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Payday 3 Masks
Image via Prima Games.

Payday 3 Review | A Decent Loot Haul

New York's got a few new problems to worry about.

The minute I saw the announcement for Payday 3, I was jumping out of my seat in sheer excitement. Payday 2 will forever be one of my favorite games, thanks to the co-op heisting shenanigans, a hundred or so weapons to play around with, varied builds, and a ridiculously fun story. A sequel to that would naturally be a tall order. While Payday 3 walks away fairly unscathed, it doesn’t walk with the jackpot I wish it did.

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New Stakes, New Faces, And Classic Plans

Payday 3 sees the gang make its triumphant return after what should’ve been a healthy retirement following the true ending of Payday 2. Unfortunately, that retirement has been cut a little short thanks to some shadowy figures freezing their offshore bank accounts and leaving them with nothing. Not only do they need to get that money back, but they also need to deliver swift revenge to those who brought them back into the game in the first place.

With that established, you’re off to the races, completing heists and bringing new friends to the table. The classic four of Dallas, Hoxton, Chains, and Wolf are all here. Even Joy from the second game makes an appearance, along with the new face of Pearl. There’s even the new handler of Shade, seeing as Bain appears to have been reincarnated as the President of the United States (yeah I’m not sure what’s going on either).

“I found myself drifting through the story like some children’s book that’s long had its metaphor drilled into my brain”

From there, the story plays out in a much more forward way than the second game did. Rather than having the plot details left only for those willing to dive deep into its lore, Payday 3 instantly opens with cutscenes before and after every mission. These aren’t fully animated, but their style brings something to the table and serves to make the story a little simpler to follow.

With that being said, I’m less intrigued by the story’s quality thus far. The Payday gang all seem reasonably intelligent and have all those smarts they brought to the table previously, though the antagonists are the polar opposite. Somehow, these people managed to hack into the bank accounts of some of the most intelligent robbers on the planet, yet barely batted an eye when that same group stole a server containing proof of all their dirty laundry. They’re barely a worthy adversary, giving little reason to care. You may as well spend the entire story steamrolling them while they simmer in frustration.

I suppose in a world of guards having the memory of a toddler, it’s fitting, but I found myself drifting through the story like some children’s book that’s long had its metaphor drilled into my brain. Still, at least it’s grounded in some extent of reality and not waving around an Illuminati box as the years-long MacGuffin.

Hitting and Holding Back Where It Hurts

To Starbreeze’s credit, they know how to focus their efforts where it matters. The gameplay has seen a massive overhaul, maintaining some of the pillars of the series’ past while making them more acceptable for modern audiences. They’ve also trimmed down on an immense amount of fat, something that plagued the original through some of its first heists.

“It’s like a constant push and pull between rewarding you for understanding its combat flow, while punishing you for failing to respect it.”

Stealth has seen the most changes by far, becoming both less punishing and more challenging in tandem. The new Search state that guards take upon certain mistakes means that you don’t outright go loud on messing up but must deal with the guard’s patrol patterns becoming more erratic. Loud has also seen its fair share of changes, more towards pacing rather than overall difficulty. Gone are the days of 300-second drills that break more than a game bugs out, and in are drills that are much faster at base, and go even faster with added attention from the heisters.

These new changes would be meaningless without the refreshed approach to level design. Some of Payday 2’s levels are exceptions, though the vast majority suffered from a very linear progression that quickly became monotonous. Go from point A to point B, get as much loot as possible, then go from point B back to point A. Payday 3 remedies this problem by taking a more nuanced approach to objective design, giving more varied goals and making better use of their setting. One great example is the heist Under the Surphaze, which has you search for four specific paintings that each offer separate challenges and requirements to collect. It’s a huge upgrade from getting as many paintings as possible in Payday 2’s Art Gallery.

All of this is bound together with movement and combat that elevate Payday 3 far beyond its predecessor. Movement feels precise and quick with faster running and sliding. Payday 3 isn’t afraid to punish you for overdoing it though. Guards will absolutely notice you doing sick parkour directly in front of them. As for combat, guns feel ever more satisfying to use, with weight in every shot and additional AI combat behavior to overcome. Cloakers will come down on you where you least expect, Bulldozers are far more aggressive, and Shield units often have their AI companions follow close behind them. It’s like a constant push and pull between rewarding you for understanding its combat flow, while punishing you for failing to respect it.

With all this praise, though, there are quite a few pain points that will impact your enjoyment. The biggest issue by far is the amount of content currently available. At launch, there are eight heists, each bringing something different to the table. Unfortunately, the selection gets old fast, and you’re never given a moment to let your familiarity with certain heists fade. There are also only two Overkill weapons, which can be called in every once in a while as extremely powerful tools of destruction—the impact of these wanes quickly when you have so few options to choose from.

The other major issue is that the game is permanently online. As those playing at launch have noticed, the servers running into problems render the entire game unplayable, even in solo play. There’s also the issue of your internet screwing you over, even alone. Starbreeze has said that they’re considering the possibility of an offline mode, but the fact that it isn’t possible at launch is saddening if a bit par for the course these days.

While the always-online issue is more a problem specific to those with a poor internet connection (which doesn’t make it acceptable), the content amount challenges the current price tag of $40. Seeing as all content that feels absent is implied to be future paid DLC; you can’t give them credit through the lens of the game evolving. The price needs to be viewed on its own merits, and it is only barely justifiable at the moment.

The Bustling Streets of New York

The choice to keep things contained to New York for the time being has allowed Payday 3 to hone in on New York locales and keep its art style harmonious. Where its predecessor had everything from the everyday bank to The White House, Payday 3 has the pleasure of focusing on what makes the Big Apple stand out. It allows for variance in direction through penthouses, art galleries, and banks but lets everything feel like it’s in the same place.

As just one example, the Under the Surphaze heist shows New York as beautiful as the titular Surphaze Art Gallery paintings. Its deep blue sky displays a city still alive at night, with people even hosting outdoor parties and going from place to place like it’s the middle of the day. It’s a beautiful use of the Unreal Engine, especially since the game isn’t extremely focused on realism.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the game’s soundtrack. While composer Gustavo Coutinho shows he’s talented at his craft, the eight heists never give one of those memorable tracks that makes you want to listen even without the game open. They serve their purpose to support the mood, but it often results in tracks blending and rarely having an identity.

In Need of an Ammo Bag

Payday 3 opens strong with eight different heists that challenge whether you take it nice and slow or head in guns blazing. Its systems are satisfying to engage with, and it’s all set under a beautiful backdrop that fully utilizes its setting. However, the cracks begin to show the more you play, resulting in an experience that wears itself out far too quickly. I envision I’ll step back into the game occasionally since the upgrades are just that satisfying, but Payday 3’s loot haul feels too little and quick to appreciate truly.

Payday 3
Payday 3 does a ton of heavy lifting to revolutionize its gameplay for a modern age, but struggles to provide the needed content to sustain that.
  • The story is far less convoluted (so far).
  • Gunplay and movement are a night and day difference.
  • The focused art style allows for more beautiful locations.
  • There's only barely enough content to sustain the experience.
  • Always online is a terrible idea in just about every game.
  • Soundtrack is mostly forgettable.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PC.

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Shawn Robinson
Shawn is a freelance gaming journalist who's been with Prima Games for a year and a half, writing mainly about FPS games and RPGs. He even brings several years of experience at other sites like The Nerd Stash to the table. While he doesn't bring a fancy degree to the table, he brings immense attention to detail with his guides, reviews, and news, leveraging his decade and a half of gaming knowledge. If he isn't writing about games, he's likely getting zero kills in his favorite FPS or yelling at the game when it was 100% his fault that he died.