I remember when Payday 3 was initially announced in 2016. Although I was already two years into playing Payday 2, I was excited for the sequel. A new iteration that hopefully wasn’t bogged down by baffling design choices and janky interactions sounded like a dream. I had no idea that I would be putting in nearly another 200 hours over the next seven years as I waited for the next entry.
As much as it pains me to say it, Payday 3 isn’t quite the sequel I was hoping for. Thrilling gameplay that I could easily see myself devoting hundreds of hours to is wrapped in layers of technical issues, deja vu-inducing design choices, and a general feeling that things were far better before.
Payday 3 Review: It Needs a Medic Bag
Looking at the package as a whole, the premise is the same. You and a group of three others (players or partially filled lobbies with AI bots) take part in unique heists. They can mostly be completed in “stealth” without alerting anyone, or in “loud” amidst waves of police and special forces. A simple mistake in the former can also lead to a hectic scramble and preparation for the latter.
All eight of the heists at launch are loosely tied together by a story that sees the Payday Gang being pulled out of retirement. This story is mostly told through still-art cutscenes that take place before and after a heist.
It’s an incredibly barebones and basic plot. You shouldn’t expect any developments during the heists themselves either, as the important bits are mostly constrained to the cutscenes. I’d love to see it expanded upon with DLC (it’s been confirmed more is coming), but most players are here for the gameplay. Thankfully, that aspect is phenomenal.
A returning series staple to keep things fresh is the game’s various RNG aspects. Although the steps for quietly breaking into a specific bank vault are the same, things such as item or NPC locations can change while codes or switches can be randomized. It provides a lot of replay value to the available heists.
Plenty of new interactions such as human shields, takedowns, and hostage trading for resources have been added. A majority of new interactions are represented through smartphones, as most tools are activated through one. It’s possible to copy QR codes from civilian phones or hack one belonging to an important target to gain access to other systems.
All of these mechanics are held up by tight gameplay. Each of the weapons is fun and responsive to use. Movement is also fun no matter if you’re sneaking past guards or sliding from cover to cover during a shootout. Even when things go south due to one mistake, I’ve been enjoying myself no matter what.
While I’m still on the subject of that fun change as the heist goes loud, I’m happy to say that the soundtrack is great. The music of Payday 2 is beloved and it’s successor does a decent job at carrying the torch. I’ll admit I still prefer the tracks from the former, but I like all the tracks here and respect them for putting their own spin on it.
An underlying gameplay improvement that I want to point out is how much better your time is respected during each heist. While it’s still possible to spend upwards of an hour trying to perfectly stealth a heist, you’ll spend a lot less time dealing with long interactions or simply guarding something for a few minutes. Some objectives require you to stay within an enclosed area, but I still found those more engaging than guarding most drills in the previous entry.
The AI is also much improved this time around. Even on Hard and Very Hard difficulties, the enemies can be quite formidable and work well together. Something I really appreciated and initially noticed when I played through the closed beta was how much more effective the crew AI is. While they’re not bullet sponges anymore, they’re far more helpful by marking things for you during stealth as well as dropping ammo or health in-between assault waves.
An overhauled skill tree system also allows for a lot of variety. Fans will recognize it as a simplified mix of the Skill Tree and Perk Deck system from Payday 2. I found it comparable to those mechanics without feeling as overwhelming. Metas are bound to form, but there’s more than enough leeway to craft your own personal build.
Regrettably, most of the issues in Payday 3 come forth the further you get from the moment-to-moment gameplay. A minor example of this is the return of visual customization. It starts off looking on par if not more advanced than the previous title. You can customize your masks and guns with unique designs. A variety of different suits and gloves can also be interchanged.
The issue is that your options are quite limited. There are only five suits and seven gloves to choose from, each with four to five palette swaps. I’m fine with the gloves, but it’s disappointing to not have many different options for suits.
It’s especially disheartening to see mask materials and whacky color options missing in favor of different shades and chrome versions of the same colors. I might have made many unique masks before, but I can’t see myself doing the same in this new entry. Even new players will notice a lot of masks looking the same when there are only 14 different patterns to customize with.
It’s indicative of an obvious tenet weaved throughout this sequel: streamlining the experience. I certainly don’t blame the development team for taking this approach. What came before was a hodge-podge of systems and mechanics. Every sequel has the goal of bringing in new players and with a forced resolve to keep the game up to date for consoles, it makes sense to bring things back to basics.
Unfortunately, the end product doesn’t feel like a different experience more so than a lesser experience for fans. The UI looks a lot cleaner, but at the cost of any charm and personality. Functionality is missing in some cases, too, such as when it comes to weapon stats being shown as bars instead of precise numbers.
One of the worst streamlined changes is the browser-like Crime.Net system being replaced by a generic mission select. Instead of one screen where you can filter out what heists are up and running, you just have to select a heist and difficulty in hopes you get something.
Crossplay does theoretically make it more likely to find a game due to the bigger player pool, but this system seems ill-fitted for the future as more heists and potential difficulties are added. The current issues I’ve had just finding a full lobby admittedly don’t give me much hope.
This coupled with the absence of a pre-planning screen or even simple text chat makes it very difficult to find a group of randoms to run heists in specific ways. Favors are also clumsily implemented this time. Not only do you have to buy some separately in the main menu, but heist-specific ones are randomly unlocked. Everything leading up to the main gameplay simply feels lacking.
Another change for the worse is in progression. The only way to grind infamy levels and unlock more weapons, customization options, and skill points, is to complete challenges. Simply completing a heist or leaving with more bags of loot doesn’t provide you with more XP.
The issues with this become apparent pretty quickly. A majority of the challenges are weapon-related, such as getting a certain number of kills. If you don’t switch up your weapons or actively aim to grind towards objectives, it’s possible to leave a heist with little to no XP at all. It’s a terrible thing to see and almost seems to discourage playing stealthy.
All of these issues pale to the fact that this is an online-only game. Even if you just want to play by yourself with bots, you have to create an invite-only lobby and for some reason wait a minimum of around 45 seconds as it searches for a match. Only after all of that will it put you in a lobby and allow you to play the equivalent of single-player.
This also means, as you’ve probably guessed or heard, that you can’t play at all if there are any server issues. There have been a ton since launch, and it’s unfortunate that it can impact even those who want to play solo.
Payday 3 Review: The Bottom Line
- Engaging gameplay
- Wonderful music tracks
- Smarter AI
- Being online-only is awful
- Annoying server/technical issues
- Challenge-based player progression is not fun or rewarding
- Lacking when compared to Payday 2
The moment-to-moment gameplay in Payday 3 is a vast improvement to its decade-old predecessor, providing addicting gameplay. The overdone streamlining in all other areas makes for a weaker experience though. Even if we should expect changes and new things, it’s hard not to scratch your head at some decisions here.
Could it be improved over time with updates? Absolutely. The previous game has a long history of improving implementations and walking back on changes. As a fan of the series, this regrettably feels par for the course. However, a new entry should have a strong start and not be equal parts fun and frustrating. It could be fantastic in a year if not less, but right now it’s just squandered potential.
[Note: Deep Silver provided the PC copy of Payday 3 used for this review.]
Payday 3 Review: Needs a Medic Bag
Fun gameplay doesn’t change the fact that Payday 3 is in a pickle.What Our Ratings Mean