You're robbing a bank with three of your friends. Which three friends do you choose? Your old high school buddy as a point man? Maybe. Your paintball-savvy co-worker? Might work in a support role. But when the police arrive and the plan breaks down, who can you trust to get your back and help you pull off one of the most daring crimes in history? That's the allure of Overkill's Payday: The Heist, a multiplayer co-op first-person shooter that tasks you and three of your friends with executing the crime of the century.
One could easily write off Payday's formula as Left 4 Dead's cooperative combat done through the lens of heist films like Snatch or Inside Man. But that wouldn't do Payday proper justice for its imaginative approach to criminal activity. Each of the six initial missions is an homage to a variety of Hollywood (and real life) robberies, ranging from diamond heists atop skyscrapers to complex bank robberies to a particularly audacious caper where you air-lift an armoured safe room via helicopter.
You'll depend on your teammates to watch your corners, rescue you when you're bleeding out, and even negotiate for your release should you be captured. Like other co-op multiplayer games, there are certain enemies (most notably dozers and taser-equipped police officers) that require you to work as a team to defeat. The game also has plenty of customization options, from perks (like better armour or more ammo) to fine-tuning your payload. Mission-specific challenges also increase replay value, as does the game's considerable difficulty.
And while this all seems rather cut and dry, Payday does throw some wrinkles into the gameplay that you haven't seen before. For starters, the set pieces are massive and varied. Holding ground in a slaughterhouse (complete with cuts of meat) is a very different experience than blowing a hole in the side of a meth lab or chasing down a traitorous wheelman in a crowded street.
Since you're playing as the bad guys, the police force's adaptive behaviour is a huge factor in each mission. They'll flank you, send in SWAT copters, rush you with riot shields, and throw some grenades to hide their numbers. And if you don't keep an eye on your hostages, the police will free them and you'll lose an important bargaining chip should one of your accomplices get captured. You'll also hear about incoming police raids over the radio, keeping the action intense just as you're trying to accomplish an objective.
When I saw the game earlier this year at E3, I was surprised that Sony hadn't mentioned it during their press event, as it was easily one of the highlights of the show floor. But after playing the final version of Payday, I understand why Sony didn't trumpet the title: ultimately, a lacklustre matchmaking system and a dearth of modes (even as a multiplayer-only game) hinder Payday: The Heist from delivering on its guilty-pleasure premise.
Players can go online for shared larceny or utilize the A.I. bots in single-player matches. While the A.I. is intelligent and fully capable of holding its own for the most part, any mission-sensitive action must be undertaken by the player. So if there is a need to turn the drills back on to break into the vault, or capture some hostages, or escort a captive, you're the only one who can perform the task.
There isn't split screen co-op, which would be less of a tragedy if the online matchmaking system was better. Scroll to "play with anyone" and you'll immediately be presented with a single game to play rather than a list that can be filtered or ordered. And if you actually try to select the game, odds are that the lobby will already be full.
While Payday gets a lot right -- imaginative missions, great team-based combat, and a world that you want to learn more about (the background on your mission planner and the personalities of your team are ultimately not fully explored) -- issues with the matchmaking and some pronounced bugs hamper the experience. On the bridge police caravan robbery, for example, none of the mission-sensitive prisoners will initially appear in their trucks -- but a few minutes later I turned a corner and found them all huddled together. There are some missions that require you to find gas tanks to light fires (why that trick is used more than once, I don't know) but the game does a terrible job of explaining where they are and hunting for random objects in the middle of a firefight isn't fun -- it's a death wish. Lastly, while your allied A.I. is capable, being trapped in enclosed quarters with a Taser SWAT team member can lead to a failed mission in seconds.