Payday: The Heist preview: Everybody be cool

Payday: The Heist was just announced earlier this month, but Swedish developer Overkill Software had it on display front and center at Sony Online Entertainment's booth. I wasn't sure what to expect from the downloadable co-op shooter; the elevator pitch is that it's Left 4 Dead where you're stealing things rather than killing zombies, so I sat down with more questions than answers as to how it all worked.

Turns out what I found was a surprisingly deep co-op shooter, a game that respects both its heist movie influences and the complicated tangles of co-op multiplayer gameplay. As a shooter, it's not quite as polished or graphically impressive as some bigger budget titles, but for its depth and intelligence, I actually found Payday: The Heist to be one of the best titles here at E3.

There are six different heists in the game to play through, including a shootout on the LA streets, a raid on drug dealer's lair, and a prison break, but the only one playable was a traditional bank heist. There are four different characters in the game, but unlike Left 4 Dead they're basically interchangeable -- the story's more about you and your friends rather than the characters you're playing. When you don't have four human players, the AI will fill in, and while it's barely serviceable, human partners is the way to go.

Each mission starts off with a short newsreel playing over the "ready check" screen, describing the robbery and what happened; that you and your team robbed a bank or broke a prisoner out of prison. Then, once everyone is ready, the mission starts with a "45 minutes earlier" title card, and then gameplay commences.

As you play, you're given objectives and commands by an offsite assistant, and that guidance is really helpful in actually guiding you through the mission for the first time. In the case of the bank, the robbery actually begins as you and your cohorts calmly walk into the bank in civilian gear. As soon as you make it inside, the command "Press R2 to begin the robbery" appears on the screen, and at any point after that, you can choose to put on your masks, pull your guns, and go about the business of shaking the place down.

If you don't jump in right away, you're given a chance to search through the bank and find the bank manager -- he's got a keycard that you need to obtain access to a copy room in the bank, and it's easier to find him while things are still calm. But even if you haven't started the robbery, the bank guards will eye you suspiciously. Get too close, and they'll spot your weapons under your coat, opening fire and starting the robbery for you.

Once the guns and masks come out, it's time to take hostages. During the match setup, you can pick and choose a loadout of equipment -- you get a few different weapons, and a couple categories of special items. Ammo bags serve as a deployable ammo drop your whole team can use, perks like Thick Skin provide a little more armor and protection, and bringing "extra cable ties" will allow you to take more hostages, which can be used later in the match, if any of your teammates are captured by police, to exchange for another respawn.

In this particular bank robbery, your first goal is to get a drill out of the bank's stockroom (that's apparently been hidden there before the robbery), and start using it to drill through the door into the vault. Nothing ever goes as planned, though. After a minute, the cops will start to show up outside, and while you only get uniformed officers at first, eventually snipers will appear on the nearby rooftops shooting through the windows, and the SWAT team will start coming in. To complicate things even further, the drill will jam occasionally, so you need to keep an eye on it and make sure it's working for the five minutes or so it needs to get through the door.

There are things you can do to help -- the bank has security cameras posted around the walls, and shooting those will cut off some of the police's intel, keeping them from using various entrances or knowing where you are. There's also a computer your offsite cohort can eventually find somewhere in the building where you can delete some security footage, buying yourself a little more time.

While the drill runs, the game drops into Assault mode occasionally, where the action amps up a little bit as more shock troops try to break in the door. Unfortunately, the difficulty isn't quite where I wanted it to be -- it was relatively easy to hold off the cops, even when my teammates weren't working together closely. But then again, I played on normal difficulty, and there are four different difficulty levels to get through.

Speaking of levels, there's also player-based progression in the game -- you earn XP while completing objectives and killing enemies, and leveling up grants you access to more equipment and more perks. There are three classes to play as well -- a sniper-like role, demolitions and explosive, and a more support class, but all of those are still being balanced out. There are no major role-based objectives in the map I played, but of course different roles will shine in different areas of the map, from the wide open bank lobby down into the much more close-quarters vault.

Speaking of the vault, once the drill is open, you then need to grab a tank of thermite and burn that through the floor in the back of the bank, down into the main money area. That's another delay, and another place you need to defend against invading SWAT troops for a few minutes. The R1 button serves as a "shout" button and that has a variety of functions -- "shouting" at nervous hostages will get them to lay down and chill out, shouting at your AI teammates will get them to follow you, and shouting at armed guards will let you attempt to subdue them. Cops are obviously less likely to give up, and there are special types of troops as well -- one cop type carries a taser that can stun you, and there are more heavily armored troops coming in as well.

Finally, you make it to the money room, and you and your teammates need to spend a few seconds using the action button to stuff as much money as you can into a series of duffle bags. Once finished, you grab the duffle bags, and head out to the back of the bank, where you blow one more thermite charge to shoot your way frantically out into an alley, where an escape truck is waiting to get you out.

As you can tell, Payday: The Heist is surprisingly complicated. There are a lot of different actions to carry out for a shooter, the co-op game is deep, and while most of the actions are simply executed ("Press R2 to stuff money into the bag"), the game really does feel like you're carrying out a heist job, especially when you're playing along with friends. Payday: The Heist is due out for PC and the PSN later on this year.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.