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Starbreeze Studios

Payday 3 review - A diamond in the rough

After years of waiting, Payday 3 is finally here. Does it stick to the plan and pulls of the heist, or are we in a Reservoir Dogs situation?


It’s been over six years since we first heard of it, but now the wait is finally over: Payday 3 is finally here, bringing a familiar yet highly updated heisting experience that builds upon what developer Starbreeze Studios first built with the previous title in the series. And while at first glance it might seem like there isn’t too much content, a lower price point and a look at how Payday 2 worked for a decade is more than enough to ease many of the points where the game misses the mark.

That is to say, Payday 3 at launch is an incredible experience, especially for loyal fans of the heisting simulator series that have played for a long time, but it’s still missing features, content, and tweaking to some of its decisions. And even so, we can’t help but keep coming back for “one last job.”

It’s all in the plan

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, here’s a quick explanation of what Payday 3 is all about: You and up to three friends are members of the Payday Gang, an infamous group of criminals that have made their way to New York City to start a wave of heists, robberies, and insane capers meant to steal as much money as possible.

Storywise it all makes sense, as after the (official) ending of Payday 2, the gang got ahold of full pardons and retired with their millions to live a leisurely life, but now powerful people who they wronged in the past have struck back. Penniless and scattered with no communication, an ally gathers them back up to try and hit back at their mysterious enemies, but to do that they have to return to the fray and do what they do best.

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If you’re here for the plot, then you’re in for a treat: this time the story is presented through small cutscenes that connect the dots between heists, giving everything a sense of direction and momentum, and diving deeper into the characters involved in what’s happening. It’s nothing to write home about, as there’s very little of it right now due to the number of missions available, but it’s still an upgrade from how it was all handled before.

Gameplay wise is where things get incredibly interesting. Payday was and is built almost like a tribute to the greatest Hollywood heists that have graced the big screen: from the robbery gone wrong in Heat that saw Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and Robert De Niro shooting up the streets of LA, to the legendary opening scene in The Dark Knight, where a group of clowns rob a bank. Or maybe you like the suave style of Ocean’s Eleven, with its multi-layered plots that ask for high coordination and deceit. In-game, each mission is a different heist, each with its own style and gimmick, and it’s up to you how you want to go ahead and do it.

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Almost every one of the eight heists available can be done without firing a single shot, hiding from the cops and deactivating security measures, looking for vault codes and pickpocketing keycards. But they all can be done with brute force, with the team of four going in guns blazing, holding off police assaults and hordes of SWAT forces while drilling into a bank vault, melting the floor above one with bags of thermite, or full on raiding a penthouse in a high rise.

At the moment of launch, Payday 3 only has 8 different missions with the promise (and knowledge) that more will be added with time as was done in the previous game. But what we have right now is an excellent showcase of creativity, originality, and an incredibly strong foundation of what is to come. Each heist is uniquely different to the rest, ranging from classic bank heists to art museum burglaries, and each is finely designed to allow players to use all of the mechanics that come with the game.

Sneak in, grab the loot, get out unseen

One of the most notable upgrades to the gameplay is all of the changes and additions that were made to how stealth works in the game. Previously, Stealth was all about running around avoiding cameras and pushing the limits of the “concealment” bars that indicated when you were fully seen, which when activated would pull the heist into Loud mode and force players into a firefight. This meant that if you were trying to stealth a mission you had to immediately restart, as you weren’t going in equipped for a fight.

In Payday 3, there are now stages of stealth that don’t force players immediately. But instead of this meaning you get more chances to screw up, it gives the stealth approach much more complexity. While unmasked players can now interact with the world, picking up items and lockpicking, crouching down, and sprinting to avoid being seen. The maps are also divided into public, private, and secure areas, with each zone triggering different reactions from the guards and civilians to your actions. Being seen lockpicking in public might turn some heads, but being seen by a camera inside of a secure zone sends the guards in to arrest you.

But being caught isn’t the end anymore. You can be escorted out of a zone (giving you a chance to distract a patrolling guard, or stealing a keycard off their belt), or arrested on the spot making you immobile and gone. But your friends are there, so one of them can mask up and sneak your way to uncuff you, all ot continue the heist.

All of the new mechanics come together to making stealth gameplay much more viable for groups and solo players, meaning it’s less frustrating than before but just as exhilarating, if not more.

Where’s the van?! The van was supposed to be here!

But then again, maybe you’re one of the many that is here for a proper shootout. And the game abides: there’s many different weapons to choose from and customize, different grenade types, gadgets, and “overkill” ultimate weapons that unlock as a firefight progresses. Just as with stealth, the “Loud” mechanics have been overhauled to perfect the feeling of breaking into a vault under pressure from the law. But the changes are much more subtle.

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If you played Payday 2, then it will be immediately obvious that the developers put a lot of love into making gunplay feel a lot more impactful. Combat feels heavier and meatier, but the mobility of your character is increased. It’s difficult to explain, but the guns feel heavier than they did in the predecessor, much more deadly and realistic without pushing into the “military simulator” zone.

There are around 30 different guns to unlock and choose from, each of them customizable to different degrees, and covering all of the basics that are expected from a game like this, from handguns and SMGs to shotguns and grenade launches. This selection will continue growing through updates and DLC as time goes on, but as it stands it is more than enough for players to feel unique when paired with a full group.

But what use would it be to have all of these weapons without a good reason to use them? Thankfully, in the time since the gang retired it seems like the police have made some upgrades to their ranks, because the enemies in the game are more threatening than before. Not only are the basic troops more aggressive than before, rushing in and pushing back against the player, but their special units are also changed.

Most of these special enemies are returning faces from Payday 2: You have the shields, which are almost invincible from the front, the tasers, who can shock you into submission if not dealt with, the ever-terrifying cloaker, now much more ninja-like jumping on walls and knocking you down to the ground, and the Bulldozers, who wear the heaviest armor in the game and demand focused fire to take down. And then there’s the new kid on the police force, the grenadier, with poison smoke and heavy damage that’ll block vision and path and can make your team scatter into chaos.

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All of these (with more confirmed to be coming in later updates) are mixed into the basic SWAT forces, causing you to pay attention unless you want to be completely obliterated. A single cloaker can be dealt with easily, but when it knocks out your tank and the rest of the team gets cornered by a bulldozer, cutting them off from rescuing their damage sponge, then things get hairy real fast.

In the end, playing loud is all about team communication, having awareness of what is going on and juggling completing objectives with pushing back the enemies, surviving wave after wave of police for enough time to get to the loot and carry it all back to an extraction.

Combined with the new skill line system, which lets players unlock a different variety of abilities that can completely change the way they play, firefights in Payday 3 are hectic and fun, allowing for players to create builds and loadouts to face the challenge.

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Sometimes, a heist goes sideways

However, Payday 3 is far from the perfect sequel. Not only is the game coming out with very little content (a full team of players can complete all of the heists in its different difficulties in just a couple of days) but there are still things that need some polish, as well as some design choices that, while fixable, are baffling steps backward from what the team had already done in the previous game.

Several heists can get bugged for seemingly no reason, blocking players from advancing their stealth routes, like in the Rock the Cradle mission when a bouncer that checks for a previous mission objective doesn’t open up a door, forcing you to restart or change routes on the go. Civilians will randomly detect you even though they’re not in the same room, guards can plant themselves randomly blocking a random hallway, objectives can be failed arbitrarily, and other kinds of problems can hinder your sessions. It can be frustrating when you’ve been under fire for 10 minutes, only for an error to cause the mission to be restarted from the beginning.

Most of these problems seem to come from the fact that the game is now always online, forcing you to be connected to the internet even if you want to play by yourself. Everyone is forced to matchmake, even if you have a full team, waiting for a room to open up in the servers that’ll allow you to play, instead of connecting directly with your friends. This leads to problems when trying to find other players when going solo: even with only 8 missions, having four difficulties means not everyone will be matchmaking for the same thing, and will leave you waiting for other players until the timer runs out and you’re forced to play with bots. There is no random matchmaking either, which means that you always have to wait.

The mission select screen is also not very practical, consisting of a horizontal list that mixes heists with story cutscenes. In the previous game, even at release, the missions were laid out on an interactive map that gave it more life and was more attractive. Here the map is there, but it’s only a background that serves no purpose, with most of the screen being reserved for text when you hover over a mission at the bottom.

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The menus are not intuitive at all, which means new players might play for hours before realizing they have to hover over a weapon and then press “r”, not click, to enter a different menu where they can customize it. Changing your loadout and buying a weapon will move you to the store without notice, which in itself is now divided into four different stores that are mostly filled with cosmetic items, and there is barely any explanation of what things are used for.

Most of these problems could be patched in the future, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the change to a live-service style makes some of these choices look dangerous, as they’ve taken a page from other live-service titles to let microtransactions creep in. As of right now, there are no premium currencies of any sort (the C-Stack currency is present, but can only be exchanged with in-game money), but they could easily change that in the future.

Finally, the progression system feels oversimplified from what was in the previous game. The skill lines are interesting as you level it up and unlock more and more skills, but there isn’t much variety right now, and aside from a couple of skill sets many upgrades are less about giving you new abilities and more about percentile upgrades. Here’s hoping with time this gets tweaked as well, as was done before.

All in all, what’s there at launch is a great base for the game, and there is an insane amount of potential for Payday 3 to become even better than its predecessor. The gameplay is amazing, and every mission oozes style in its level design and its gameplay possibilities. And of course all of it is accompanied by an incredible soundtrack that completes the hollywood heist fantasy.

We can only hope that Starbreeze Studios continues working on this game to build it up and fill it with content.

Payday 3 is now available on PC (Steam and Epic Game Store), Xbox Series X, and PlayStation 5.


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