Payday 2 review: Take the money and run

Payday 2 is a heist-em-up starring four crooks – codenamed Dallas, Hoxton, Chains and Wolf – who take on a series of jobs in the hopes of earning enough cash to retire on a beach somewhere, sipping fruity drinks with little plastic umbrellas in them. It's a nice fantasy, but Payday 2 proves that you can't plan for everything. No two jobs, despite being of similar set-up, go down in the same way – and without the help of few friends, you'll never survive long enough to reach that tropical paradise.%Gallery-195861% Each member of your four-man crew brings his own necessary skills to the table. Dallas, the Mastermind class, is the team medic and great at dealing with the crowds of panicked civilians who threaten to throw your team off its game. Wolf, the Technician, is the demolitions and drill expert, the best at getting into vaults and deploying trip mines, sentry guns and other anti-cop measures. Chains is the Enforcer, the strong back who is best at lugging the haul and doling out ammo to the crew. Hoxton is team Ghost, the stealth subset who is great at picking locks and whose ECM jammer device temporarily disables electronic equipment like cameras and cell phones. (Citizens will call the cops on you!)

Discovering contracts is a simple affair. An interactive crime map populates with available jobs you can start on your own, those of your friends and strangers looking for gunmen on their own jobs. You click a contract, join a lobby, then you mask up and roll out. Joining a match in progress is a bit more painful, as it'll cause the game to pause for a few seconds while that new player joins, but the host can disable drop-in at any time should this nuisance be of particular concern.

Gigs are a bit on-the-nose at the offset: rob this bank; rip off this jewelry store; trash the mall owned by a guy who refuses to pay protection money. As you progress, the jobs become more complex in both narrative and premise: transporting cocaine for the cartel; stealing valuable art; implanting recording equipment and then selling it to a US Senator in the hopes of blackmailing him.

A leveling system drives all progression in Payday 2. Each completed job nets experience and cash – every time you level up, you unlock a skill point that can be applied to any class tree, but each skill also requires cash. Being able to invest in any tree at any given time and respec them on a whim is a big help when trying to discover preferred play style, and matches don't pigeonhole players into selecting one of the four classes every time. Though not advisable, you can certainly stack four Masterminds on a job.

There's no point swimming in loot if there's nothing to spend it on, and Payday 2 offers countless rifles, shotguns, pistols, vests and masks to unlock and purchase, fueling that continual pursuit of cash. Bigger, better equipment is always just a few sweet jobs away, assuming you can get the greenbacks out the door. Payday 2 is constantly pushing you to earn that next thing and does an admirable job of doling out the breadcrumbs in a slow, methodical way. You won't hit level 10 and then find yourself combing through 20 different unlockables to choose from, so when you unlock a gun or get enough cash together to purchase a skill, it feels like a weighty decision and the reward feels that much richer.

The simplest jobs are one-day affairs - get in and get out with as much cash as possible and don't look back. The more complex jobs involve several stages, spread across multiple in-game days and, in these instances, it isn't just random on a granular level. A server room may be located in a different place than last time, guard patrols may be more tightly spaced, or you'll suddenly find a need to sever the power to an electrified vault door. On top of that, you may get hit with a random escape phase between days.

An escape phase is a random sequence the game will throw at you in-between the days of multi-stage contracts. The cops take down your getaway vehicle and your team is forced to transport the goods to safety through a gauntlet of trigger-happy police officers. These phases have a bearing on your overall payday at the end of the multi-day job - lose any of the goods here and it'll affect your bottom line. It's a prime example of Payday 2's most pleasing quality: It never lets you get too comfortable. You'll think you're doing fine and then - surprise!

Skill can definitely cut into that surprise, however. You can completely sneak through some levels, only to have somebody on your team trip an alarm and throw the plan into chaos. Sometimes the game is as good at surprising you as much as your own team is, and that feeling of uncertainty cancels what would otherwise be your millionth ho-hum run through a familiar scenario.

Of course, this is dependent upon your team consisting of humans – a necessity for Payday 2. AI teammates have the benefit of putting your well-being above their own, so they'll run out into danger to revive you when you're downed; however, that benefit is entirely outweighed by their inability to carry anything. They won't pick up a bag, they won't grab any loose cash laying around and they certainly won't help with civilian crowd control mid-robbery. And if you're playing completely alone, you'll only have two AI compadres, not the usual three teammates.

If you do have friends, it's great when you and your team shine; when you hit a map and accomplish the job with ease. It's equally as endearing, although frustrating in the moment, when your team has had a rough time drilling into the vault and barely holding back the authorities. The vault door opens and ... there's another door that must be drilled through. And it's going to take even longer to get through than it took to open the first door.

Payday 2 is a nonstop series of little stories and moments of surprise like this, challenging your ability to absorb and adapt with each succeeding moment. Familiar jobs never go down in exactly the same way, and all can reshuffle a series of variables you have to mind during an otherwise routine mission. The exercise that proves crime does pay on occasion, but only if you keep your cool long enough to grab the cash and get out when everything goes to hell around you.

This review is based on the Steam version of Payday 2, provided by 505 Games.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.