Developer: Overkill Studios / Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment / Played on: PlayStation 3 (also available on Steam) / Price: $19.99 / ESRB: Mature 17+ (Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language)
Original IP shooters released on downloadable platforms are still a rare thing in 2011, even more so when you try to count the number of such shooters that are actually good (Blacklight: Tango Down? Breach?). The latest entry in this category, Payday: The Heist, takes the robbery premise and goes full bore, down to the Reservoir Dogs suits and the clown masks. It’s a little Left 4 Dead in its party-of-four design but with the urgency of get-in-get-out thievery.
As heists depicted in entertainment media go, Payday: The Heist is remarkable solely for being a shameless ripoff of the Michael Mann film Heat. All you have to do is play the first mission to be convinced. The setting is reminiscent of the climactic bank robbery from the film, the music bears a striking resemblance to the movie’s soundtrack, and there’s even a character who nickname’s someone ‘Slick’. You wonder if developer Overkill Software and publisher Sony Online Entertainment actually asked Mann for the rights.
Not that any of this is a bad thing. Payday: The Heist follows the same format of multi-goal mission-based online cooperative set-ups that we’ve seen in other shooters like Battlefield 3, Homefront and last year’s Medal of Honor. And you’ll certainly be jumping from goal to goal, regardless if the game-scripted plan “all goes to hell” or actually goes as planned. It’s never as simple as methodically breaking through each barrier leading to the vault. Sometimes you have to take time to get the various implements needed to break those barriers. At one point we had to force a double-crossing robber out of a van. To do that, we needed to start a fire with gas, but not before we had to track down the gas cans needed to do the job.
Often the goal is to simply take out the law enforcement who try to stop the heist and block your escape. Not that I have a problem with authority (generally) but I did find these straightforward shooting sections to be the most enjoyable part of Payday: The Heist, which says something considering how the steady stream of first person shooters in the last 12 months can burn out many folks. Maybe I enjoyed these parts because about two hours into Payday: The Heist, the game began to resemble–of all things–a non-rails version of Sega’s Virtua Cop, just from a bad guy perspective. I blame that on three things: 1) the high number of enemies, more than your average shooter 2) the penalties for shooting hostages, and 3) like Virtua Cop, you can tell that English isn’t the native language of the voice actors, possibly related to the fact that Overkill is based in Sweden.
Visuals and Sound
If you remind yourself this is a downloadable game of modest size, perhaps you can keep expectations low on the visuals. While many of the textures are unremarkable, the graphics aren’t abysmal to the point of being distracting. There’s also sufficient blood for those of you who need your gore fix. With all these urban areas, Overkill got away with a lot of right-angle level design with office spaces and generic buildings. As mentioned, while the settings are meant to look traditionally American, the voice acting sounds amusingly foreign. The Heat-influenced music does its job in conveying a sense of tension and urgency needed for a fast-paced game like this, but none of the tracks are especially memorable. And while the ambiguously-accented voice acting is amusing for both the robbers and the cops, it does hold the game back from reaching its full potential in immersive believability.
The enemy AI is impressive, displaying both a believable sense of accuracy and a conservative sense of using cover often. If you’re the antsy team player type who thinks you can take on the SWAT teams on your own while leaving your buddies to focus on the specific mission goals, you often won’t get far. You especially won’t get far if you play solo and stray from your AI buddies. You and your AI-controlled team or human buddies will also have the ability to heal each other; it’s game over when all four players are down.
The ideal situation is to have a full team of friendly human members. My most memorable moments came when two members were happy focusing on the non-shooting goals, while the other two took care of the incoming SWAT. Those agreed-upon roles made for some very succinct missions, even the ones where the game tried to throw curveballs at us. Just don’t hold your breath in forming such an agreeable team of strangers all the time, or you can try to convince three of your most trusted and skilled friends to buy this.
While it is an original IP with a novel concept, the fact that it only features six missions and is initially available at a price point of $19.99 (Steam and PlayStation 3) makes Payday: The Heist a tough sell for the average shooter fan in an early holiday period that is seeing both a new Battlefield and a new Call of Duty. It doesn’t break any ground but it is this level of familiarity that makes it easy to control right from the beginning, as it uses the standard issue FPS button layout. If you do have friends who can’t get enough of heists, then Payday is a fine choice and an arguable target for a lawsuit from Michael Mann.