Somewhere between the tear gas canisters rolling in, the drill busting through the security doors and the police busting down the wall next to me, I realised that crime may not pay but it sure is fun. While I’m not likely to grab a gun and run into the nearest bank, it’s possible at least to feel a similar rush with Payday: The Heist, Overkill Software’s indie team shooter.
At first glance, The Heist looks to be an elaborate homage to Valve’s Left4Dead series. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t crafted out of the Source engine as it felt as responsive and solid as a well-made mod. While Left4Dead forces you and your friends to survive against the undead onslaught, The Heist places you in a (marginally) more realistic setting. You’re here to rob people. Banks, armoured cars, hidden vaults – you’re not picky. From the moment you walk in the door and pull out your gun, you start a relentless adrenaline-fuelled campaign against the local law enforcement with just your companions to watch your back.
This jump-right-in attitude disappointed me at first. A veteran of the S.W.A.T. series, I was hoping to be able to pore over blueprints, issue orders and prepare the perfect heist. What I got instead was an automatic rifle under my trench coat and an encouraging pat on the back before the bullets started flying. It isn’t fair to call The Heist a mindless shooter, however. Positioning is key and it takes real teamwork to grab the cash whilst holding off waves of heavily armed cops.
Mindless killing certainly isn’t on the agenda either. Hit a civilian and your score goes down, meaning you make it out with a smaller bounty. Tougher enemies eventually also start charging in and you need to react quickly to new challenges, smoke grenades and tazers for example, in order to keep ahead of the law. It’s tough as well. You need to keep a close eye on your teammates and revive them when they go down after one too many shotgun blasts to the head. Lose them and you have to give up a valuable hostage to give them a chance to respawn. It may not be a popular decision but there really is no honour among thieves as it’s sometimes necessary to leave one man behind if he’s downed too close to the end point.
For all of its fast-paced action and well-balanced difficulty level, Payday: The Heist suffers from some clear signs that the developers were under pressure to release before they were totally ready. Tooltips regularly pop up but they’re no replacement for a full tutorial to explain all of the context-dependant controls. While initially it looks like the Source engine, cracks appear in the visuals the more you look. Character animations are jerky and repetitive, faces are ugly and textures blur close up. On anything but a downloadable indie title these would be unacceptable issues but, thankfully, it’s possible to cut The Heist a little slack because of its lower price and pick-up-and-play appeal.
The lobby system is disappointing, however, making it difficult to find people with whom to play and I was often stuck with one or more of the, quite frankly, useless AI partners. The first mission requires you to deposit thermite in an office to burn through to the floor below. Multiple containers mean less time waiting as the police push forward but none of my companions were smart enough to lift a finger to help, leaving me stranded under heavy fire as I rushed back out to grab more.
With six stages, each lasting for a heart-racing 20 minutes or so and randomly generated features in each mission, there’s enough here to keep players coming back until the DLC drops. It’s a little rough around the edges and, at times, there’s a sense of some wasted potential but it’s well worth picking up to blast away a mission with friends every now and then.
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