The iconography behind a handful of thieves donning twisted masks during a violent heist has transcended many forms of media, but they’re nowhere more recognizable through a gaming lens than in the enduring Payday series. This cooperative heist simulator borrows elements from some of the best in the genre but has consistently offered a distinct spin on the ensuing chaos by delivering memorable and elaborate jobs for you and your friends to pull off. It’s been a long time since the last entry in the series, in part due to Payday 2’s long-standing post-launch support, but in its third entry, wholesale overhauls to its formula are impeded by a lack of content and a baffling progression system.
Payday 3 once again rounds up the familiar band of thieves for another handful of assorted heists, this time strung together by a loose and entirely uninteresting plot about a conspiracy that takes itself far too seriously. It contrasts poorly against the absurdity of the jobs themselves, each of which takes place in a relatively grounded location but often requires absurd steps for completion. Coupled with the comical number of cops you’ll face most of the time and the ridiculous gadgets you’ll employ to break into vaults and locked-down crypto wallets, it makes the narrative tying everything all together feel like it’s from a different game.
Thankfully, it’s one of the least important aspects of this revamped cooperative shooter, which redefines what a successful heist is in the first place. All but one of the game’s heists can now be completed entirely without firing a bullet, giving a savvy team of four the chance to think about circumventing security cameras or hiding from nosy guards and achieving the perfect getaway in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven. Payday 2 players might recall that this was technically possible in the previous title, but it often required gear that only unlocked much later in the game to achieve the exact same objectives that going loud did anyway. Payday 3 splits the path of passive and aggressive with unique objectives for each, comfortably shifting from the former to the latter when the jig is up and you’re forced to don your masks and brandish a weapon.
Stealth plays a big role in achieving a silent heist, and while Payday 3 might not feel like the most mechanically sound game in this regard, it does present some novel ideas that contribute to cooperative quiet missions. For example, if you’re caught wandering around a restricted area, guards will typically not sound the alarm immediately and instead instruct you to follow them to the exit. Doing so will keep the heist in a non-violent state, but also remove a guard from his outpost, potentially exposing an area for infiltration by a teammate. If you’re using silent weapons, you can also use them to permanently take out a guard. But doing so will trigger inquisitive radio check-ins from other patrols, forcing you to fake a response to keep an alert at bay. Repeating any of these and similar actions eventually will move guards to sound the alarm and start firing, but the tense area between being completely undetected and being forced to pull out your weapon is a fun playground that lets you get far more creative than the binary states would otherwise suggest.
The objectives required to pull off a silent heist are clearly laid out by your in-game handler, with only a handful of instances during a gig where you’ll need to take some vague clues and figure out your next step. Noting codes shared via emails or using in-game signage to make out where an important room might be are nice environmental touches that accentuate the reward of progressing to the next phase of the robbery, while the clear direction outside of that keeps things from feeling too obtuse (as they often could in Payday 2). Items required for each objective are randomized, too, so even though the order in which you complete objectives stays the same each time you repeat a heist, you still have to put yourself in danger and figure out new routes to get through them. Seasoned players will eventually be blazing past unaware guards and leaving new players to wonder what is happening in lower difficulties, but Payday 3 does a decent job of scaling the difficulty of stealth when you’re after a bit more of a challenge.
When it is time to go loud, Payday 3 is a sufficiently competent first-person shooter that works well within the context of its nearly endless barrage of enemy waves. As objectives shift to completing the heist as soon as possible, you’ll be forced to set up complicated drills to breach thick safe doors or rotate around signal hot spots to accelerate a remote hack. These objectives are purposefully delayed so that you’re forced to defend yourself against increasingly more varied waves of police forces. Those start with just standard armored officers and eventually include specialized units such as hulking brutes, shield-bearing units, and even one particularly pesky acrobatic foe that loves to knock you on the floor and incapacitate you with punches until a teammate helps out.
This enemy variety helps make the otherwise routine action enjoyable as you count down the seconds to move on to your next objective, even if the practicality of the number of people you’re killing to pull off a heist goes well beyond comical just a few moments in. Despite that, weapons feel punchy, and general movement, whether it’s whipping your view around to return fire at enemies behind you or simple strafing movements when aiming down the sights, feel delightfully precise, making chains of accurate kills incredibly satisfying. For a long time, you’ll be using the same handful of weapons that you start with in Payday 3, so it’s somewhat forgiving that they’re at least fun to use for that period.
Each of the eight heists in Payday 3 delivers a different take on the heist formula that avoids feeling like one bank robbery after another (even if it does start with exactly that). Standouts, such as the neon-drenched club in Rock the Cradle, where you’re looking to steal a bulging digital wallet full of crypto instead of bags of cash, or the ridiculously elaborate old-fashioned bank in Gold and Sharke, all use clever layouts and well-placed objectives to make silent infiltration a challenging endeavor and loud extractions a frantic sprint to the end. There’s a noticeable degree of intricacy to each heist, especially the seven that let you complete them without firing a bullet. It wouldn’t be strange to recall recent Hitman games as you start piecing together predictable guard movements and placement of security cameras to effectively make your way in, and, while they never come close to reaching those same heights, the thoughtful ambition is an appreciated improvement for the series. It’s just a pity that there are so few heists at launch, which becomes painfully apparent all too quickly as you start cycling through them to obtain better gear.
Progression is where Payday 3 loses a lot of its momentum. Standard progression comes in the form of XP, which increases your overall player level and allows you to purchase previously restricted weapons and gear. You also accrue experience towards unlocking skills on a robust skill tree, which is broken down into various archetypes you can adopt for your character. These skills can be researched in any order (all you need to do is select one and experience earned will go towards unlocking it), but given that each perk mostly only affects one of three stats, it can feel somewhat meaningless to engage with. Skills have activation triggers for health, damage, and defense buffs, and while having a combination of five at a time does give you something to think about while engaged in a firefight, the effects of these boons isn’t something you’re likely to notice, and certainly not something that makes the effect to attain each skill feel worthwhile.
Player progression is, however, incredibly slow, since it’s tied to the completion of challenges rather than heists themselves. Initially, it’s difficult to tell the difference since you’ll naturally be completing early-game challenges without even trying as you complete each heist the first few times. But the limitations quickly become apparent, with Payday 3 forcing you to play in certain ways just to progress. This can mean replaying heists and forcing certain objectives to occur just for the sake of completion, robbing that instance of the dynamic aspects that are so wonderfully crafted to make each gig feel distinct. It also creates matchmaking problems where some players will join a match with a challenge goal in mind and focus entirely on that, dragging the rest of the team along or simply leaving the lobby once they’ve completed it.
The stagnant nature of completing challenges to level up also negatively impacts the rate at which you’ll get to experience most of Payday 3’s already limited number of weapons. It’s possible that after 10 hours of play you’ll still be using the same rifle and handgun combination that you started with, given that many early weapon unlocks are for more niche weapon types such as shotguns and long-range rifles. While not useless, the versatility of a rifle is somewhat unrivaled in many of Payday 3’s stages and layouts, so that limited number of overall options to experiment with over time is disappointing. Being able to unlock mods for each weapon does alleviate this somewhat, letting you attach an assortment of scopes, barrels, suppressors, and more to each of your weapons. But it’s still not enough to fix the dissonance created by a gameplay loop that wants to incentivize you to steal as much money as you can in order to purchase new toys, only for those options to be locked away for hours on end as your bank balance bursts at the seams.
With the generous post-launch support that Payday 2 received over years, only time will tell if the same treatment can address the glaring issues with Payday 3’s current progression system and evident lack of content when compared to its previous iteration. But it has established a strong foundation for the new, elaborate heists that it has drastically improved upon, inciting you to play Payday in ways you couldn’t in the past. If you’re more concerned with just having a good time pulling off the perfect robbery with some friends, Payday 3 features rich new challenges and satisfying stealth objectives to keep you entertained for some time. But if you need tangible rewards to keep you around after you’ve experienced Payday 3’s limited number of heists, then its unrewarding grind might keep its limited loot behind a vault door you aren’t willing to wait around to crack open.