the improvements to stealth are the expansion of buffs within Payday 3 skills. There are 17 different skill trees to progress down, which are unlocked by selecting with tree you’d like to ‘research’. This is done by simply playing the game, and the better you do in each heist, the more chance you’ll have of unlocking desirable skills. You can respec your build at your own leisure, and having interchange loadouts keeps everything versatile. I’m usually appointed to the legwork in heists, often keeping hostages in check and bagging up our loot for others to transport.
With that focus in mind, I can conjure a loadout that uses skill points to increase elements like my lockpicking speed or hostage management. It is excellent that you can also access and swap your loadouts during pre-game lobbies, all while viewing what other players have equipped in regard to weaponry.
The limited selection of Payday 3 weapons might seem small at first, but there are tons of bombastic delights to be found. Starbreeze rolls out 12 different foundational weapons, each with heaps of different blueprints to acquire with your hard-earned cash or C-Stacks – an in-universe form of cryptocurrency that can cash be exchanged for. Combat is sublime. Like seriously, it is so great, that I’ve already become infatuated with the art of the game’s reload animations.
Each weapon is imbued with a sense of identity, thanks to top-notch sound design and the transition to Unreal Engine 4. Firefights no longer feel clunky like before, they are packed with power and speed. Even though there are big assault rifles and hefty shotguns to wield, I can’t help but be drawn in by the immense satisfaction of the Signature .40 handgun. It’ll more than please those who get their multiplayer kicks from Call of Duty while enriching the experience for Payday enthusiasts. Levelling them up isn’t nearly as complicated as the latter though, forgoing any Modern Warfare 2 gunsmith confusion to unlock other weapon bases. All you need to do is use your preferred weapon, and your XP will do the job of unlocking new attachments.
Dressing each gunfight is Gustavo Coutinho’s score, taking over musical duties from Simon Viklund. Coutinho doesn’t break a sweat delivering thick, silky basslines and crunchy riff-laden tracks to keep the pace electric. The score accompanies the new layer of visual sheen afforded to Payday 3 by Unreal Engine 4. Performance on PS5 is solid, with only a few minor drops when the screen is populated with dense particle effects. Playing on Xbox Series S yields slightly more issues, but it isn’t enough to skip over Payday 3 on Game Pass. With crossplay functionality available too, it makes it easier to play with friends who haven’t dipped their toes into the world of heisting before.
While the game’s social experience is strong with friends, playing with random heisters can often feel like a luck of the draw. They’ll be those players who clearly know what they are doing, while others will get you caught by the law within minutes of beginning the heist. The absence of in-game voice chat is a bizarre choice too, leaving the game’s awkward emote wheel to do the heavy lifting for your interactions. Despite the actual location and objective variety of heists, it can make the act of doing them repetitive if you’re stuck having to pick up the pieces. Conversely, matchmaking immediately ejects you after each heist, starting the process from scratch, rather than the option to ready up and go again.
Another noticeably absent feature is that of Safe Houses, taking other elements like the usage of Continental coins from the John Wick universe with them. In its place is the sleek and efficient main menu, but the loss of tangibility when it comes to your loot feels like an unnecessary dismissal. It was another layer of progression in Payday 2, encapsulating how well you had performed in previous jobs.
Whether this is reintroduced down the line with the Payday 3 roadmap is unclear, but it’d be nice to have a hub of sorts to interact after hours of accumulating precious gear and money. The same can be said for crossovers with IP like John Wick, a topic I discussed with Starbreeze in person earlier this year. The biggest problem that the game is facing lies within the Payday 3 servers. Initially working well during the early access period, it is well documented by the studio and players alike how temperamental the game’s servers have been.
It makes the need for an offline mode a priority in future updates, as it is impossible to play the game otherwise. Payday 2 included this, allowing players to continue with the aid of NPCs to get the job done. As a long-time Payday fan, these choices are oddly regressive, even if many quality-of-life features were added post Payday 2’s launch.
Nevertheless, the pros of Payday 3 far outweigh the cons. The move to New York City has opened up the vault of possibilities for future heists massively, drawing on the franchise’s adoration of cinema greats like Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, Sidney Lumet, and Jean-Pierre Melville. There are already amazing player feats happening in Payday 3, and I’m excited to see what astounding heist methods players devise going forward. Augmented by excellent combat and an addictive gameplay loop, the future is bright as four major DLC packs are poised to drop down the line. Payday 3 is easily one of the best co-op games you’ll play this year, and hopefully for years to come.
Despite a few regressive design choices, Payday 3 largely manages to deliver a rejuvenated experience with best-in-class combat, improved stealth mechanics, and an excellent social atmosphere with friends. Starbreeze Studios hasn’t emptied its vault of tricks just yet.