What is it? A co-op FPS with elaborate heists to take on.
Release date September 21, 2023
Expect to pay $40
Developer Starbreeze Studios
Publisher Deep Silver
Reviewed on RTX 3080 Ti, i9 12900K, 32GB RAM
Steam Deck Unsupported
Link Official site
Every time I learn something new about Payday 2, I get disappointed in Payday 3. For the last 10 years, Payday 2 has quietly been one of the most consistently popular co-op shooters on Steam. It's ostensibly a serious FPS heist game where you infiltrate buildings and escape with valuable loot, but over the years Starbreeze has stuffed its canon with ridiculous crossovers, including material from Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike, Scarface, and John Wick. It's effectively an R-rated Fortnite that celebrates the absurdity of heist films where a small team of criminals pull off the biggest and most ridiculous crimes in history.
Payday 3 dials everything back down to zero and could easily be mistaken for a reboot. Most of the original crew return from the previous games, but seem to have forgotten where Payday 2 left off. Payday 3's eight-mission storyline is so serious and straightforward that it was hard to believe I was playing the sequel to a game where a character swaps bodies with the President of the United States after breaking into an ancient bunker beneath the White House.
While playing Payday 3, I was retroactively sold on Payday 2 and disappointed by the sequel's reluctance to embrace its predecessor's absurdity. But Payday 2 launched a decade ago as a very different thing than it eventually became, and Payday 3 could be on the same track. Despite its flattened tone, in big firefights it's still one of the slickest co-op shooters I've played.
Payday 3's biggest issue is exemplified in its fourth mission, Rock the Cradle, which is the only mission where stealth is basically mandatory to bring home a worthwhile pile of cash. Three random players and I spent an hour and a half trying and retrying to swipe a USB drive full of cryptocurrency out from under a nightclub of rich New Yorkers undetected. Our team squeezed through neon crowds looking for a way into the VIP areas without catching the eyes of the security guards or cameras. On the radio, our handler gave us two options: forge a ticket to get into the VIP section or distract the bouncer guarding the main entrance.
Payday 3's objectives are straightforward but the steps to achieve them take time to discover as you explore a level. They're slightly randomized, too, so you need to spend a while casing the place to start. It was my first time on the mission, so I followed my team's lead and dashed from room to room to try and keep up, but didn't realize someone had left a door open for a guard to see me crouch-walking around. The alert meter filled up and I panicked.
Guards in Payday 3 won't shoot you on sight for trespassing, but they'll cuff you and escort you out. That is, unless you panic and start running, hoping they'll lose track of you. I had completely missed the yellow circle you're supposed to stay within to calmly handle the situation and instead alerted every cop in the building. As soon as you go loud in this mission, it's barely worth continuing, but the other players were fine with giving it another shot. It was one of the few times my teammates actually used the text chat to give tips on how to avoid getting caught. Most of the people I was grouped up with in Payday 3 were nice, but without a voice chat feature, I wouldn't expect a lot of detailed communication in-game.
One mistake in this mission means you miss out on loads of money and a handful of challenges that I soon learned were crucial to unlocking powerful equipment for tackling Payday 3's later missions on harder difficulties—the sort of challenges that are the meat of any Payday game. Since I was the greenhorn and most likely to screw up 20 minutes of progress by stumbling into a security camera or lockpicking a door in front of a guard, I spent the first half of the mission pacing the dance floor while my team secured the crypto USB.
Payday 3 heists typically go like this early on, especially if you're new. Teammates can ping cameras and guards for you and can bring skills to help bail you out if things go wrong, but you're kind of on your own until someone finds a lead or breaks stealth. But Payday 3 doesn't make it clear early on just how important stealth is. Despite having loads of weaponry and skills to handle waves of enemies, stealth runs are the best way to unlock the most exciting toys—even the ones that have nothing to do with stealth in the first place.
While stealth can be a satisfying way to play the game, Payday 3 incentivizes it too heavily as the most efficient way to progress. Stealth challenges are so rewarding when it comes to quickly unlocking equipment that Payday actively encourages ignoring the depth available in its firefights.
I've robbed the bank in the first mission enough to know where all the common hotspots for firefights and supply drops are, for example. I've memorized its entire two-story layout, which windows I can break to escape quickly, and what elevator the SWAT teams spew out of. All of this knowledge lets me calmly navigate the building when the alarms are inevitably raised without firing a shot. But Payday 3 thrives in the chaos.
Once you've broken stealth, enemies pour in from every angle and you often don't know where your escape will be, so it's common for everyone to move bags of money from cover to cover until your ticket out arrives. The longer you take, the more enemies the game throws at you, escalating to a relentless assault that is nearly insurmountable. Before that happens you can use tools like a sentry turret to cover hallways and skills that let you knock enemies back to clear a path forward. Everyone has to balance covering each other with splitting up to quickly finish any remaining objectives. Payday 3 isn't about mowing down waves of enemies, it's about doing what you can to get everyone out safely, which creates loads of opportunities for unspoken cooperation.
The stealth-focused nightclub mission on its own would be neat as some variety within the usual mission structure, but Payday 3 treats this approach as the optimal solution across the board. Missions like 99 Boxes—which is briefed by Ice-T basically playing his character from Law & Order: SVU—cranks the difficulty up by setting the heist in a maze of shipping containers. It's a mess as a stealth mission with random players because at any point someone could run face-first into a guard. But it might be one of my favorite missions when it explodes into a frantic race to grab as much cash as you can before the frozen device you were sent in to steal melts.
I survived a random player alerting the guards in the first five minutes of a mission set in a gigantic art gallery with the one other teammate who didn't immediately leave the game. It was the best example of how fluid Payday 3 feels when the pressure is on. It's nearly effortless to clamber over railings and duck out of gunfire while you reload or use a health pack. And if someone is being overwhelmed, you can slide in from another angle and split their attention.
The weapons you bring to a mission dictate how you'll manage–and not necessarily kill—each wave of enemies. Shotguns stagger multiple cops in cramped spaces, and I found having a marksman rifle to quickly pick off the most dangerous foes in a crowd particularly useful on the bigger maps. In the art gallery, I only had to break my sprint for a few seconds to drill through an enemy with my SMG while my partner cleaned up behind me with their assault rifle. We took turns escorting each other on our way to the rooftops to toss cash into our escape helicopter and it was one of the most triumphant wins I had in Payday 3.
In contrast with Payday 3's open-ended and creative firefights, stealth runs rely far too much on experience with the level and special gear, some of which takes hours to unlock. Given the precarity of maintaining stealth with random people, most of the skills that help you stay quiet aren't particularly valuable unless you're playing in an organized group. But you'll hit a wall with Payday 3's progression when you're playing alone: it locks weapons and tools, like the sentry turret, to completing each mission's hardest challenges, namely the stealth ones. Despite having all the sniper rifle skills unlocked, I can't buy one until I've raised my Infamy level, so I've been stuck with the same five guns for hours. And without a way to discuss anything with your teammates before the match begins, it's a gamble on whether or not anyone will even want to do a stealth run. It's a shame, because Payday 3's weapons serve a real tactical purpose that shouldn't be locked behind such a long grind.
To truly experience Payday 3's depth, you need all the tools at your disposal and teammates who are willing to retry missions until you've mastered them, which severely limits what you can do in a group of random players. The emphasis on stealth as the ultimate approach for every mission in Payday 3 does a disservice to the thrill of having things go wrong and fighting your way out. When everyone has to sneak around and fend for themselves, the game loses much of its charm.
Payday 3 desperately needs a rework to its challenges to reward you in ways that don't require extreme coordination, and to embrace its strengths as a co-op shooter when the cops start pouring in. It also might need some help with matching players in the first place, which turned out to be trickier than I thought it would be given Payday 3's always-online nature.
In my experience during Payday 3's early access phase before its full release, the matchmaking system would regularly find players. But since its full release, the matchmaking servers have been a mess. Payday 3 is always online and forces you to enter a queue even if you plan on playing solo or with friends, so any instability in the servers means you simply can't play the game. The matchmaking issues should smooth out with time, but any server issues down the line will severely hinder your progress toward unlocking the most powerful gear. Starbreeze has also said it's considering removing the always-online requirement in the future.
Payday 3's best moments are when mistakes happen and, instead of giving you a game over, the game shifts into a different mode. That transition emulates the ramping tension of a heist movie and lets everyone play a role no matter what gear they bring to the mission. Payday 3's heavy incentive to prioritize stealth undercuts how satisfying it can be to improvise your solutions on the fly.
Stealth can be fun, too, but the balance isn't right in Payday 3. It's close, though, so I'm hopeful that revisions to its progression system and new heists—it only has eight compared to Payday 2's 78—will make it shine in the future. Right now, Payday 3 is a lot like me pacing the dance floor of that nightclub while my teammates did the actual heisting. It'll take some time until it's fully prepared for the job.