Payday 3 is a competently made and fairly polished heist-’em-up but while stealth gets an upgrade, the shooting is the same as its decade-old predecessor. Hitman-esque levels provide a nice distraction, but this feels like a foundation for Payday 3 as a live service game rather than a total product.
Greatly expanded customization options
Diverse and interesting heists
Beefed-up stealth sections make sneaking heists a doddle
Beefed-up stealth sections make sneaking heists a doddle
Light on content
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S
Release date: September 21, 2023
Forget about the tense stealth and bombastic firefights that punctuate first-person shooter Payday 3, the heist-shooter is actually a game about logistics. Each level has you casing up a building full of items that need to be put in bags and then moved to a waiting transport. Chuck enough of these bags - in an ideal world you’ll want all of them but that’s not required - to safety and you’ll escape too, getting a cut of the heist for your troubles.
Really you’re just a house mover with military firepower. But it’s this constant need to keep an eye on things that sets Payday 3 apart from shooter contemporaries and marks it as an actual heist sim, delivering on the fantasy of being a bank robber and taking on bespoke, high-risk heists.
Most of Payday 3’s best moments focus on your loot being moved too. Complete a stealth run of the game’s first level, the Secure Capital bank, and one or two of your four-man team will be walking bags calmly, as civilians, to the van idling in the parking lot, an entire vault’s load of cash being moved out under the watchful eye of the pathologically inattentive guard. In another context, chucking bags of cocaine and jewelry out of a penthouse window to the balcony below while gunfire explodes off of every surface is a different tension but creates the same feeling of elation as the daisy chain of loot slowly makes its way to a waiting helicopter.
Every heist in Payday 3 has unique mechanics, and most of them are entirely drill-free, which is excellent for players who hated spending the entirety of their time with Payday 2 sick of listening to the wail of a drill that needs repairing. You’ll still drill the occasional lock, but now you’re most often using thermal lances, thermite, or the low-tech method of just straight up picking a lock or cracking a safe instead.
There are three different approaches to Payday 3, and if you’re rumbled or you have no patience you’ll likely fall back on the loud and proud approach, which has you strapping on your mask and cutting loose with the game’s arsenal. Payday 3’s weaponry feels somewhat truncated - there are only two shotguns, for example - but most of the guns are fairly satisfying and each has detailed customization options. You can equip attachments to make your gun handle differently, and also paint it a matching color to your mask, should you prefer.
Shootouts are often close-range affairs and see you spraying weapons from the hip as you move from room to room. While there are marksman rifles and snipers, the opportunity to use them feels fairly limited due to the fact special enemies can disable solo players, meaning that if you’re hiding out on a sniper perch you’re opening yourself up to being tazed or bashed upside the head by the terrifying cloakers - invisible enemies that ambush you like something out of a horror game. So, you’ll be primarily pushing around enclosed urban spaces, and I found I quickly had an affinity for the shotgun and submachine guns, which both allowed me to make a small area very undesirable to opponents.
Not that they’d realize - the AI is of middling to low intelligence and will often charge you with the self-preservation instincts of a TikToker that has just heard of a hot new way to die and wants to try it out for themselves.
The other two approaches are variations on the same stealthy theme. There’s a social stealth that plays out a little like Hitman, as you have no mask, and you’re just skulking around in public areas and testing the boundaries of restricted zones while trying to avoid cameras and guards. Then there’s the mask-on, gun-out stealth. This’ll feel familiar to players of Payday 2 and mostly involves strolling around maps cuffing civilians and taking out guards to answer their radios. You also have unlimited cable ties in this game, because hostage management is a larger part of the process.
Little hand says it’s time to rock and roll
Stealth feels much easier compared to Payday 2 which personally works for me. A perfect stealth heist in Payday 2 was nearly impossible unless you were super coordinated, but here it feels like you can easily lock down rooms by bursting into them with a gun. It’s fairly forgiving but that accessibility does make it feel less rewarding.
However, you’ll want to follow the stealth path as much as possible because, well, it’s easier and can net you more money, but it’s also where you’ll get to see most of Payday 3’s improvements over its predecessor. Seven of the eight heists included in the base game can be stealthed from end to end, and while the Secure Capital bank of the first level is a fairly mundane heist compared to what comes later, each of these seven has a fascinating path you can carve through the level on your way to getting the loot.
The shooting is, by comparison, fairly uninteresting and feels like a punishment for getting the stealth route wrong. The full-auto weapons are nearly constantly out of ammunition as the ammo pools are quite limited and it’s hard to get enough ammunition to keep them fed - so it feels like there’s a strong case to use the marksman rifles or shotguns. Except that there’s only one pump action shotgun and the double-barrelled shotgun seems like it doesn’t have the ability to put out as much damage as you need with the swarm of police.
The elation as you sling the last bag of loot into your waiting transport and extract after a mission gone wrong is always a relief, as you ignore your broken and bloody heister and instead focus on how much cash they've managed to pull out.
Unlike previous games in the series, Payday 3 can be played and enjoyed as a solo or duo player. The bots wisely stay outside hanging out during the stealth sections, but are competent partners during firefights and will chuck down bags of ammo, health, or armor when needed in addition to reviving you and doing what they can in firefights. It’s still a better game with a coordinated group of four players, but it isn’t a deal breaker in the way it is for many of these four-player co-op games.
I think Payday 3 is a solid foundation and given the decade the team worked on Payday 2 there’s no reason to believe that this game won’t also become stuffed with DLC, licensed content, and new heists until it’s a veritable paradise for would-be heisters. However, as it stands there’s just not enough game here and what there is feels a little less enjoyable than Payday 2, despite the extra polish. The game shipping with eight heists and being completable on the normal difficulty in just a few short hours left me feeling a bit cold.
But hey, at least they got rid of that stupid offshore account thing, so the cash you rake in from the heists is all yours to spend on silly masks.
There’s no dedicated accessibility menu, but there are toggle options for things like crouching or aiming down sights, while there’s also something to reduce weapon sway.
There are colorblind options for those with protanomaly, deuteranomaly, and tritanomaly, with a slider to scale the assists up or down depending on sensitivity. This is accompanied by a series of different images so you can see what’s changing in real-time.
How we reviewed Payday 3
I played Payday 3 for 20 hours, tackling every heist in the game. I completed several heists in full stealth on normal difficulty but was unable to manage this in the harder difficulties. I also played with four or five of the different weapons in the game, and played solo, with another player, and in a four-man team.
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.