Payday 3 preview - Starbreeze's cops and robbers heist 'em up is riotous fun

In-game screenshot from Payday 3
(Image credit: Starbreeze)

My heart is thumping as we chuck the last bags of cash into the back of the waiting van. Heist shooter Payday 3's frantic firefights could get the heart-rate racing anyway, but I’ve gone method and missed a night of sleep for an early flight to Stockholm to visit the developers Starbreeze. As I hit 27 hours without sleep, I'm running on thready adrenaline that's making each shootout feel legitimately life or death.

This must be how Robert De Niro's character felt as things came crashing down around him in Heat. Payday 3 is excellent, but the intensity of the combat was borderline-nauseous. Still, I was able to play two of the FPS game's heists in four-player co-op, during which we cracked safes, and robbed a bank and an art gallery, with both the latter having their own distinct character and feel. Better yet, there wasn't a drill in sight.

To get into smaller safes now, you'll have to actually crack them. This is easy when things are quiet but much harder when you're being assaulted by wave after wave of the NYPD; screen rocking as round after round hits your armour plate. Crucially, it makes you feel more like you're actually performing a heist instead of playing a wave defence game and occasionally holding down the F button.

In-game screenshot from Payday 3

(Image credit: Starbreeze)

This is core to Payday 3's existence. Lockpicking, hacking cameras, cracking safes, and even taking hostages as human shields or trading them with police for resources or extra time before an assault wave are all part of the game now, and the result is something that feels like you're pulling off actual robberies and not playing a reskinned Left 4 Dead.

Cosmetic customisation has been overhauled and beefed up so that each character - there are six at launch and Chains, Dallas, Hoxton, and Wolf have been confirmed so far - can wear a custom outfit and gloves. Your mask can be more heavily customised, like Payday 2, except that now you can paint it different colours. My mask was a matte pink, with the word 'NO' spray painted over the middle in red. Very fetching.

In-game screenshot from Payday 3

(Image credit: Starbreeze)

Feeling the heat

This matched my assault rifle, which had a matte pink receiver and metallic pink furniture. Style achieved, I could also tweak nearly every part of the gun, although most attachments were locked away behind a weapon-level system. Slapping on a stock, grip, and changing the length of the barrel all have an impact, and it's clearly spelled out what each attachment will actually provide when you're using it in a heist.

Despite the heavily customisable arsenal, shooting largely feels the same as its 10-year-old predecessor. Several of the game's sidearms are pistols, and the primary shotguns and marksman rifles nudge you more toward accuracy. Still, most guns in the game are fully automatic and will encourage you to dump your magazine into the approaching blue tide. While the weapons differ in how hard they hit and how much recoil you'll be trying to compensate for, during the four heists I played, weaponry was mostly an aesthetic choice, barring the option of taking a longer-range scope (useful for taking out police snipers) or suppressors for stealthy assaults.

The result is something that feels like you're pulling off actual robberies

The tempo of the fights is changed slightly, so the combat is less overwhelming than before. There are fewer enemies who assault you directly compared to Payday 2, but each of the police officers feels more meaningful, often moving with a purpose. Several enemies may now move up in formation behind one shielded opponent. At the same time, a sabotage team could come in specifically to try and pull a fire alarm, dumping water on the thermite you're using to burn a hole in the vault. 

Many of these enemies still feel a little off in how much damage they can take, but it could still be tweaked ahead of launch. Accurate headshots can resolve this issue somewhat, but it's hard to think about clean headshots when cops are rappelling through skylights and charging out of elevators.

Special adversaries will mix things up a bit, too: police armed with a taser will zap you and cause you to fire inaccurately and be unable to move, while a cloaker can sneak about invisibly, ready to ambush you, but can also - in something new for Payday 3 - show up to pour acid on an ammo or armour bag you've placed, robbing you of much-needed supplies. Losing that ammo feels particularly agonizing as out of the many threats trying to ruin your day in Payday 3 the biggest is running out of bullets to kill the many, many enemies trying to get you in handcuffs. 

Inside you there are two wolfs

For stealthy players, the heists I completed seemed to have a lot of options, whether that was scaling the back of a building through a fire escape or even just strolling into the front door of the bank and closing the blinds leading to the street and shutting the front door behind you, before even putting on your mask and declaring it to be crime-time. 

In-game screenshot from Payday 3

(Image credit: Starbreeze)

Intel can be found that'll help you pull things off. While many players will try and fail to pull off the perfect heist, it's the most satisfying way to play and surprisingly forgiving. As I learnt when we very nearly managed to get the vault of a bank open without an alarm being raised despite the fact I'd handcuffed or killed everyone on the first and second floor of the bank, taking security cameras out with a silenced pistol moments before the alarm was raised.

In essence, there are two games hidden within Payday 3. A tense multiplayer stealth experience that channels films like Mission Impossible as you skulk around choking out guards while juggling keycards and high-tech equipment to get out without a sound. Then, either by choice or failure, there's the all-out shooter experience and approach, where the violence of action and a relentless pace should help you get the cash to the getaway vehicle and escape.

The addition of a search and negotiation phase to the action side of the game means the intensity lets up a little more than the sheer brutality of Payday 2, but it's to Starbreeze's credit that both parts of the game work, and the shift between them isn't jarring.

We didn't manage to breach it that time: we were getting a code from the manager’s office when a guard outside we hadn't taken down saw a tied-up hostage through a window. However, the elation moments before when we thought we had it in the bag was something else in this great co-op game, and it's a feeling I'll definitely be chasing when the full game releases in September. 

Payday 3 is planned to release on September 21, 2023, and will be available on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. 

Jake Tucker
Editor in chief, TechRadar Gaming

Jake Tucker is the editor in chief of TechRadar Gaming and has worked at sites like NME, MCV, Trusted Reviews and many more. He collects vinyl, likes first-person shooters and turn-based tactics titles, but hates writing bios. Jake currently lives in London, and is bouncing around the city trying to eat at all of the nice restaurants.