10 years is a long time in the criminal underworld. Factions come and go, power shifts hands, the rules of the game change, and maybe even some old faces emerge from retirement for one last ride. It's certainly a case of the latter for Payday 3, with the series' original gang of thieves returning to their old habits for Starbreeze Studios' latest. But as for the rest? Well, it's more or less business as usual.
Release date: September 22, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
Given that Payday 2 is still enjoyed by tens of thousands of players to this day, many fans will likely only see that as a good thing. But for anyone else who fell off of Starbreeze's multiplayer misappropriation sim over the past decade, you may want to avoid handing over the cash to the guys in the masks just yet.
What's here is a competently crafted, yet stubbornly old-school co-operative shooter. And while Starbreeze has given itself plenty of room to expand, right now Payday 3 steals just a little too liberally from its predecessor to make an overwhelmingly convincing case for its own existence. Nevertheless, when evaluated simply on its own terms (i.e. as a bigger and better looking vehicle for more Payday), this sequel very much understands the assignment, and gets the job done.
Show me the money
The first notable shift for Payday 3 is a change of scenery. Instead of the streets and side alleys of Washington, teams of four thieves (either entirely player controlled, or supplemented with AI) now plunder the banks, stores, galleries, and other high value targets of New York City. It's a fairly rote location switch, all told, trading one Mid-Atlantic city for another, but does at least allow Starbreeze to exploit the Big Apple's cultural touchstones for some of Payday 3's more unique set pieces, all while presenting a heightened sense of scale via carefully choreographed shots of New York City's skyline and its various landmarks.
There are, however, currently only eight missions available at launch, and though they're certainly designed to be replayed while Starbreeze inevitably works on future additions to the roster, that initial selection still feels a little meagre for Payday 3's asking price. Nevertheless, there's some great series highpoints here, including a storage yard heist in which your bounty of chemically delicate components begin degrading in value as soon as you've nabbed them from their cooling storage, forcing players into a rapid exfil operation. Starbreeze's fusion of hand-crafted and procedural design, in which maps are frequently altered via variables such as Private Security modifiers that ramp up and reorient security measures, also continues to work well at elevating replay value, too, preventing any heist from feeling entirely predictable.
In another positive change, Starbreeze has transitioned from its proprietary Diesel game engine to Unreal 4, and the difference is evident wherever you look. Characters, environments, and even guns are no longer dated by the harsh, flat qualities of Payday 2, bearing a greater level of detail matched by a fluidity of play underscoring the game's improved shooting and traversal mechanics. The fidelity isn't exactly pushing boundaries, but PayDay 3's improved production value certainly makes the heisting experience a more enjoyable and intuitive one across the board.
Beneath that updated cosmetic sheen, Starbreeze has also sophisticated the rhythms and flowstate of heisting in each mission, building in several new "Phases" that enrich and complicate the direction of a successful (or unsuccessful) theft. Softening the tonal whiplash that could often come from Payday 2's sudden escalation of covert sabotage into open warfare, for example, the Search phase now sees on-site security tentatively tracking your crew down after initial detection, resulting in a risky game of cat and mouse that can be resolved by removing evidence of your break-in.
Negotiation, meanwhile, introduces a smart mechanic in which you can release hostages to the police outside in order to buy more time for themselves in securing the loot and planning their exit. These additions have vastly improved the pace of each mission, allowing for a more authentic and palpable build to the almost inevitable crescendo of bullets and blood, while giving you more options and strategic factors to consider along the way.
And when the action does spill into a full-frontal assault between your gang and NYC's various response units of escalating prowess, the boys in blue don't mess around. Enemy AI feels vastly improved over Payday 2; no longer content with walking merrily into your line of fire, special forces will now push forward as tactical squads, try to flank your exit routes, and respond to the context of each situation more authentically, such as working more cautiously around civilians.
Many of these headaches can be avoided, of course, if you adopt a cloak-and-dagger policy from the get-go, and while performing the perfect stealth run remains its own challenge (especially when working with random players), Payday 3 offers plenty of new options for carefully extracting the goods without alerting a single soul, including vertical pathways for infiltrating a building, and tools such as portable cameras that can be stuck onto enemy guards. On the flipside, Starbreeze has equally accommodated for those who prefer to go in loud and proud, with the addition of powerful Overkill weapons like Grenade Launchers, ideal for churning through heavy enemy units in a pinch.
These additions, alongside all of the expanded character and loadout customisation features that the series has always delivered in droves, perform a lot of the legwork in broadening and deepening Payday 3's competencies for tactically-oriented heist choreography.
The Gang Dynasty
Payday 3 launched into Xbox Game Pass. For more from the service, check our pick of the best Game Pass games.
Even with all of that tightened design and expanded content, however, there's nothing seismically groundbreaking about anything Payday 3 does compared with its previous iterations. You'll still be running through the familiar rotation of plan and execution, designed to be replayed to the point of mastery at the highest difficulty levels, in perpetuity, for presumably the next decade. In this way, Starbreeze seems to be very much appealing to franchise loyalists for this sequel, and while that's a smart move for a series that owes 10 years of success to a large consignment of returning would-be criminals, it does make Payday 3 a harder sell for those outside of that pre-established player base.
Ultimately, the best and worst thing to say about Payday 3 is that, even with all of the under-the-hood evolutions Starbreeze has implemented, it's very much more of the same as far as the broad strokes are concerned. Although existing fans will be in a much better place to appreciate the sum of all those minute iterations, then, others may easily interpret Starbreeze's "If it ain't broke" approach as a lack of ambition on the studio's part.
All that being said, the developer has a full portfolio of evidence to back up its stated commitment to evolve and expand Payday 3 well beyond what's already here, with a busy roadmap already spelled out for the first year of launch. As for whether you want to invest in that journey now, or later down the line… well, that ultimately depends on your existing appetite for the gameplay loop that first put Payday on the map almost 12 years ago.
Payday 3 was reviewed on Xbox Series X, with code provided by the publisher.