Sequels are tricky things. Typically, they must bring something new to the table to elevate the experience of its predecessor while also not straying too far from the core allure of the original lest it alienate its pre-existing fanbase. Payday 3 is coming in to replace the decade-long run of Payday 2, which has amassed a wealth of updates and content across its lifespan. For reference, Payday 2 currently sits at a staggering 78 playable missions. Needless to say, Payday 3 has a behemoth of a shadow to escape if it’s going to stand on its own as the new go-to heist simulator.
Payday 3 sees the original crew — Dallas, Wolf, Chains, and Hoxton — return and they’re joined by familiar faces Joy and Pearl for a whole new set of illicit jobs. The group’s latest outing plants them in New York City for their revived crimewave, saying farewell to Washington D.C. At launch, there are a meager eight heists in which players can partake. It’s a far cry from the aforementioned 78 missions, but Starbreeze is laying a foundation here. Still, it is a lower count than Payday 2 debuted with, which is sure be upsetting as we wait for the flow of content drops to pick up.
Tactical Depth, Shallow Content
The eight heists on offer do present mostly different visual backdrops while securing ill-gotten goods. Heisters will travel between packed jewelry stores, neon-lit nightclubs, after-hours art galleries and more. Mechanically, Payday 3 has more going for it than the previous installment. Primarily, stealth has received a massive overhaul and is now infinitely more viable for everyone. Being spotted doesn’t immediately force heisters to go loud; the situation can be salvaged. Yell at civilians to get down and restrain them with the now (gloriously) infinite zip ties. Stockpile hostages in an area out of sight and it won’t matter how many have seen you if you’re quick enough to secure accidental onlookers. The refinement to the stealth system makes the approach, and any needed split-second adjustments, more satisfying than the near-instant fail conditions of Payday 2.
When situations do go loud, it becomes immediately obvious that Starbreeze has also refined their gunplay. Payday 3 feels like a truly modern FPS in this regard, only hindered by an infuriating deadzone issue on PlayStation that makes fine aim unnecessarily problematic. Otherwise, gunplay is tight, impactful and satisfying even if the weapons list isn’t terribly expansive. Additionally, not all weapons are created equally and that is apparent as you slog through the progression grind. It’s clear that options like the SA A144 marksman rifle are top-tier choices for putting down threats with as few bullets as possible since the ammo economy is not generous without the proper skills. Still, when you and three buddies are shooting your way through hordes of law enforcement as you escape a vault, those shooting refinements shine more brightly.
The skills themselves come in the form of numerous skill trees that can be mixed and matched to conform to the desired playstyle. Engineers can set turrets, hackers can put camera feeds on loop, infiltrators can pick locks with blistering speed, and manipulators can make the most out of hostage exchanges. A well-rounded group will ideally cover different areas to ensure that multiple scenarios are covered. Of course, there are plenty of offensively-focused skills to augment the aggressive route for those who don’t want the slower burn of stealth. Tank, mower and ammo specialist have that group covered. I’d go as far as to say that the slew of skill trees are the game’s most accommodating component.
Now we come to Payday 3‘s most divisive feature: always-online. Unlike Payday 2, offline play is not an option here. A steady connection is required to play any of the heists, even if running them solo with AI companions. This made for an especially rocky launch, when the first several days were plagued with matchmaking errors due to server issues. We covered this already, so I won’t harp on it much more, but it is worth noting the precarious situation a game can find itself when requiring an internet connection.
Challenging the Grind
While always-online is sure to divide fans, I believe there’s a far more egregious design issue with Payday 3. In this game, XP (or Infamy Points, as they’re referred to) is only earned through the completion of challenges. Challenges are split across three categories: heist, career and combat. I imagine Starbreeze saw this as a way to incentivize players to try new weapons, tactics and so on. But its implementation basically forces players to tackle the game in whatever fashion the challenges demand or they risk earning no points towards their Infamy Level and weapon levels.
There’s nothing more deflating than flawlessly executing a stealth mission only to be met with absolutely zero experience towards those higher levels, which are required to unlock weapons and equipment. It makes Payday 3 an absolute chore. I often found myself doing ridiculous things, like sliding around constantly, just to clear out a challenge. Challenges may have been thought up as a way to foster play diversity, but the oppressive implementation shackles players and robs them of the freedom to play their way.
Lastly, Payday 3 is void of countless quality-of-life changes added to Payday 2 over ten years that you would have assumed Starbreeze would carry over into its next flagship title, but that isn’t the case. For example, CRIME.NET is nowhere to be found, meaning finding a match is at the mercy of that previously highlighted matchmaking system. Pre-planning is now boiled down to each player picking a favor, like adding an armor bag to a level. Most baffling, in-game voice chat is completely absent in a cooperative focused game. Queueing up with randoms often led to accidental go-loud situations because there was complete reliance on the basic ping system. But, hey, at least they kept the ability to throw bags on your AI partners.
Payday 3 Review Verdict
Payday 3: Payday 3 lays a decent foundation for a strong future, but its current form is a far cry from the wildly expansive Payday 2. And while that's fine from a content density perspective at launch, the rest of the game struggles to elevate itself far beyond its predecessor. Although gunplay has been tightened up and stealth is infinitely more enjoyable, everything is weighed down by half-baked systems. It's that feeling of even the good comes with a "but" attached. In a year's time, Payday 3 may fully realize its vision, but right now it can't measure up to the franchise's legacy. – Joshua
Editor’s Note: Payday 3 was reviewed on PlayStation 5, and a copy was provided to us for review purposes. This review is based off the state of the game following the resolution of server stability issues.