Heists figure into some of the most legendary plots in movie history, and now with Payday: The Heist, this cinematic trope becomes an interesting shooter concept. Overkill Software has done a great job with this innovative idea, which throws up to four players into robberies modeled along the lines of those depicted in flicks like Ocean's Eleven and Heat. The PC/PlayStation 3 game is geared for multiplayer, although the artificial intelligence is good enough that you can play solo without missing out on too much of the crazed intensity offered up by robbing banks and shooting it out with the cops who invariably want to stop you from making off with any ill-gotten gains.
Payday looks, sounds, and plays much like a standard first-person shooter, although the goals are different. Here, instead of killing all comers, you and three comrades pull off a heist while dressed in suits and freak-show masks. You pick from the assault, sharpshooter, and support classes and then head into the fray with the objective of stealing valuables that will put your gang on easy street for life. Experience points are earned in each scenario, which lead to leveling up and unlocking extra equipment. Six maps are featured with locales ranging from a typical urban bank and a diamond repository to a slaughterhouse and a downtown street where a shooting spree ensues after your getaway driver leaves you behind. Everything is strongly objective focused. An ally gives you orders over a headset and pushes you from one goal to another. So you are always looking for a bank manager with a key card, wiping data from a security system, placing explosives, rigging up drills to get into bank vaults, setting up saws to cut into a panic room loaded with drug-dealer cash, and so forth.
Mechanics are well handled. While the core notion of the game is gritty and at least vaguely realistic, the combat is loose enough that you can sustain a lot of damage and go full Rambo. Assault waves of hundreds of cops swarm you on a regular basis that provide lots of targets and really ratchet up the tension, thanks to your remote boss counting down the seconds until they start rushing at you. If you get on a roll, though, you can kill dozens of officers before they turn you into John Dillinger. Still, you're prevented from getting too kill-happy by restrictions on available ammo and the predominance of somewhat wimpy weapons like a silenced pistol and an automatic rifle. Health plays a big part in this because quick regeneration allows you to absorb a ton of punishment. A buddy can also help you to your feet when you're knocked down. It takes a lot to kill you, but you have to know your limitations. If you get caught in the open or exposed to cross fire when cops flank you, you will likely die.
Maps are exquisitely designed. Although there are just six included, they are so dynamic and loaded with routes to objectives that they rarely play out the same way twice. Every mission is captivating, mixing up enough stealth, bloody carnage, and sheer nail-biting tension to fill a dozen heist movies. One moment, you're being betrayed by a buddy; the next, you're raiding a meth lab loaded with cash; and the next, you're racing down the streets of a metropolis leaving corpses strewn in your wake. Cops also get bigger and tougher as levels play out. They start off as rather nondescript boys in blue, but they soon morph into more challenging foes with tasers and shields. FBI agents eventually get into the act, as do heavily armored coppers called "bulldozers." As a result, their assault waves get progressively harder to withstand.
Perhaps best of all, Payday is enjoyable both in multiplayer and as a solo game with three bot allies. The best way to play the game is by going online to round up a trio of human gangsters, but the reasonably good AI makes the game more than playable in single-player. You have to knock the difficulty down to easy whenever possible to offset a lack of serious teamwork because the bots trail you around watching your back, but this doesn't kill too much of the fun. Your pals are smart enough to stay with you, provide covering fire, and even appear on the spot with a hand up whenever you get shot if you're in danger of dying. Still, multiplayer is the way to go if at all possible. Working as part of a real team is by far the best way to tackle some of the assignments, particularly the grueling slaughterhouse and diamond heist, which can only be played on the hard difficulty setting.
Some aspects of Payday are awfully stylish. The musical soundtrack has been dressed up with audio tinsel in the form of techno tunes that accelerate every time bullets begin to fly. These tunes pump your already soaring heartbeat through the roof whenever cop assault waves kick into high gear. Levels have a real lived-in look, from the run-down building that houses the meth lab to busy downtown streets. Masks worn by the robbers are spectacularly creepy, with sinister clown smiles. Like the Joker's gang from the opening scenes of The Dark Knight, they're disturbingly unforgettable. There are some minor graphical issues with each of the game's platforms, though. The visuals appear to have been designed for the PS3 and then ported to the PC untouched. This makes the PC version look dated with flat textures, robotic animations, and rough-looking effects, like the smoke grenades that cops launch during assaults. The PS3 version has its own visual blemishes, however. Even the biggest high-def TV is unclear enough that you can easily lose sight of cops in the distance of some levels. The prisoner break-out map, for instance, is annoying on the PS3 because it is really tough to spot the law amidst all of the stopped cars on the bridge.
Payday: The Heist hits the spot. It's a fun shooter that works both solo and in multiplayer, packing an incredible amount of excitement and tension into what is really a simple concept. You might go into this $20 downloadable game not expecting that much but emerge on the other side of a few heists considering a less-than-legal career change.