This has got to be the year of the heist video game. See Monaco. See the new Sly Cooper. See the Big New Focus of Grand Theft Auto V. See the fascinating, upcoming Payday 2. Yes, fascinating.
I saw Payday 2 nearly a month ago, back at E3.
It probably shouldn't have taken me a month to tell you about it. In fact, just yesterday, I re-listened to the audio recording of the game's lead designer, David Goldfarb, talking me through a co-op heist (that I botched!) and I was reminded how interesting the game is.
So, why the delay?
There have been lots of games to write about. And I'm not a multiplayer-centric gamer. And... oh, look, these games used to not hook me at all. I didn't play the first Payday. I told Goldfarb that last month.
"It's alright, I didn't either," he deadpanned. He hadn't been involved in the first one. He'd still been at DICE, making Battlefield 3. He started playing after he got the gig to make the new one at Overkill Software.
"It's very, very different," he said of the sequel. "So different that it could be called Payday 3."
Like the previous Payday, Payday 2 is a co-op game about robbing places. You and your fellow players are criminals. It's a first-person shooter, but it's also more of a role-playing game. It's not remotely like a dialogue-tree kind of role-playing game, but it's very much a loot and stats game with deep character customisation and some of the fierceness and mystery of everyone's favourite game design touchstone these days, the challenging, opaque action-RPG Dark Souls.
"It's basically the Dark Souls of heist games," Goldfarb had told me. Come again?
"For me, it was really important that we make choice matter, that we don't explain everything and that we allow people to feel smart," he said.
We were talking about a bank robbery game?
"Diablo II and Dark Souls are hugely important to me as influences," he said, briefly losing me. "I really hate when you can get everything. It cheapens the experience, to me. So you can't in our game. It's not possible. You have to make choices about how you develop your character. You have to make choices about how you modify your weapons, and those things are permanent in the majority of cases. Even customisation is permanent, so it's more like WoW where you apply a dye and a dye is forever."
I wasn't quite getting the RPG/DarkSouls stuff, but then Goldfarb started getting specific.
Goldfarb: "For me, it was really important that we make choice matter, that we don't explain everything and that we allow people to feel smart."
There's no big story in Payday 2. Instead, there's a system called Crimenet that semi-randomly delivers missions to players. "It's almost doing loot drops for missions," Goldfarb said. "There are rare missions. They are gated by your player level." Mission difficulty ranges from being one to 10 stars, the latter bringing in shock troops and ace cops to make bank robbery nearly impossible. Payouts for heists vary. There can be multi-day jobs that transition from map to map.
Missions are basically short crime caper stories. A mission might involve needing to "do a cartel hit ...and it goes horribly wrong," Goldfarb said. These missions can change on the fly. "If you fuck up bad enough [on a mission]," Goldfarb said, "We can trigger an escape which is a whole set of different maps. Instead of going to the docks you could end up in a park, bleeding out, surrounded by cops and having to move the bag to another van."
The heist I played at E3 was simple. It was a one-star, one-day mission. We had to rob a bank. I didn't understand the rules of the game well, so I sauntered in, got spotted by a guard, triggered the alarm and, of course, hell broke loose. Customers hit the floor. Cops surrounded the bank. One of my crew brought a thermal drill into the bank and slowly, surely got it to bore a hole in a vault door. We filled some bags of money and, under a storm of bullets, rushed to the van.
I got spotted because I was wearing a big heavy vest, carrying a gun and walked in front of a guard. I could have — should have — sneakily cased the joint and avoided the security cameras. Actually, we could have bought blueprints to the bank before the mission even started and spotted all the security cameras that way.
If I'd been specced as a "Ghost" character, I probably could have snuck into the security room, knocked the guard out and disabled the camera.
"If you had guys who were good at room control, you could get all the civilians down," Goldfarb said. "You can keep them on the ground, make sure nobody escapes and then drill the vault. Then you're playing kind of a waiting game like, 'Alright, how long can we do this before this goes wrong?' But it's very, very hard."
We could have played non-lethally.
We could have also tossed the money bags to each other. If we were strong, we could have moved the money faster, tossing them from guy to guy. But the cops... they're crooked. They might have stolen the money from us!
If we had a guy spec’d with the right skill, we might have been able to talk enemy cops onto our side. Or I could have been spec’d for speed or for muscle.
When you grab a money bag in the game, your viewing angle tilts. You're weighed down by all that loot.
Goldfarb: "A lot of this stuff is very 'Oh really?', but it's not unheard of from the tropes that are in movies."
If we'd had one of Goldfarb's favourite perks activated then, when downed by a gunshot, we'd have been able to ask a bank customer to help us up.
"Why would they do that?" I asked.
"You're very convincing," Goldfarb said. "You're super-charismatic. They're like, 'Oh, you're not so bad.'"
"A lot of this stuff is very 'Oh really?'" Goldfarb said, "but it's not unheard of from the tropes that are in movies."
You can talk cops into surrendering.
You can get seized by the cops but then your buddies can trade hostages to get you back.
How do these systems work? Well, Goldfarb's team isn't going to explain them all. More of that Dark Souls mystery, I guess.
There are four skill trees in the game: Mastermind, Technician, Enforcer and Ghost. You gain experience points and can unlock skills. The sweet-talking skill, the move-faster skill, the resurrect a guy from across the map skill and so many more. You can master these skills to get a better version of them. You get stat bonuses for mastering a tier of them. Jobs pay out in-game money but also randomised loot. Some of the loot is so rare, you'd have to play three years to get it, Goldfarb told me.
You can solo the game with bots, if you'd like. But it's made for co-op.
This all sounds quite good and quite different, even during a year filled with heist games. Premise and promise don't always come together, of course. The game will be out on August 13 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. We'll find out then. They've got a month to, um, steal the show before GTA V.
Here's Goldfarb, in a new video, showing you more of the game:
This preview was based in part on a 20-minute hands-on demo of the game.