Payday 3 Review in Progress – Open Beta Impressions

From the city street shootouts of Heat to the creepy clown masks found in The Dark Knight’s opening moments, there’s something alarmingly alluring about the Hollywood bank heist fantasy. Fortunately, the excellent Payday series has been letting me live it out for more than a decade without needing to establish a rap sheet of my own.

The next chapter in this long-running burglary simulator, Payday 3, recently concluded its open beta before we all get to filch the final version later this month – and though this early look was only a limited snapshot of what’s to come, it already feels like a significant step up from the lawbreaking of Payday 2.

Improved Movement and Gunplay

Like its predecessor, Payday 3 is a cooperative multiplayer FPS where you and three friends take on increasingly elaborate heists. But within seconds of beginning my first run of the introductory bank robbery (the beta’s only available level), the movement and gunplay already felt enormously upgraded. You move faster overall and can now do more modern maneuvers like sliding, which I found useful in combat as well as for stealth. Weapons feel more punchy and satisfying, even if they do have hopelessly small magazines and long reload times before you’ve spent some of your ill-gotten cash on upgrades. You can even use civilian hostages as meat shields now, forcing enemies to engage you in melee to avoid hurting an innocent soul, which is a nice touch.

After years of incremental updates to Payday 2, Payday 3 immediately feels like a proper sequel, even if the formula of breaking into vaults and throwing bags of cash into an unmarked van remains identical.

Payday 3 Steam Screenshots

Simplified Skill Tree System

One less exciting adjustment, however, is the new skill tree system, which does away with the complicated buildcrafting found in Payday 2 and replaces it with a loadout system that makes you pick just four perks to take with you on each job. The good news is that the perks you can equip are pretty darn cool (even if many are old abilities making a return), like one that makes you so charming your own hostages will revive you if you get downed in combat and another that lets you slide tackle any silly narcs who get in your way. Building out my character’s tree and making weighty decisions about which role I’d occupy within a crew was such a big part of Payday 2, so this overly simplified and noncommittal replacement feels like a pretty big step backwards from what I’ve seen.

Pulling off a clean heist feels achievable much quicker.

Expanded Stealth Options

That said, the revamped progression does help enable some hugely expanded options and mechanics geared towards stealth runs, which are even more significant than the improvements to movement and combat. In Payday 2, only the most committed and elite players really stood a chance of pulling off a totally clean heist, and proper leveling was almost a requirement to unlock things like a silent drill to get through vaults before making an attempt became even remotely viable.

In contrast, pulling off a clandestine operation during this beta was almost immediately achievable, even with a randomly matchmade group of players only loosely communicating with one another via text chat. That’s also largely owing to clever and fantastic changes to the way missions are designed, in which stealth runs are now given a completely different route to success. For example, the Secure Capital Bank level normally requires you to go the humdrum path of using thermite to burn through the top of the bank vault then dive in from the floor above before making off with the loot, but this series of objectives smartly only triggers as your primary path once you’ve been caught. Before that, your crew can take the much more complex and rewarding route of breaking into various parts of the bank to sabotage electrical systems and deactivate security measures to gain access to the vault without anyone being the wiser, which plays out like an entirely different level if you can pull it off.

Bunch of new mechanics have been added to support stealth play as well, like the ability to pickpocket security guards to relieve them of their keycards, or use environmental lures that can draw the attention of those lousy coppers and buy you precious time to lockpick a door and slip by unnoticed. You can also deploy hidden cameras to keep tabs on an area or scout ahead without the risk of drawing attention – stealth play seriously feels like a complete overhaul from its predecessor, and I can’t wait to see what else the full game has to offer for that playstyle.

Enhanced Enemy AI

But all those new options doesn’t mean pulling off a stealth run is going to be easy, and that’s thanks to enhanced enemy AI across the board. Guards now respond to your actions, breaking free of their usual patrol routes to investigate suspicious activity and doing a whole lot more than drawing their gun and shooting you when you’re spotted.

For example, if you’re found in a private but not entirely suspicious area, like the back office at a bank vs. the vault, instead of immediately trying to kill you, they’ll simply escort you to a public area and give you a good tongue lashing, which can be used by cunning players to remove guards from their posts temporarily. That smarter AI extends to combat as well, where the police do a great job of swarming you from all sides instead of standing around as target practice. They can also respond to your actions and try to obstruct your heist, like how they’ll pull the fire alarm when you’ve lit up that thermite, using the sprinkler system to delay your fire’s progress. Likewise, hostages are now much more responsive to your commands and easier to boss around and control as you use them as collateral in combat or negotiation.

Microtransactions at Launch

Payday 3 will eventually contain microtransactions to purchase cosmetics, but they obviously weren’t present during the beta. Pricing and the like aside, it makes me wonder what effect that model will have on a grind that was previously all about spending your millions of stolen dollars on things like new outfits and customizing your mask. Time will tell how it plays out, but it seems like some of the incentive to grind the same handful of heists multiple times might be weakened if you can simply purchase your ideal outfit right at the outset.

Which leads me to one of the most exciting changes to the heist formula: each job now has defined phases, meaning that instead of either being in unmasked stealth mode or chucking grenades around like a…