Back in the day, as online co-op-focused titles were finding their footing, Payday: The Heist established a niche. Payday 2 further refined it, creating the definitive heist shooter supported to this day. When Payday 3 was announced in 2016, an eventual evolution felt like a given. Where would Overkill Software and Starbreeze Studios take the shooter many knew and loved, from the no-detection stealth experts to the chaotic revelers?
As it turns out, to familiar territory and then several steps back. Payday 3 makes several welcome refinements to the series in its gunplay and movement while improving the visuals. However, it also goes backwards in almost every other way, from the always-online machinations and matchmaking to progression and overall lack of content. Instead of a big step forward, it feels more like a flawed foundation, not unlike Payday 2 at launch but without half the novelty.
"Each heist is unique but familiar as you avoid or disable cameras, takedown or ghost security guards, complete multiple objectives, steal cash and other valuables, and escape."
The story, as it were, sees the gang back together after their escapades in Washington DC. Some new force has emerged, wiped out all their money, and they need to take revenge, but also money, you get the drift. It’s not the worst set-up for a thrilling heist shooter but certainly doesn’t go beyond schlocky imitations of Hollywood heist films, especially with the dialogue. The plot isn’t all that important, and with all the story cutscenes essentially being still images, it seems Starbreeze felt the same way.
Payday 3 has eight heists and four difficulty options for each. Normal is your starting experience; Hard is moving up the ranks; Very Hard pushes your skills; and Overkill tests true mastery over the mechanics while changing certain elements. Each heist is unique but familiar as you avoid or disable cameras, takedown or ghost security guards, complete multiple objectives, steal cash and other valuables, and escape.
For example, the first heist, No Rest for the Wicked, is a smaller operation meant to get you back in the saddle. Infiltrate the bank, then use thermite to blow a hole through the vault’s ceiling while fending off the police or sneak through, obtaining the manager’s password to open it. Some little hitches can develop throughout like cops turning on the sprinklers when using thermite, so you need to react accordingly.
"The gunplay feels pretty good, with the right dose of aim assist and heft. It’s neither clunky nor exaggerated, keeping things grounded, even as bodies rag doll and go flying."
Some heists are better suited for stealth, like Dirty Ice, while others, like Road Rage, are more high-octane and combat-focused. Regardless, if you want to complete a heist, coordination and teamwork are key…is what you would think at first. However, due to how the progression works, you’re often incentivized to speed run through a heist with the minimum required bags to get XP for weapons and Skills.
While each heist is competent, some objectives can feel contrived, and in terms of overall co-op mission design, none of them feels like a major step up. Don’t get me wrong – they can be fun, but there’s nothing revolutionary. Some will be fine with that, while others (like me) will be left wanting more.
Nevertheless, the gunplay feels pretty good, with the right dose of aim assist and heft. It’s neither clunky nor exaggerated, keeping things grounded, even as bodies rag doll and go flying. There is a weightiness and tension to your actions, as you disable dye packs on money stacks, chuck money bags into the getaway vehicle or desperately reload while fighting off waves of police.
Unfortunately, if you play solo (not offline because there is no offline option), crew member AI leaves much to be desired. They either follow your lead or meander around, sometimes shooting enemies and other times standing in place while being shot by snipers. They won’t perform any objectives or retrieve any bags, leaving you with all the heavy lifting. It just makes the heists longer and more tedious without any additional rewards. They’re also eerily quiet sometimes, further reinforcing how foolish it is to play solo.
"There’s no text or voice chat or any pre-planning in the lobby. You can’t suggest gadgets, loadouts or weapons, never mind coordinating tactics."
“But this is a co-op-focused game,” you say, and I agree. However, after the matchmaking from hell that defined the first days of launch, matching with real players has been hit or miss. If you can’t get into a full lobby, the game assigns bots with seemingly no joining in progress.
The police AI is disjointed at times, casually walking away when an assault is called off, though they remain “in the area” (read: ready and willing to be shot in the back). I also encountered Cloakers who would straight up run at me, uncloaked, to get mowed down, but I digress.
You can matchmake based on the heist and difficulty, making it even tougher to match with people to do the activities you want. A Quick Play option, or even a lobby browser, would have been far better while minimizing the chances of matching with players who have no clue what they’re doing.
Not that Payday 3 provides tools to help players coordinate with each other. There’s no text or voice chat or any pre-planning in the lobby. You can’t suggest gadgets, loadouts or weapons, never mind coordinating tactics. There isn’t even an option to Unready. If you mistakenly roll with a shotgun build instead of a sniper for a stealth heist, you should leave.
"Why should I collect all bags from a heist or flawlessly stealth it at the highest difficulty for no Infamy Points when I can load up Road Rage for the 15th time to complete a Challenge?"
What happened to the Pre-Planning mechanic from Payday 2? Was it just too difficult to implement? Even more baffling is the lack of any option to stay together as a group after a heist. If you found some competent teammates through lack of the draw, add them to your friend list or say goodbye until matchmaking deems you worthy to meet again. And no, there’s no looking for group features either.
Payday 3 does make some interesting advancements in its Skills. You have more freedom in picking and choosing Skills from different Lines, and Master Nodes let you benefit from a Skill Line even without taking the starter Skill. Research is necessary, and Skill XP is required for unlocking each one. I didn’t spend too much time messing with the Skills, because there weren’t many available due to the lackluster Skill XP. Nevertheless, the available options felt fine. Nothing spectacular or insane. Just fine.
Infamy leveling is anything but fine, however. Playing through heists doesn’t give Infamy Points for your levels – you must complete Challenges instead. These Challenges range from completing a heist a set number of times on specific difficulties, killing enemies with specific weapons, and so on. So if you’re not progressing your Challenges, then no progress is being made on your Infamy Levels.
Given how weapons, Skill Points and cosmetics are locked behind higher Infamy Levels, it feels like an annoying grind than meaningful progression, not to mention rendering any manner of skill completely pointless. Why should I collect all bags from a heist or flawlessly stealth it at the highest difficulty for no Infamy Points when I can load up Road Rage for the 15th time to complete a Challenge?
"While I enjoyed Payday 3’s overall gunplay and abject freedom, too many baffling omissions and design decisions get in the way."
For a game so focused on its Challenges, there’s no way to pin those in progress or search for specifics. Even when filtering, the Challenges in progress aren’t immediately brought forward to the first page to view. Not like this is the only UI flaw, with annoyingly empty spaces in menus, no distinction between primary and secondary weapons when purchasing them, and weapon stats represented as bars instead of tangible numbers.
While I enjoyed Payday 3’s overall gunplay and abject freedom, too many baffling omissions and design decisions get in the way. The fact that matchmaking issues – because even solo play relies on matchmaking, for some reason – can effectively render the game unplayable is just unacceptable. Starbreeze will improve on its foundation in the coming months and years (hopefully), but for now, Payday 3 is a major step back for the series and has a long way to go.
This game was reviewed on Xbox Series X.
Solid gunplay which feels weighty and responsive. Interesting array of heists with a decent amount of freedom to their approaches. Strong attention to detail in levels and a noticeable bump in visual quality over Payday 2.
Throwaway story and plot. Infamy Level progression is heavily based on completing Challenges and not personal performance. No lobby browser, Quick Play or looking for group features. No Pre-Planning or chat in pre-heist lobbies. Solo play is terrible, with shoddy crewmate AI and always-online requirements. Poor UI design.