Payday 2 is a broken game. So is Payday 1, but the first has a ramshackle charm to it. It’s held together by enthusiasm and airplane glue. The developers wanted to recreate Heat, without all the talking bits, and made a game that was just extended shootouts while waiting for timers to count down. Still, its commitment to that idea is admirable and it’s an enjoyable, yet tough diversion. It works because it builds up rhythm, and then frustrates it by having an ally get shot down, or having to free a hostage, or having the restart the drills that are getting the vault open, all while fending off waves of cops.
Overkill Software, when making the sequel, expanded the game. More guns, more unlockables, an obscene amount of skills that can be earned, new levels, and, new ways to get through levels. That last point is key. In Payday 2 the waves of enemies don’t have to be endured: There are ways to complete the missions with a minimum of bloodshed. If it’s botched, the player is forced to endure the siege. The stealth option is usually a lot more satisfying. It offers a variety and challenge that shooting waves and waves of enemies doesn’t.
A lot of recent shooters use stealth and action (off the top of my head: Farcry 3, The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes) but in those games the combat is interesting no matter which I’m doing. Everything in Payday 2 feels slightly off. The guns handle poorly, with strong recoil and little accuracy. The enemies seem to take too many bullets, and the player too few. When the player is in danger, the game doesn’t quite offer feedback fast enough to respond. Trying to avoid having to shoot everything isn’t easy either: How cameras and security systems work is never spelled out. It took a while for me to realize that shooting a security guard stealthily still requires the player to go over to the body and answer his pager. It’s meant to be played co-op with friends, but still for some reason the game allows the player to go through missions alone with AI companions that can’t perform half of the necessary functions. During a bank heist the AI cannot carry bags of cash or corral hostages or shoot out security cameras. One mission required me to find chemicals to cook meth. I found some and used them on the lab, causing it to explode. I still have no idea what went wrong.
No mission in Payday 2 is enjoyable the first time through: The game thrives on repetition. The player needs to be aware of all the subtle variations a map can have, and where the cameras might be, and all the ways the mission can go wrong. Payday 2 demands that the player stick with it. All of the game’s sloppiness is supposed to motivate the player to keep at it and get better guns, better armour, and skills that make heists more than just prolonged shooting galleries. It’s why I keep playing despite all I’ve written. I might eventually get to that very good game of planning and executing flawless heists if I play long enough. It’ll take days of nonstop playing before getting close. I’ll probably quit long before then. How fucked up is that? Many multiplayer games have unlockables, but they’re adding to the pleasure of that central loop, not fixing it or sidestepping it entirely. The thing that I’m doing over and over, at least for a larger commercial shooter like Payday 2, needs to be pleasing on some basic level*. In Payday 2, almost nothing feels good. It’s a sorta shoddy thing, but if you do it enough, it becomes more enjoyable, by letting the player bypass the shoddiest bits.
While making his (pretty good) game, They Bleed Pixels, my friend Miguel Sternberg struggled with a design problem. He wanted to reward skilled play, but in the genre, that usually means abilities that make the player very powerful or unstoppable. That wasn’t interesting to him. In those cases, the reward for doing well in a game was a reprieve from play. Payday 2 stretches this out to an extreme: Play long enough and you don’t have to play the game at all.
*Think of the way the character in Titanfall is pleasingly weightless, or the rough, meaty heaviness in Gears of War. In both of those games, even movement feels pleasurable. Notable exception to the rule: the all consuming aesthetic ugliness in Kane and Lynch 2. But in that case, the shoddiness is the point.