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Payday 3 review: co-op heist sequel plays it safe, but needs to be more daring long-term

Robbers shoot guns in Payday 3.
Payday 3
MSRP $40.00
“Payday 3 doesn't shake up its predecessor's formula much, but a strong batch of initial heists sets the live service shooter up for success.”
  • Varied heists at launch
  • Tons of skills
  • Strong customization
  • Fast-paced gunplay
  • Formula can feel stale
  • Matchmaking issues
  • AI is still a pain

Everything was going according to plan. After carefully casing a jewelry shop, my crew quietly infiltrated the building’s basement and began creeping through the hallways. I found a security code, one teammate shot out a few cameras, and another cracked a safe without triggering any alarms. It was the perfect crime … almost. One false move was all it took to alert a guard to our presence. As cops began to swarm, we smashed through glass cases and loaded as much jewelry as we could into a helicopter before making an improvised escape.

Planning is the easy part in Payday 3 — it’s the execution that can be a killer.

That’s a fact developer Starbreeze Studios learned all too well with its bank-robbing hit Payday 2. The multiplayer success story wasn’t without some reputation-threatening stumbles in its 10-year life, from microtransaction scandals to dropped console support. Its modern sequel, Payday 3, would give the Starbreeze a chance to show it could not only plot out a perfect live service release, but pull it off without a hitch.

Does Payday 3 accomplish that? We won’t actually know the full answer to that question for years, but the co-op shooter finds itself in a good position at launch. The series’ winning heist formula gets a boost here with an initial slate of varied missions, slick shooting, and tons of skills to toy around with. I can spot some holes in Starbreeze’s plans though, as familiar issues and a lack of new ideas could make it difficult for the studio to pull off the same exact job twice.

The heist of a lifetime

Payday 3 doesn’t stray too far from its predecessors and I can’t blame it. If I was making a sequel to a highly successful multiplayer game with a fervent community, I’d be tempted to play it safe too. It’s still a four-player co-op game in which a team of robbers works together to pull off multistep heists. Players sneak their way through intricately designed levels to complete objectives … and break out the guns when things inevitably go wrong. Those missions are linked together by some motion-comic vignettes, though the story is little more than a quick collection of genre clichés.

A dedicated player will be able to note several nuances, like faster movement speed and AI tweaks, but the most noticeable changes just ratchet up the bank robbing fantasy a notch. For instance, robbers can now take hostages and trade them to the cops to buy more time before a full assault kicks off. Those little tweaks both make the experience feel a little more cinematic and add a bit of tension between stealth and action phases. Strategic negotiation can result in a few key seconds of extra time to safely open a vault or assemble a drill.

Almost no two heists look or feel the same …

It’s immediately clear that the long-tailed support on Payday 2 has turned Starbreeze into heist design experts. At launch, Payday 3 comes with eight different scenarios featuring a lot of variety. In one mission, I’m breaking into a local bank, using thermite to burn my way into a vault and carefully deactivating ink traps on the cash inside. Another has my team pinned down on a bridge, moving a truck like an Overwatch payload before grabbing the cash within and escaping via helicopter.

Its most thrilling missions toss me into intricately designed levels that are deceptively complex. A night club caper has my teammates and I sneaking into staff areas until we discover a secret underground rave hiding a massive vault. One mission later, I’m in a two-story art gallery quietly opening exhibits with hidden QR codes and cutting expensive artworks out of their cases with care. Almost no two heists look or feel the same, which bodes well for future content updates.

Players run away in Payday 3
Starbreeze Studios

At times, Payday 3 almost feels like it’s taking cues from the recent Hitman games — a full trilogy that launched between Payday 2 and 3 — but it stops short of going full immersive sim. That’s understandable considering it’s a multiplayer shooter above all else, but I often find myself wishing Starbreeze shook up its formula just a bit more. While there are a few ways to tackle jobs, it rarely feels like there’s more than two ways to complete a heist. Some item locations and passcodes change, but the sequence of events feels stiff. Once I’ve successfully figured out how to pull one off without getting spotted, it feels like I’ve solved an escape room puzzle: What’s the fun in doing it again when I know the answers?

Perhaps my imagination is just a little too hyperactive (blame great heist flicks like Rififi for giving me too many ideas). I keep having moments where I wish I could barricade a bank’s front door or steal a teller’s clothing to sneak into a staff area. Can you blame me? I’ve had 10 years to dream up ways that the Payday series could heighten its bank robbing fantasy. Even with some new tools, the minor creative jumps leaves me yearning for a Plan C.

Building a robber

What missions lack in replay value is made up for in deep progression hooks. Everything I do in Payday 3 offers me several rewards that keep me playing. There’s a level-up system that gradually unlocks more customization options, a wild number of in-game achievements to complete, and a mountain of skills to unlock through “research.” Each time I complete a mission, I usually have at least one new toy to play around with.

I get to feel my playstyle evolve with each mission.

Of those progression hooks, skills are the most impactful. Payday 3 features a totally reworked ability system in which players can really create a specialized build. If I want to play the role of a medic, I can stock up on buffs that will let me revive teammates faster, drop health kits with extra charges, gain extra speed when my teammates are down, and more. Others can really change the game. An Engineer skill line gives me a turret that I can deploy to help fend off waves of cops. With a steady unlock system, I get to feel my playstyle evolve with each mission.

Weapon customization further reinforces that like security bars over a jewelry case. Each weapon can be leveled up and then outfitted with several mods at once, allowing players to completely change a base weapon. With a little tinkering, my simple starting pistol became a silenced handgun with a handy laser sight. That system pairs well with Payday 3’s revamped gunplay, which is as quick and snappy as I expect from a modern shooter. With so much flexibility in my loadout, I’m able to go back to the lab after a job goes south and create a more reliable weapon to take on dense waves of cops.

Men with masks hold guns in Payday 3.
Deep Silver

And, of course, my fashion choices change too. The real joy comes from dressing up my robber in new threads and repainting my guns. There are already a lot of ways to add some personality to the cast of selectable characters, which is crucial for a game that’s meant to be played and supported for a long time. Details like that give me the drive I need to not only replay missions over and over, but also make risky moves so I can extract as much money as possible. These suits aren’t going to buy themselves.

If you lived through Payday 2’s most controversial moments, you’ll probably be scared to hear that Payday 3 will feature microtransactions. Those are planned for post-launch, so we’ve yet to see how they’ll be implemented. Starbreeze assures fans that premium currency will only be used for cosmetic items, which shouldn’t be too worrying considering how many free items are already in the game. It’s the one area where I feel like the studio went back to the drawing board to create a more foolproof plan after some of Payday 2’s most infamous snafus. Removing any sort of pay-to-win advantage seems like the right play, but we’ll have to wait and see if Starbreeze double-crosses its community again.

What’s next?

The problem with critiquing any live service game like Payday 3 is that a lot of it comes down to faith. Is the game’s foundation strong enough at launch? Does it feel like the studio is in a good position to deliver on its long-term ambitions? At the moment, the answer to both of those is a tentative yes, but it’s difficult to say anything conclusively so early. What I know for sure is that I haven’t experienced any significant bugs and the bank-robbing fundamentals seem strong.

The day one content offering may seem slim at a passing glance, and it is, but there’s good reason to feel confident. Payday 2 delivered a wealth of new heists after its launch, and it’s hard to imagine Starbreeze failing to pull off the same trick twice here. Considering that the eight heists included at launch are all high-quality, the future seems bright on paper. I don’t get the sense this is a Halo Infinite situation where DLC plans will get booted a year down the line in favor of crucial balance fixes.

Matchmaking is already proving to be a frustrating process …

Even so, there are some shaky decisions that give me pause. Matchmaking is already proving to be a frustrating process, as I have a hard time getting matched with a full squad at present. That seems to be due to the fact that there’s no randomized playlist that everyone can jump into. Instead, I choose one of eight missions and then a difficulty setting. At present, it seems like that decision may be spreading the player base out too thin. It’s something I imagine will change, but it’s a pain point for its crucial launch window.

That wouldn’t be much of a problem if Payday 3 was viable as a single-player experience with capable bots as teammates, but that’s not the case. While AI has been improved all around in the sequel, it’s still lacking by modern standards. Whenever I’m saddled with computer-controlled teammates, they just tend to idle around uselessly. I can direct them a bit, but I’m usually left doing most of the work in missions balanced for four real players.

A robber shoots at cops in Payday 3.
Deep Silver

Enemy AI doesn’t fare much better. Longtime Payday fans will notice significant changes in NPC behavior, but newcomers will still feel like they’re playing a 10-year old game. I’ll often mow down some SWAT goons only to find another one staring off into the distance, blissfully unaware of the commotion happening right next to him. It’s not a deal breaker, but it does interrupt the “heist movie” fantasy with something cold and mechanical.

Like a good Danny Ocean plan, Payday 3’s success will hinge on execution. Dedicated fans will find any blind spots quickly and raise the alarm bells. Starbreeze has a strong foundation on its hands thanks to faster gameplay and a strong suite of initial heists, but every little detail will count from here on out. Anyone who’s seen a heist movie knows that even the best-laid plans never go off without a hitch; a real mastermind needs to be able to adapt on the fly when things go south.

Payday 3 was tested on an Xbox Series X hooked up to a TCL 6-Series R635.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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