This past spring, my weekly gaming group started playing Payday 2—a cooperative first person shooter wherein four players work together to complete heists using either brute force or stealth. Each mission, when completed, rewards each player with a combination of skill points and cash, both of which can be used to upgrade abilities and gear.
At the onset, I was excited to play Payday 2 simply because it has numerous qualities that I generally like in cooperative games such as puzzle solving, strategy, randomly generated maps and enemies, stealth, and the ability for players to specialize via class based skill trees. If that wasn’t enough, Payday 2 has also received mostly positive reviews with a near average score of 80% on gamerankings.com. These two factors—personal appeal and solid recommendations set my expectations reasonably high. They weren’t “this is going to be Game of the Year” high, but rather “this is going to be weeks of solid entertainment for my friends and I” high.
“Solid entertainment” was were I think my expectations went awry.
Despite having many trimmings I enjoy, the weeks playing Payday 2 were perhaps some of the most tedious gaming I have ever played. The aforementioned trimmings along with friends’ promises of improvement kept me and others reluctantly invested. My experience was akin to waiting in line at the carnival. Is anyone truly satisfied or is everyone simply trying to save face after investing hours into a fruitless endeavor?
At this point I want to make clear that the above harsh words (as well as those that will inevitably come below) are from the limited perspective of myself and just some of my friends. As I alluded to earlier, other friends really enjoy the game as much as I had once hoped to, which is in part why I have decided to write about Payday 2. It’s a game with aspects I like and that many other people enjoy so how did it fail me in particular?
It Gets Good Once You Hit Level 50
The above is not a direct quote, but rather represents a sentiment used by those who enjoyed Payday 2 to comfort others as we became increasingly frustrated. At one point “level 50” was mentioned as sort of a rough marker for when things “get good.” Waiting for the game to get better is what really drove my aforementioned sense of being stuck in a line. Honestly, this waiting should have been warning enough for me to quit. “It gets good once you [insert status achievement that requires hours of gameplay]” is a mechanic that is not entirely uncommon in modern gaming. After a disappointing time completing Diablo 3, I was told that Nightmare (hard) mode is where that game starts getting good. What tends to bother me about “it gets good when…” mechanics is that they often water down or replace meaningful gameplay with some combination of tutorial and grinding. I have never enjoyed grinding and strongly believe that any learning mechanics should be unnoticeably part of the game itself. I see anything less as somewhat of a copout by the game’s designers and ultimately serve to pad replay-ability and waste what precious remaining hours I have to play these days.
Broken Realism and Stealth
Payday 2 revels in it’s realism, but I often found that this realism was one-sided. It was realistic, unless that happened to work in the players’ favor. Nothing exemplifies the game’s broken realism more than Payday’s stealth missions. Robbing a bank, for example, realistically involves working around cameras, guards, customers and even passerby’s. The game has a casing mode where ideally a group of players should be able to note any and all possibly threats needed to be neutralized during the heist. Payday 2 unfortunately makes any realistic casing virtually impossible. Simple stealthy tasks such as lock picking or even crouching requires that players unrealistically don their uber-suspicious masks and any lingering, with or without mask, can sound the alarm. Without being able to properly case the mission, players can’t possibly anticipate all of the threats. Because they can’t anticipate threats, failure is likely and repetitive. Ultimately in my case, “stealth” missions became “memorization” missions which is neither fun or realistic.
Once stealth missions were properly memorized, usually by my much higher level friend, there wasn’t much game to play. Instead most of our time was wasted waiting for in-game events such as NPCs movements or during the real-time minutes required to drill into safes, an act which is often followed by tediously prying open safe deposit boxes. Those who enjoy the game chalk this up to anticipation, but for me it was just boredom.
One of the games biggest personal appeals was the idea of adding player classes to heisting. Class names such as Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician, and Ghost had me picturing my friends and I specializing in different skills to more deftly collaborate on a heist. The Mastermind would coordinate, having extra information about the location, vault, and security. The enforcer would take out any guards and keep civilians in check. The technician would set up and tend to drills, explosives, and turrets. Finally, the Ghost would serve as the ultimate assassin and scout, sneaking ahead to identify (and possibly disarm) any potential threats.
The ease of my vision made me confident that the concept would work even better in the hands of actual game designers. Instead I found a combination of commonsense non-skills (there is a Mastermind perk to bring more zip-ties) or awesome skills that seemed handicapped (the technician has a turret perk, which can only be deployed once and cannot be reloaded). In addition, the game prevents specialization by requiring spending an unusually high number of skill points before unlocking higher tiers within each class. While I am sure this is rationalized as a need for each player to have balance, the gameplay should dictate that rather than arbitrary limitations.
In Payday 2, everything costs in-game money, even skill selection. Not only that, but the game actually makes spending in-game money difficult by mixing in a bit a chance before purchases are even made available. For example, some gear upgrades can only be unlocked via a chance-time card game at the end of missions. Just to be clear, winning chance-time doesn’t get you the upgrade, just the ability to purchase the upgrade. To make odds worse, chance-time is littered with trivialities such as additional masks and colors which further lower the odds of unlocking meaningful upgrades. Even real money DLC upgrades only unlock the ability to purchase the new gear via in-game currency. The number of upgrades that aren’t blocked by level cap, chance-time or dlc purchase is paltry and another great example of broken realism. In what reality would nefarious weapons dealers turn down equally nefarious customers bringing cold hard cash?
Also somewhat randomized is how missions aren’t always freely available during selection, but can always be purchased with other in-game money. By “other in-game money,” I mean the game arbitrarily divides rewards into “offshore account” and “spending money”. The former can only be used to buy missions while the later is used for everything else. This isn’t a major headache, but I don’t see the added value.
Some might read this and see a player complaining about a game being too hard. I don’t mind that Payday 2 is hard, but its designers seemed to haphazardly add mechanics to increase difficulty at the expense of being fun… and that’s ultimately how the game fails me. Sure Payday 2 has many trimmings I enjoy, but each of those trimmings has been impeded by some arbitrary mechanic to make the game artificially more difficult. Classes are hobbled. Upgrades are withheld. Actual stealth is rendered vitally impossible. Even basic tasks such as upgrading gear or selecting missions are deliberately and unnecessarily made into a chore. On the whole, these impediments feel cheap at best and hostile to players at worst. Perhaps most disappointing is that I wanted to like Payday 2. I was ready to board its fun train and was instead told to wait in line with everyone else. I’m done. There are other rides at this carnival.