PAYDAY 3 review: Fumbled the bag

PAYDAY 3 review: Fumbled the bag
Images via Starbreeze

Written by 

Joshua Boyles

Published 

24th Sep 2023 13:54

After spending a good 20 minutes casing out a jewellery joint, my crew member and I are deep within the basement backrooms. We’re searching for a switch to disable the security alarms, which will allow us to slip into the VIP showroom, bag a bunch of blood diamonds, and escape with the goods.

Just as we’re about to pull the plug, the unexpected happens - an unaccounted guard rounds the corner, forcing us to drop him before he alerts the authorities. We fail to impersonate him over the radio, causing a search to ensue. Now, the race is on.

What follows is ten minutes of an intense cover-up, dropping a few more guards as they uncover our hiding spot in the basement, stowing their bodies in a broom cupboard. We even have to tie up a poor civilian in there, just so they won’t squawk.

We eventually make it out with a decent haul, avoiding any potential SWAT teams or bloody firefights in the process. Our patience has paid off, with the take-home feeling all the more gratifying for having done it almost silently.

This is an example of when PAYDAY 3 is at its best, using smart, semi-randomised level design to force its players to be patient, tactical and observant. When pulled off correctly, it’s certainly the more entertaining half of gameplay compared to the bloodbath alternative.

The core construct of a quality heist game is here - a promising sign given replayability is a major pillar of the PAYDAY series. However, while PAYDAY 3 might currently be a good heist simulator, there are several glaring oversights that prevent it from being a great one.

GGRecon Verdict

For the most part, Starbreeze has delivered on its promise of a heist simulator sequel that nails the basics. Its stealth puzzle box missions are a joy to engage with, picking them apart like you would a lock as each peeled layer reveals another challenge to overcome.

Pulling off the most elaborate plan successfully is an exhilarating experience; one that invites you to try again and again until you perfect the execution. The eight heists at launch and the mechanics they host serve as a good baseline to build upon with the game’s live service.

Time will tell if Starbreeze can build upon the baseline it has built. As it stands, PAYDAY 3 is worth dipping your toes into for the curious, but almost certainly worth waiting a while longer to see if it reaches its full potential.

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Peel back the layers

Two heisters in a night club in PAYDAY 3
Click to enlarge

With a reduced price compared to other big releases this season, PAYDAY 3 feels more than fair in its content offering. While PAYDAY 2 initially launched with 12 heists, its sequel hosts eight to begin with. Although this sounds smaller on paper, it’s the quality that counts here.

Each heist operates much like a puzzle box, just waiting to be solved by its players. Whether it’s a downtown bank, jewellery store, or neon-imbued nightclub, there are plenty of entry points and pathways to take to the so-called buried treasure.

These are much more grounded affairs than we’ve seen in PAYDAY games of the past, which will be a welcome change for some. Most heists now dissolve down to avoiding guards and cameras while figuring out puzzle solutions using social stealth. Or, whipping out a shotgun and taking matters into your own hands.

What’s more, each time you load into these missions, the locations of items will swap around, meaning you’re kept on your toes with every run. As you grind out each heist, take home more cash, and unlock new weapons and gadgets, each run-through starts to feel slightly different.

This is only exacerbated by steadily increasing difficulty levels, which increase the potential reward, but drastically ramp up both the volume of enemies and damage they deal. Even the stealth becomes more challenging, with some modifiers making cameras indestructible.

It helps that, for the most part, the levels in PAYDAY 3 look stunning - they’re each an attractive space to revisit. You might need to tinker with the graphics settings slightly, as we encountered some frame rate issues on consoles and on the highest graphics settings. Still, the game looks admirable even when set to the medium preset.

Now you see me

Infiltrating a mansion in PAYDAY 3
Click to enlarge

PAYDAY 3’s best missions are the ones that let you approach in your own way, whether that’s the quiet or loud method.

When you load onto the scene, you’ll now spawn with your mask off, meaning you can walk around public areas without any suspicion at all. This is a vital phase to case out each joint, spotting camera placements and guard patrol patterns. In fact, some heists can be completed entirely in this mode, although it will take some serious patience to do so.

If you want to do anything risque, you’ll need to ‘mask up’ by pressing a button. This will don your mask of choice (which can be customised extensively in the menus), and whip out your weapons. Of course, now you’ll cause suspicion even in public areas. As such, the choice needs to be made with deliberation, as the mask and weapons can’t be put away once worn.

Adding this additional phase to PAYDAY is an excellent design decision, as it forces players to think carefully about their approach. There are a couple of heists that force players to start masked up, which are arguably the least fun. It’s much more preferable to play scenarios where you’re at least given the option to go in silently.

While playing stealthily is the most lucrative, its true power isn’t quite telegraphed in the best way. PAYDAY 3’s induction tutorial gives new players the low-down of how most heists play out, but it only goes over what happens once things go loud, with stealth mechanics remaining completely unexplained. An additional stealth level in the onboarding experience wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

What’s more, most of the stealth-focused gadgets are locked behind the progression system, which asks you to play the available levels a number of times before you’re even able to purchase them. By default, you’re given two deployable remote cameras, which are helpful to begin with, but ultimately leave you feeling quite toolless in the beginning.

Back on the grind

Character looking at a screen in PAYDAY3
Click to enlarge

There’s a huge incentive to take home as much as you possibly can in each heist, as what you manage to steal goes directly into your account to purchase new weapons, gadgets, and upgrades.

From a glance at the loadout screen, there are plenty of weapons to unlock, with a decent amount of variety. Whether you’d rather run with an assault rifle, shotgun, or SMG as your main weapon, there are all options here. 

Each weapon can be upgraded with attachments, too. However, weapons each have their own level, much like Call of Duty. This means you need to grind out weapons individually to unlock things like sights and scopes, which is frustrating when you have to buy the same item over and over again for each weapon.

What’s more, upgrading weapons doesn’t feel like it does a great deal. Sure, the statistics might say that the recoil is reduced or damage slightly increased. But outside of equipping a sight for personal preference and opting to whack a silencer on the barrel, there’s little incentive to spend money on actually ‘improving’ each weapon.

Unlocking new weapons does appear to be quite slow, too. After completing all of the heists, we’re still at a relatively low level, only able to purchase around four to five new weapons from the available roster. Rest assured, you’ll be playing lots of PAYDAY 3 if you want to unlock everything it has to offer.

Thankfully, there are plenty of customisation options to keep you occupied, too. Weapons, masks, and outfits can all be customised with plenty of paint jobs and basically unlimited colour combinations. You can truly make your heister your own.

Microtransactions are also coming later down the line. While we don’t quite know what that will look like, it must be commended that everything we’ve seen in the game so far - from weapon unlocks to customisation - can currently be purchased with earnable in-game cash.

The Unforgivables

matchmaking error in PAYDAY 3
Click to enlarge

So, it’s fair to say that there’s a lot to like here in PAYDAY 3. However, there are a few ‘unforgivables’ that truly hold back the experience as it currently stands.

PAYDAY 3 is best played in four-player co-op, with everyone taking on their own responsibilities and coordinating with each other to get through the heist quickly and efficiently. However, if you don’t have a full squad of mates and have to rely on matchmaking with others online, there is no in-game voice chat to properly communicate with them.

A simple ping wheel does exist, but beyond waving at your comrades and giving simple commands like ‘go here’, it’s nowhere near functional enough to do justice to the intricate puzzles that PAYDAY 3 presents.

To avoid playing with randoms, you might opt to squad up with just the three AI bot teammates. This works well enough, with them staying out of trouble while you do the dirty stealth work, occasionally highlighting guards and cameras to watch out for.

The real kicker is that there’s no way to command them to do anything, so they’re completely left to their own devices. This drastically reduces the amount of options you have while playing solo, as the only real useful thing they can do is carry a bag for you.

All of these issues are compounded by the inability to play totally offline. Even if you want to play by yourself and three AI crewmates, you’ll need to join a game via the online matchmaking service. This is a killer for anyone who wants to play PAYDAY 3 on the go via the Steam Deck, but it’s also caused plenty of issues at launch.

Starbreeze is still ironing out the creases in its matchmaking system, but server queue times have been enormous in the first few days of release. Of my total playtime for PAYDAY 3 so far, 25% of it has been spent waiting in lobbies, only for the game to eventually throw up a matchmaking error.

Like with any major online release, these issues will likely be ironed out soon enough. But it’s especially frustrating that these issues persist even if you want to play solo.

The Verdict

Two heisters on a bridge in PAYDAY3
Click to enlarge

For the most part, Starbreeze has delivered on its promise of a heist simulator sequel that nails the basics. Its stealth puzzle box missions are a joy to engage with, picking them apart like you would a lock as each peeled layer reveals another challenge to overcome.

Pulling off the most elaborate plan successfully is an exhilarating experience; one that invites you to try again and again until you perfect the execution. The eight heists at launch and the mechanics they host serve as a good baseline to build upon with the game’s live service.

Aggressive online-only DRM currently holds PAYDAY 3 back in a big way. While clearly intended to be a co-op game, very few accommodations are made for those who wish to play solo, or even those without a full squad to play with.

Time will tell if Starbreeze can build upon the baseline it has built. As it stands, PAYDAY 3 is worth dipping your toes into for the curious, but almost certainly worth waiting a while longer to see if it reaches its full potential.

3/5

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.

Joshua Boyles
About the author
Joshua Boyles
Joshua is the Guides Editor at GGRecon. After graduating with a BA (Hons) degree in Broadcast Journalism, he previously wrote for publications such as FragHero and GameByte. You can often find him diving deep into fantasy RPGs such as Skyrim and The Witcher, or tearing it up in Call of Duty and Battlefield. He's also often spotted hiking in the wilderness, usually blasting Arctic Monkeys.
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