Monday, March 5, 2012

Impressions of Payday: The Heist

Steam recently held a free weekend event for Payday: The Heist, an online co-op shooter about robbing banks and other such missions in the life of an organized gang of criminals. It plays a lot like Left 4 Dead, except instead of shooting zombies, you're shooting cops. Instead of getting incapacitated by hunters and smokers, you're getting incapacitated by special forces units called the "taser" and the "cloaker." Instead of having to make it to a safe house, you're (usually) trying to break into a sealed vault somewhere.

Payday has enough distinctions from the L4D series to make it feel fresh and interesting, and could certainly provide enough hours of entertainment to justify a purchase. The RPG-style leveling mechanics alone could ensure that there's enough incentive to stick around, but after four hours of playing, I wasn't quite ready to buy it. It's a really good game, nevertheless, that you still might consider checking out. More of my thoughts after the jump.

The leveling system gave me the impression of being kind of grind-heavy, where you just play the same basic maps over and over again with the same basic strategy until you've leveled up enough times to unlock some new skills or equipment. After four hours of playing, I'd only managed to unlock one new pistol (which I wasn't really impressed with), the use of a single medic bag (which you drop on the floor and teammates can then heal themselves with), and a buff that gave me extra damage resistance.

I unlocked a couple of other bonuses, but these were the only ones that were especially useful or noteworthy, and even then, they weren't particularly exciting, so I didn't feel compelled to earn more reputation to keep leveling up. But still, the aspect of unlocking more advanced skills and content the more you play is a nice feature that's lacking in L4D, and gives you the feeling of progress whenever you play a match, much like spending a day grinding in an MMORPG. I just wasn't feeling up to having to grind my way to high levels to experience the fun stuff, but it probably wouldn't feel like a grind if you enjoy the game as is.

Payday: The Heist -- Forever Holding "F"

Matches can prove to be really tense and chaotic with a lot happening at once, and I really appreciated how (relatively) tactical the combat can be. It expects you to use cover and fire in short, controlled bursts, moving from place to place as you try to flank police squads and avoid them flanking you. The maps are designed in a fairly intelligent way to promote this style of play. It reminds me a bit of STALKER and the original FEAR, in that regard, which made combat fun and interesting for me, because it's a bit more of a thinking man's shooter. It was just nice to have a game that punished me for playing like an idiot and wasn't afraid to be brutally challenging.

But at the same time, the gunplay didn't feel quite right. The guns lack a certain element of "punch" that I've grown accustomed to, after playing Killing Floor, but they're certainly a step up from the subdued feeling of the L4D weapons. I also frequently ran into problems where I'd line up a perfect shot with my .44 revolver, and then the cop wouldn't even flinch, as if I wasn't hitting him. I wasn't sure if this was because the bullet wasn't going through the obvious space between the bars in the handrail, or if it was an RPG-style accuracy issue where I wasn't high enough level to be accurate at that range, or if the engine was just failing on me.

Besides that, Payday's missions suffer mildly from the same issues that mired the L4D campaigns; once you play each map once, subsequent replays are going to feel kind of repetitive. They're supposed to have a few different variables to make each match unique, like the location of an objective cycling between different locations, or special forces units showing up in different places or at different times, but the basic structure remains the same and the changes are merely superficial. If you're just interested in the campaigns themselves, then they'll get old quickly. 

Also much like L4D, Payday is a game that's really only worth playing online. A single-player mode exists, but it's really just there for you to learn the ropes of each level and to experiment with different combinations of starting items. The real fun only happens in an online match with other people as you try to coordinate strategies and improvise plans when things go awry. Unlike L4D's co-op campaigns, however, I feel like there's a lot more riding on your teamwork, with players needing to split up to cover more ground, but also needing to stick close in case someone gets pinned down, and covering each other while people are busy completing objectives, and using each other's positions to lure and out-flank police while defending key locations.

Payday: The Heist. Escorting Matt through Heat Street. 

The AI for your teammates is another reason why single-player isn't especially fun. They don't help you complete objectives at all, which makes missions far more time-consuming when you have to run around doing everything yourself. It's especially annoying in the bank heist when all four of you are in the vault, but you're the only one standing around scooping money into bags, while they just stand right there doing absolutely nothing. It would've been nice if you could somehow command at least one AI to do an objective for you. Otherwise, they follow you everywhere you go, instead of holding down defensible positions, which basically just guarantees that they'll be completely useless in higher difficulties.

I also ran into some pretty terrible mouse lag when I first started, which caused mouse movement to get all jerky and laggy. It made it hard-to-impossible to aim (which can be a death sentence in some of the more hectic sections of maps), and even caused some occasions where one mouse click fired two bullets. I fixed the problem by disabling advanced graphics settings like AA, AF, and some sort of lighting effect; I'm not sure exactly which was the culprit (or if it was merely a problem on my end), but it was unpleasant nevertheless. 

So, in general, Payday is the kind of game that I would really enjoying playing with friends. With all of the things on my to-do list, I didn't feel like adding one more game to the mix, and playing with random people doesn't provide quite the same level of satisfaction or engagement as playing with friends. After four hours, I was satisfied with my experience and content to be finished. But if you like L4D and are looking for something similar (but new and different), or if you like online co-op shooters in general, then Payday is a sure recommendation. There's a whole lot of game here to enjoy, its premise is fairly original (and well-executed) for a video game, and its $20 price tag is especially appealing. 

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