This is everything fun about PAYDAY: The Heist amped up to eleven.  While the initial release was troubled by some questionable design decisions and bugs, PAYDAY 2 has been updated since to resolve most of these issues and is easily the most enjoyable cooperative shooter I have played.  PAYDAY 2 comes with the strongest of recommendations if you like cooperative games, but you might want to give a little more careful consideration if playing solo given the lack of balancing of missions towards single-player.
Date published: Jul 30, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: This review is pending a rewrite after game patches that significantly changed the game.

PAYDAY 2 is a 4-person cooperative first-person shooter developed by OVERKILL, a Starbreeze Studios outfit, and published by 505 Games.  With the success of the original PAYDAY (review of that forthcoming at some point as well) there were a lot of expectations as to what PAYDAY 2 should be, and what players want out of it, so the question immediately to mind is: does it deliver?  For the most part - yes, it does.  It makes improvements in both graphics and mechanics, but it also falters in some areas - particularly, to some fans chagrin, in the changes it's made to the formula.  I have to admit that I kept away from PAYDAY 2 for a good while because at release it wasn't ready  - features weren't complete, some of the heists were bugged, and the progression was a huge grind - and while there's still things that can be improved, a year later, this game is everything PAYDAY 2 set out to be and more.

The interface is highly stylised - Information is presented throughout the game, before during, and after combat, in a series of elements that are lush with that theme that pervades the game and they deliver all of the relevant information - save a couple of exceptions.  It works pretty well and is  effective both as a thematic element and to convey the information.

The presentation and visual style of PAYDAY 2
are second to none

One of the things that stood out to me almost immediately is that PAYDAY 2 continues and embellishes it's predecessors great visual style into something all the more brilliant, polished to an almost mirror-shine.  PAYDAY 2 manages this without sacrificing the readability or usability of the interface as well, one of the most common pitfalls of games that go heavy on highly-stylised UIs, such as for example Borderlands, which looked great in the UI but lacked many common quality of life things such as direct item comparison.

There are a few screens to consider when we look at the interface: we have the interface to purchase and modify items, the interface to select new skills, the interface to select and plan the missions, and then the in-mission, essentially in-game interface.

A variety of weapons and mods for each
are available in the game

Customising weapons and masks is done in the preamble screens in a section for buying items.  Modification of existing items and purchase of new ones as well as the purchase and customisation of masks are all handled in a bundle of screens here.  Weapons are broken down between primary, secondary, and a melee weapon, and then the masks as an additional item.  You can also have an additional item based on and unlocked by your skills in a mission, you cannot purchase upgrades for them so they do not appear here.  It makes things pretty simple with a comparison system that makes it easy to see not only if a weapon is better than another, but also what the base stats are for the weapon as well as what modifiers are in play, so you can also easily compare the base stats when buying a new weapon, which shows an attention to detail in that which we do not often see in games.  Along with this, you can preview what your item looks like with the given choices (provided you have money for them to begin with) - so if you're going for a particular look, or want to know what different sights look like before you buy, you can.  There's a great variety of mods available for most weapons, though several weapon types such as sniper rifles and most of the melee weapons in the game have been relegated to DLC.

The skill progression is deep and varied

The skills menu is much the same, broken down into the four trees of skills: mastermind (a sort of leadership / medic tree), enforcer (bang bang shoot shoot), technician (tools and devices), and ghost (stealth and theft skills).  Each of the skills has a normal level and an "Aced" level, requiring one and three skill points respectively (although this increases once you get near the top tier), with the Aced level usually paying back the much increased abilities in that skill as a result.  For example there is one skill that reduces fall damage when taken normally, but when Aced makes it so falls will never damage your health, only your armour, provided they are not from a lethal height.  Each of these skill trees is broken down into tiers which require a certain amount of points spent in previous tiers before they unlock.  This is clearly communicated in the interface, along with what each skill does in both Aced and normal levels and the skills can be picked and chosen as one pleases.  The progression is therefore something that easily shapes itself to one's given play style, since you can choose the skills that support the play style you like.

Most - but not all - missions can be completed using stealth, relying on your team to control civilians so they don't trip alarms or call police, but most of them can also be completed weapons hot, blazing your way through leaving a pile of police corpses.  They both offer their own problems - with steal, it is very difficult to completely avoid detection, civilians will almost assuredly try to escape or call the cops the moment, while the problem of guns blazing is pretty obvious: the police will respond in force, and this is often in force - large numbers of heavily armoured and heavily armed policemen will come to the scene at a rapid and pretty constant clip, especially on the more difficult levels. Enemy variety is pretty good, with a handful of different models for each of the basic troops, and then a handful of special enemies, including snipers, police with tazers, and 'bulldozer' police troopers in bomb-squad style full suits and shotguns. The models are kept uniform on the special enemies so that they are easily-recognizable and that's a good idea indeed.  The fact that you can approach each mission from a variety of angles, and mix and match your skills, does a lot to ensure you can play PAYDAY 2 just how you want, and it does a great job in that light of adapting to your play style.

Planning the heist is just as important as the action on the ground - Managing loadouts between the players going in to ensure that you have everything you need, selecting assets which are valuable to your given plan of attack, and understanding the plan of attack are just as important as milling about smartly on the field. Not only do you have that aspect of pre-planning before you hit the ground, but you also usually have a “casing mode” whereby if you are careful not to let people look too closely at all those firearms and clips underneath that wonderful tailored suit of yours, you can scout the location to see what exactly you are dealing with.  Since the game includes a sort of semi-random procedural generation with varying setups of security cameras, different sizes of civilian crowds, and different positions and equipments on the guards, and varying locations on the objectives such as the vault you’re hitting. The members of the PAYDAY gang need to be careful to succeed in their heists, and that is integrated well by and communicated well in the game mechanics.

The problem with shooting it out is that many of the enemies are very bullet-spongey

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining that armoured enemies can take a few hits, that would be quite a silly complaint indeed. The problem I had was the fact that sometimes I was unloading more than a full clip into an enemy - seeing the red 'X' hit confirmations all the while, and they'd still be standing, even when some of those bullets hit vulnerable locations. It's not really game-breaking, but it does make the firefights much more frustrating than they have to be. No doubt to a certain degree this is intentional - but with stealth already rewarded with a percentage XP reward bonus at the end of the mission, I feel they could have thrown the people who prefer a firefight a bone. Oddly, the special enemies actually seem a little more vulnerable than the normal troopers (with the exception of the bulldozer, of course), so perhaps the regular enemies' armour could be toned down a bit with increases to the special enemies.

<p><b>Better get used to seeing this prompt</b></p>	The drills are one of the mechanics the game uses to keep your attention on the objective, essentially - as they constant break down with a rate that's become almost memetic in the community, requiring a player to go and restart them in the middle of the heist.  It's effective at keeping tension high in the heists but there's a reason their breakdown has become that meme - they do so perhaps a little too often.

Objectives are varied,
but the tools to reach them tend to be the same

You have a variety of different locations to go to - a nightclub, an art gallery, retail stores, and such, but it all breaks down to casing the location, identifying to location of valuables, and either stealing or destroying them.  There's a few different basic objectives: things in lockboxes which can be opened, sometimes requiring being picked, things in safes which you have to use a sort of portable drill setup to crack open or C4 to blow open, with a few varieties of safes that have different difficulties in their opening essentially equating to different drill time lengths (amount of C4 seems the same), or vaults, requiring a bulky 'thermal drill' which you have to pick up, transport to the vault, assemble, and keep running - though C4 is also an option here as well, but you will need a lot of it and it certainly isn't quiet.  Additional obstacles include doors - some of which can be picked, others of which can be opened with keycard, sawing straight through them, drilled, or blown open - windows which you can barricade to trip up the police and make it harder for snipers to sight you, and barricades which either need disabled at a security station, can be sawed open, or hacked open if you hack a terminal.  At its core, it boils down to 'long but quieter' and 'short but loud and sure to bring attention' - using the C4 or saw is sure to bring attention to you.

Most of these mechanics gel together pretty brilliantly, and the drill is always available as a sort of fall-back option, if a less desirable one.  Bypassing security doors by finding the person with the keycard and taking them hostage by essentially arresting them - or shooting them - is almost always preferable, but in a pinch a technician can also just blow a hole in the door, just expect that to make everybody around flip out.  Even if you intend  to go in weapons hot and shoot it out, you're penalised for shooting civilians with "cleaner costs" and furthermore the police will become more aggressive and more heavily armed if the civilians are seen at risk by you shooting them, so you're encouraged to keep them alive.  The police are also less likely to assault quickly if there's more civilians around, so keeping a lot of civilians under control gives you more time to operate and focus on the objective prior to the next police assault.  It works pretty well - you're never failed for shooting civs and sometimes its just much less risk to just cap someone right next to a panic alarm, but you do pay for it with penalties.

These mechanics, however, do a lot to
highlight how the game is NOT balanced for single-player

The game has an offline mode, essentially the game with bots, but the missions don't change - you still have to do all of this, and to add to the difficulty, you have to do it all by yourself.  I can understand the game not wanting the AI to go after the objective before things start going sideways since they could blow your cover, but there's no reason they couldn't try restarting the drill when it stops for the five hundredth time in as many seconds, tying civilians, or picking up loose items worth money.  The AI teammates you get - which strangely only give a team of three rather than the usual four - are actually fairly smart about firefighting from cover, moving as a unit, and covering each other, so it's unusual to see them not help out in other ways.  Given that they can't carry the objectives, a mission that's very easy in multiplayer because you have a team of four carrying four bags of money, one each, to the getaway vehicle, becomes much more difficult when you're alone, and you have to make four separate trips.  Additionally, some of the high-end special enemies really require your team to help you out of, such as the cloaker, a black-ops type FBI operative type who will pretty much instantly kill you if they get in melee range.,  The AI allies have a bad habit of rushing in to pick you back up - which they thankfully do attempt - only to get instakilled themselves.

That's just one example of a
bit of a quirky AI in general

I noticed quite a bit of quirkiness in the AI in general as I played.  It was good, for the most part, but it was kind of an uncanny valley effect - the fact that the AI was good made the ways it occasionally messed up all the more notable.  For example, there is one level that is a multi-level mall, with the sort of open-air higher levels with a view down and railing keeping one from falling, and the AI cops would often get injured, and then vault over the barrier to get down to the lower level - normally a jump they would be able to make, but because they were injured the fall damage would kill them, and their AI didn't seem to realise it.  And believe me, no shortage of shenanigans ensued when I figured that out!   Additionally while the AI allies you have if you are playing solo or with less than 4 on your team has a tendency to get drawn halfway across the map by trying to engage successively-further enemies.  They didn't seem to have any situational awareness to tell them to try to stay near the objective, but they do at least try to stay close to the player if they're nearby (this causes problems if you're trying to flank the enemies with riot shields however).

The way to unlock mods - the card system -
is pretty arbitrary

Probably the biggest problem I had with the game was that.  You unlock modifications (and can get other rewards such as masks, money, and the like) through choosing one of three cards which gives you a random extra at the end of each successful mission.  While the developers have responded to criticisms of the system - such as previously having to rely on this system to unlock silencers which essentially made stealth runs impossible until you got that random silencer drop - it still is a bit of a bugbear.  The idea of these kinds of systems is to provide the player with a bonus extra, but here it's part of the progression system, and the game suffers for it.

Another quibble is the fact that some heists involve multiple days and you do not get paid ANYTHING until the final day, meaning you can get to day three - mission three, essentially - have things go sideways, or realize you won't be able to complete that mission because you're just not set up for it - and there goes the other two missions of work.  There used to be a system where you got a "day rate" for each day that mitigated this, but it was removed in patches for some reason, and I don't really agree with it's removal.

This is everything fun about PAYDAY: The Heist amped up to eleven.  While the initial release was troubled by some questionable design decisions and bugs, PAYDAY 2 has been updated since to resolve most of these issues and is easily the most enjoyable cooperative shooter I have played.  PAYDAY 2 comes with the strongest of recommendations if you like cooperative games, but you might want to give a little more careful consideration if playing solo given the lack of balancing of missions towards single-player.