Game Preview: Payday 3 sticks to its successful formula

I got into the Payday franchise with Payday 2, and much later than expected. While I had first played Payday 2 way back on the PlayStation 3 upon its release, I hadn’t really sunk my teeth into its offerings until earlier this year, when I picked it up on Xbox Game Pass. And boy am I glad I did.

In many ways, Payday 3 feels like a culmination of everything the franchise has done well to date. Our hands-on preview via the closed beta only gave us access to a single bank heist, set inside Capital Bank, it’s clear that Payday 3 feels as refined, tense and ultimately as satisfying as many would have come to expect. While its familiarity in terms of both design and structure might not draw newer fans in, I certainly encourage anyone to jump in and play what might be the best version of Payday yet.

The old gang is back, with Dallas, Hoxton, Wolf, and Chains from previous Payday games all coming out of retirement for yet another score. This time around, however, we’re leaving Washington D.C. and heading straight for New York City.

The Art of the Heist

The general approach of Payday 3 is very much the same. You’ll pick a character, choose your loadout including primary and secondary weapons and finally a special piece of gear. These include medkits, spare ammo bags, and even a new zipline bag that allows you to attach your cash bags to them and slide them out onto the streets for a faster exit. Then, you’ll begin your heist in the neighbouring streets. There are multiple avenues and opportunities to get the ball rolling. Hop around the side and up to the roof to sneak your way in, or simply walk in through the front door, close the blinds and pull those masks down to initiate the chaos. The latter is obviously the chaotic approach, but I loved how things unfolded based on your choices.

Payday 3 introduces new phases to each heist, including Search, Negotiation and Assault. The search phase will see bank security patrol the halls if they’ve spotted you, giving you a chance to set things right, from disabling cameras and finding keycards to accessing locked rooms. Payday 3 certainly gives you much more time with your mask off here, allowing for a broader scope when it comes to overall preparation.

Should you fail to keep things on the down low, the negotiation phase begins. This secondary phase sees players entering the real meat of the heist, as police begin to arrive and prepare the scene. Your options broaden again here, as a timer counts down to the assault phase, where the police will inevitably break in and rush you. That being said, you can now trade hostages for some additional time, which gives you the opportunity to prepare for the vault break-in sooner to grab more of the stash.

The final assault phase inevitably progresses to utter chaos, as SWAT teams storm the building in a bid to take you down. While the stealthy approach is always respected for the amount of time and patience it takes. I, on the other hand, seemingly always find a way to make things go boom. The Captial Bank setting sees you placing thermite on the second floor above the vault, while you hold off incoming attacks. The action at this point is brutal, yet satisfying thanks to some punchy and responsive mechanics, in addition to some impressive sound design. Aiming feels sturdy, while the time to kill also feels fantastic.

Making it into the vault feels very much the same as you try to steal as much cash in the limited time that you have, before making a break for the escape vehicle. While it’s not yet known just how big this version of New York City will be, Payday 3 already feels much larger in the sense that these escapes tend to stretch out much further into surrounding streets. While waiting for the van to arrive, it felt like I hightailed it at least a couple of streets away from the bank while fending off the police.

Better Together

Payday 3 can be played solo, but it’s always much better with friends. While we only got the chance to try this out with other closed beta participants, there’s something so simultaneously tense and hilarious in sharing this experience with other players. Your AI teammates are generally capable but tend to follow you around for support more so than taking the lead. Learning is part of the fun, and it’s great to see just how differently players like to approach these heists from the get-go, as you learn from each other in the process.

While communication is key, the new segments heist phases still manage to keep things running at an even clip, no matter which way the heist goes. You’re constantly aware of teammates in the building and updated on the current phase at hand, making it easy to manage things on your own terms or prepare for the worst when things aren’t going as planned. It also makes each heist feel so much more rewarding, given your friends can share and partake in the crazy stories you’ll have, as opposed to just hearing about them. There’s also plenty to unlock and upgrade after the heists, with a ridiculous amount of masks to choose from.

Look the Part

While Payday 3 has made the shift to Unreal Engine 4, it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from Payday 2 visually. It simply feels like a cleaner, more detailed version, complete with some nicer textures and impressive lighting effects. The performance itself was a little hit-and-miss, but I would chalk this up to server issues as opposed to any glaring mechanical issues and frame rate drops. It’s simply another way that Payday 3 chooses to stick to its guns, rather than reaching for something radical like a new art style for example.

Final Thoughts

Payday 3 is a safe bet for fans, given it knows what you enjoy. While it looks clean and plays great, you’ll know what to do very early on if you’ve played before. That being said, the newly introduced phases help broaden the overall structure of each heist, while the expanded city streets will inevitably lead to more chaos down the track.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Payday 3’s reliance on previous successes, shaking up the formula just enough for it to feel relevant all over again. Bring on the next heist.

Payday 3 will release on the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and Windows PC on the 21st of September, 2023. Stay tuned for our full review closer to release.

Matthew Arcari

Matthew Arcari is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. You can find him on Twitter at @sirchunkee, or at the Dagobah System, chilling with Luke and Yoda.