Payday 3: The Kotaku Australia Review

Payday 3: The Kotaku Australia Review

When I previewed Payday 3 back in August, I was left with two major concerns. The first: How light on content would the full game be given its budget price and two season passes? The second: How many issues would be caused by its always online, live service model?

Unfortunately, my fears have proven prophetic because, as it stands right now, Payday 3 feels more akin to a cut-down starter set than a fully complete game. It’s also not delivering a terribly good online experience either.

New York, New York, it’s a Hell of a clown

Eight heists are included in the base game, each of which is narratively strung together by a series of short videos. Unfortunately, for anyone who played a decent amount of the prior two games, none of them is going to feel particularly fresh or interesting due to how thoroughly those games exhausted just about every cinematic criminal job imaginable. The fundamental designs of each are solid overall, but the experience of playing them is often frustrating because of decisions Overkill has made in other areas.

The way that stealth now works is genius at the surface level. Getting spotted sneaking in places you’re not supposed to be no longer triggers an instant alarm. This one tweak toward forgiveness grants players much more compelling adaptability in the face of bad luck or cocky behaviour. This, in turn, encourages players to give the sneaky method a solid try, rather than quit or vote to restart the moment someone is spotted, a constant problem in Payday 2.

Playing through the game with stealth as a primary consideration means using the game’s talent tree to make your operator better at sneaking around. The flip side of this is that if you jump into a game with a stealth-centric talent build and weapon loadout, you’re placed at an enormous survivability disadvantage if all hell breaks loose. In this scenario, attempting to battle through the chaos that follows a botched job becomes a pretty grim, not-at-all-fun experience. Similarly, if you join a game prepared for battle-rattle, then you’re making yourself next to useless for sneaking.

This is hugely exacerbated by the fact that there is no longer any functionality for players to chat in the pre-heist lobby. Nor is there any kind of server browser or quiet/loud indicator on any games that you may jump into mid-way through. 

Some of the steps required to successfully crack a heist in stealth are painfully cryptic, requiring the player to find hidden wall panels or small terminals hidden throughout the map. One of my favourite things to do in Payday 2 was jumping into new stealthable heists, loading up a private game with the difficulty set to max, and puzzling out how to solve it solo. The design of most of the heists in Payday 3 don’t lend themselves well to this, with many requiring a tightly timed flow of actions that are a headache to pull off without multiple real players on your side.

The bot AI, used for characters in your party not controlled by a player, is completely and utterly incapable of doing anything other than shooting enemies, which is a real drag. The fact that you can’t throw money-packed duffle bags nearly as far as you could in Payday 2 makes solo play more frustrating too, as the simple act of ferrying loot out to the van becomes an utter slog.

The narrative told through the campaign’s interstitial videos goes largely nowhere. Overkill has been upfront for months that Payday 3 is a live service game, but I was still surprised by how abrupt and nothingy the final video is. They’re made all the more disappointing by the fact that they’re nothing more than static images with voice-over instead of Payday 2’s awesome live-action shorts. It’s well known that developer Overkill Software and its parent company Starbreeze went through enormous financial turmoil over the course of Payday 3‘s development. It’s just a shame how often it shows in the final product.


All of this is illustrative of Payday 3’s biggest core problem, which is that, in designing this sequel, Overkill decided to either fix what wasn’t broken or pave over existing problems in ways that created entirely new ones.

Take the way the player gains experience, for instance. 

Weapon, equipment, and cosmetic unlocks are all level-gated as expected. In previous Payday games, you earn XP by completing a heist, with a bonus earned for maintaining stealth the whole way. In Payday 3, the ONLY way you earn XP is by completing challenges. Oh, you successfully robbed the jewellery store on maximum difficulty without being seen? If you’ve already unlocked all of the relevant career/weapon/heist challenge milestones, you get zero player experience. None. Zilch. Fuck you. Good day to you, sir. 

Payday 2 had long suffered from issues of certain heists being more XP-efficient than others. As a result, the lobby browser tended to be flooded with people playing these specific heists in order to quickly grind their level back up after they prestiged. Its obvious that this new system was designed to get people playing a wider variety of heists, but finishing a tough job and not seeing the numbers go up just feels straight-up bad every time.

Successful heists in Payday 2 would also end with each player being given a random weapon mod, skin or mask. Because Payday 3 has completely changed weapon modification from being a pile of more or less generic parts you can bolt onto most guns to now being a Call of Duty-style weapon-specific levelling system, that little thrill of getting a new piece of loot doesn’t exist anymore. It also means that unlocking and purchasing a new gun doesn’t present you with a new toy that you can fully customize and experiment with, only a new opportunity to grind out levels with it.

Considering how light on heists, masks, and weapons (melee weapons are completely gone??) Payday 3 is at launch, it’s hard not to feel like a lot of these changes were made to keep players from unlocking everything too quickly.

Taking the MEME out of criME tiME

The mission to make this a more grounded entry in the series also means that a lot of community favourite perks and quirks are now completely gone.

Gone are talents that let you mind-control cops to fight for you. The perk deck system has been totally dumped, so there is no more taking hits from a whisky flask to ignore pain. You can’t dual-wield pistols anymore, nor bark ‘GET THE FUCK UP’ at a downed teammate to revive them. There are no crossbows or flamethrowers, no internet reaction-face masks, and neither Tony Montana nor Jacket from Hotline Miami are present. 

This drive to be less silly also frequently clashes with the design of the heists. Why do the stealth paths through most jobs require standing in a number of randomly spawning circles on the floor as a meter fills up? Payday 2 may have had heists that had you stealing nukes and kidnapping goats, but the actual beats of those heists never really did anything that felt as meaninglessly ‘video-gamey’ as that.

‘That’s half of it, you can stick around for more loot or escape now’

There is good stuff here. The archaic Diesel engine, notorious for its unique character, finally being dumped in favour of Unreal makes things feel much less foundationally janky than the prior games. 

Gunplay is good, and smallish numbers of cops feel challenging again, which 10 years of player power creep in Payday 2 had really ruined. 

The music is terrific, which is notable as Simon Viklund left some massive boots to fill after he departed the studio.

There’s still good humour to be found in character banter, particularly the lines delivered when you kill a security guard and have to spin a bit of bullshit into their radio to cover up the crime.

The game itself is fundamentally fun to play, and there’s still nothing out there quite like the rush that these games offer of looting a vault while the other three players cover your back with a hail of gunfire. It just needs a lot of things to be reworked and more stuff added.


As a massive fan of this series, it kills me to say that right now, Payday 3 is simply not in a state that makes it worth an outright purchase. Give it a shot on Game Pass, or wait to see where it’s at in six months when the first season pass cycle has wrapped. The foundations here are solid, but absolutely everything built on top of them is just too wobbly to feel confident in investing in it this early.

Also, as of writing, the game’s always-online demands have proven to be a complete and utter disaster, so that’s awesome, too.

Review conducted on PC using a retail code provided by the publisher.

Image: Plaion

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