Published on October 14th, 2023 | by Nathan Misa
Payday 3 PC Review – Heist Hesitation
Summary: A routine racket of fun first-person shooter and stealth gameplay and creative heists mired by always online issues and lack of content.
Always-online is one of my most dreaded concepts in modern video gaming. Whether it’s connectivity issues, inconvenient server down-time, or just the fact there is a likely expiry to the experience, no offline mode at launch is baffling at best, crippling at worst.
Unfortunately for Payday 3, its tumultuous launch period, which has seen players unable to play the game for the first week and ongoing server issues since – it might just be the latest manifestation of all the worst things about the always-online, games-as-a-service (GaaS) model.
Luckily, there’s a solid co-op shooter/stealth experience underneath all the mess that’s worth playing, if, yet again, you can put up with having to wait for the bugs to be fixed and more content to be added.
As a newcomer to the franchise, the premise of Payday 3 is simple, but appealing. You play as one member of a six-strong crew of professional robbers, performing high-stakes heists across urban America (the sequel moves from Washington D.C. to New York City), using either stealth or overwhelming firepower, as you see fit, to secure the bag and escape the authorities.
Several obstacles stand in your way of that sweet cash, such as security cameras, biometric-locked doors, nosy civilians, and when things get real bad, heavily armoured S.W.A.T. teams, snipers, and your own greed. Naturally, careful strategy over run-and-gun reaps the best rewards in terms of experience points and money, which can be spent on new skills, guns and cosmetics. There’s a decent amount of weapons (19) and attachments (123) to choose from at launch, and if you’re into customizing your mask and getups, Payday 3 accommodates the heister fantasy well.
In terms of story, though, it’s slim pickings. The Payday 2 gang is back, forced out of retirement by a shady attempt on their lives, their bank accounts emptied. The heisters and their dilemma are interesting enough, but the narrative is mostly conveyed through a series of pre-mission briefings, static slideshows, and basic background information in the menus for each crew member that allude to deeper pasts and motivations, and I did not feel much of the briefings or character personalities translated into the missions themselves, which is disappointing given what I’ve heard of Payday 2’s more bombastic and outlandish levels.
The gameplay offerings on launch are also quite paltry, with just eight missions available. The scenarios and set-pieces are diverse, at least, spanning traditional bank robberies, an armoured van takeover, nightclub infiltration and art heist, and the levels are decently layered sandboxes that you can explore to find the best routes in and out, and your chosen difficulty setting modifies certain elements such as guard count or indestructible cameras. Each mission also offers two distinct gameplay experiences, depending on the play-style you choose to employ, with stealth systems that support players who want to go quiet, and smooth, slick gunplay for those who want to go boom.
The former plays like a pared back immersive sim, allowing you to take note of entry points, lockpick doors, mark security cameras, and memorise guard routes undetected, but bizarrely only when you put your mask on can you engage in certain stealth activities, such as hog-tying civilians, vaulting through windows or shooting cameras, which for me makes no sense and puts a damper on the otherwise appealing stealth approach (you can’t remove your mask once on).
If things go belly-up and the police are alerted, the guns come out; here the game transitions to first-person shooter gameplay which reminded me of a faster-paced Rainbow Six Siege in terms of gunplay, as you first have to prepare for the cops to arrive, then defend against waves of police, trade hostages to stall for time, and then escape, on-foot and pursued, with goods in-hand. Police come in different types, too, with standard beat cops, S.W.A.T teams hiding behind kevlar and bulletproof shields, sabotage squads who turn on sprinkler systems to ruin your thermite, and tougher, specialized units like cloakers who stealthily blindside you, zappers who tase you into submission, and the frightening bulldozers who are heavily armed and very hard to kill.
Some mission elements are randomised, too; that same guard might not have the right keypad you nabbed previously to get into a locked door, or a hackable device may suddenly be located in a different part of the map, but I found this introduced some satisfying challenge rather than elicit frustration, especially when playing with a friend or three (the crew caps out at 4 people). Adjust on-the-fly, make the best of a very intense situation, and carry on the lesson for the next heist. Plus, it’s never not fun to just bust out the automatic weapons once the cat’s out of the bag.
Playing with just AI-controlled companions, however, is definitely not as enthralling, as they prove practically useless and ruin any immersion gained in casing each hand-crafted setting. They walk into walls, miss their shots, and loiter in strange places while me and my brother do all the work. Civilians, guards and police A.I. have similar intelligence issues, often running into the open rather than using tactics, overwhelming numbers and the environment to take just four heisters out. There’s also some wonkiness related to an almost hive-like detection and spawn system, though it can be overlooked given the generosity in enemy count allows you to mow down an increasingly escalating numbers of foes, realism be damned.
None of these AI issues hold a candle to the current state of the matchmaking suite, however, with team voice chat missing, no preferences to select when matching with randoms or pre-game lobbies to mingle with preferred communities. It’s anyone’s guess if your team will stick together in stealth or go guns blazing if they don’t use external comm methods like Discord. Given this is a team-focused game, the omission of these modern multiplayer features is bizarre and unnecessarily dilutes its strong co-op element.
All of this – the small amount of levels, the AI wonkiness and the missing quality-of-life (QoL) features – is fixable, of course, given this is a modern always-online game with many more updates to be had and at least 18 months of post-launch content supported announced (as well as an eventual move to Unreal Engine 5, supposedly). The gameplay foundation is strong, and I can easily see Starbreeze Studios building upon the launch package with additional heists, more story-based objectives, and more guns and cosmetics – as they apparently did with Payday 2 – to provide the ultimate heist fantasy.
However, the fact is, right now – not later – Payday 3 is yet another game that debuts with a paltry level of content and missing features from its preceding titles (according to the community, given I’m a newbie), with no offline mode to speak of despite the ongoing server issues. It’s another title that inadvertently punishes early adopters and forces hardcores fans or interested newbies into the inevitable dilemma of either waiting for new content or existing features that, by all accounts, should already be in the base game at launch, or jumping in right now and weathering the storm of technical issues and dearth of content.
That’s what Payday 3 has felt like, despite some hours of enjoyment experimenting in each heist and saving up for the next cool mask; undercooked, unfinished and just short of greatness. It’s likely that the game will improve significantly with time as new content and features roll in, but in reviewing the game as it is today, as a newcomer to the franchise, I’m hopeful for the future, but not quite as satisfied as I’d like to be.
The Final Verdict
To be clear, Payday 3 is a fun and well-designed first-person shooter/stealth game at its core – when the servers are working as intended, and you have a crew of friends or dependable randoms to play with. But right now, it looks set to repeat the model many games with disastrous launches have already endured – ride out the issues, release more content and hope everyone forgives and forgets in a year or two.
If you’re a hardcore fan in it for the long haul, Payday 3 is still playable and even enjoyable if you’re willing to overlook its current issues, and many of them may not even deter. For newcomers, however, my recommendation is to watch and wait until the game gets the fixes and content it should really have on launch.
Primary Format – Games – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X | S
Game Genre – First-person shooter
Rating – MA15+
Game Developer – Starbreeze Studios
Game Publisher – Deep Silver