Not since Overwatch 2 have I seen a sequel as misguided as Payday 3. What could have been a slam dunk follow-up to Payday 2, one of the most popular co-op shooters in the last decade, is mired by its always-online requirement. Even though the servers have started to stabilize, Payday 3's emphasis on completing unique objectives reveals a deeper problem with how it has you find other players to group up with.
Payday 3 has eight heists and a list of challenges associated with them. Challenges replace Payday 2's simplistic, but consistent, XP rewards for leveling up and unlocking weapons and gear. Instead of playing Payday 3's heists on increasingly higher difficulties for more XP, you have to complete a list of unique challenges to level up at all. These tasks can include things like defeating 50 enemies with a specific weapon or finishing a mission without ever getting caught.
There are hundreds of challenges to complete and you can only track your progress outside of a mission in Payday 3's menus. Scrolling through every page is such a pain that someone just dumped all of them them into a document to save time. Many challenges only require you to finish a mission successfully, but there are several that demand you to do things like maintain stealth without killing anyone or complete a mission under a set time limit. While these are manageable with a group of friends, they're far less manageable with a group of random players.
No matter how clean or bountiful the heist, you won't get anything but money and weapon XP out of it if you don't complete a challenge. And if you don't raise your Infamy level, you'll be stuck using the same weapons and gear for every heist. You need to constantly queue up for missions to make meaningful progress on challenges—especially the ones that require hundreds of kills with a weapon—which leaves Payday 3's most important form of progression up to the whims of its matchmaking system.
Even now, six days after its release with cross-play enabled, players are still having trouble finding full groups. The matchmaking system finds players based on what mission and difficulty you choose, and without a quick play option, the queues are fragmented and unreliable. So if you're trying to finish a mission on overkill, the highest difficulty, you'll probably have trouble finding other people. Payday 3 has AI-controlled bots to fill the gap, but they're useless if you're trying to finish a mission on a high difficulty or in a certain way, and, in my experience, other players rarely come in and replace them mid-mission.
It's important in co-op games like Payday 3 to know what you're getting into. Even a game as popular as World of Warcraft uses a group finder system where players explain the dungeon they want to run and what kind of players they're looking for. Payday 2, which came out in 2013, uses a server browser dressed as a city map of heists. It isn't the cleanest solution to the problem, but it works well enough that people are begging for some version of it to be added to Payday 3. Payday 2's Crime.net is essentially a curated server browser where you can see in-progress heists to join or host. While it wouldn't help you pinpoint specific heists much better than Payday 3's current system, it would at least help set your expectations for how likely you'll find players for your desired mission or encourage you to chase after something else. As it is, Payday 3 obfuscates all of that information and leaves you crossing your fingers in the hopes that other people are queuing up too.
But even if you do find a full group, there's no guarantee they'll be in it for the same challenge as you, or that they'll be adequately geared for it. Stealth challenges reward a good chunk of Infamy, but it can be a struggle if you don't come prepared with silenced weapons and skills to help you slip past guards and cameras undetected. You could spend an hour crawling through a mission and have it go wrong at the last second. And you'll never know if people will be willing to stick around until you get it right.
Payday 3's always-online curse could get better soon, though. Its developer, Starbreeze, said it's "currently evaluating all options, both short- and long-term," to fix its matchmaking systems, including seeking out a new third-party partner for them and "making Payday 3 less dependent on online services."
I hope Starbreeze is able to pull it off because Payday 3's heists offer a ton of opportunities for creative teamwork and improvised solutions that would benefit from a method to group like-minded players together. I could even see Starbreeze borrow from Destiny 2 and send players to a specific mission every week for extra rewards. But a change to its matchmaking should come with a rebalancing of its challenge system so playing without a premade group isn't so prohibitive. Once it's able to solve that, Payday 3 could follow the same trajectory as Payday 2 and grow a dedicated community of players ready to suit up for years to come.