There are few things right off the bat that I love about Overkill Software’s sequel to Payday: The Heist. Firstly, there are elements here that a slightly naughtier developer might exploit in order to push microtransations or a full free to play model on consumers. Upgrades, cosmetics, side-grades and XP, it has everything that EA would just love to monetise. They didn’t. Overkill Software package everything you need right into the £24.99 price tag. It might seem odd to point that out so early, but in reality, holding back on the allure of sequential monetisation for the classical model could have been a make or break for Payday 2.

That of course means Payday 2 is a game worth worrying about, and it is, because it’s so bloody good. In fact it’s possibly 2013′s example of a sequel done absolutely right. This is game iteration at its finest; taking the best parts of PayDay: The Heist, and realising its problems or shortcomings, has allowed Overkill Software to iterate efficiently and effectively, improving everything.

Ragdolls, graphics, firing mechanics - all updated.

Ragdolls, graphics, firing mechanics – all updated.

The first and most notable difference in this iteration is that your mission list is no more. Replaced with Crime.net, missions are viewed live on a mock-up city map, which works as a server browser, where crime missions pop up in order to create your own job, or you can see the jobs of others, and join from there. This wouldn’t be such a big change if it were running on the same set-mission dynamic, which meant that without future DLC, replayability was nominal.

Crime.net’s missions are fundamentally dynamic, because whilst there are a set number of maps, the missions within them vary. For instance, a job on one of the bank maps might be to secure the cash and make an escape. On another mission, it might be to secure the vault, burn the cash inside, with some issues along the way such as re powering the building because of police interference. This in itself isn’t even the major change, which is where Payday finds its soul.

Stealth your way around the mission, or go in all guns blazing. Damn these queues.

Stealth your way around the mission, or go in all guns blazing. Damn these queues.

Certain missions found on Crime.net might take multiple days, meaning multiple missions. These missions have a dynamic microcosm within themselves. Between days 1 and 2, your getaway vehicle might be ambushed, requiring a cinematic stand off between yourselves and the FBI or police. These intersections break up the ‘days’ required to get to pay day, the big cash payout. Multiple mission based jobs loosely follow a story, and break away from the one day jobs potential repetition. It’s not all about banks and malls here, and you might find yourself infiltrating an art gallery, stealing valuable pieces of art, all the way to transporting them to the buyer, and then ripping the guy off, breaking into his home, and stealing the money back – and more.

There are missions where you can either steal or destroy government weapons, break into the FBI, and smuggle bags of cocaine into the back of a yacht, or helicopter. Multiple missions objectives too have been improved, with a bunch of secondary objectives you can go for before you make your escape. There’s always something else to steal, it’s just a matter of whether you think your party has the skill enough to do it without getting gunned down.

Steal the cash, make your escape.

Steal the cash, make your escape.

For those who enjoyed the original dynamic of Payday: The Heist, there’s plenty for you too. New, similar maps are available on Crime.net, with larger, more detailed areas. Breaking into a shopping mall to steal as much money as you can before making your escape is tense, and allows for players to split up and make their own way around the area. You still need to take hostages to exchange for your party members if they’re arrested, and Payday retains the four different skill-tree specialisations, with expanded features.

The upgrade trees are lengthy and necessary, but they could be seen as flawed in that having an unbalanced party can be lethal. It’s very easy to run out of ammunition quite early in a heist, and if you don’t have anyone with an ammo drop, you’ll have to rely on running past swarms of police to pick up ammo drops. Likewise, playing without a full team, or with the AI who don’t really do anything but shoot, can be very problematic. There’s not really much anyone can do about that though, but the matchmaking system is reliable and fast. There are always jobs to do, and always people looking to join yours.

New tools at your disposal improve your options.

New tools at your disposal improve your options.

This time, there are multiple ways to get the job done. Need to open a door? Cash box? Safe? If you have the equipment, you can do anything from drill, to saw, or lock-pick to even C4, all on the same door. However, at the start of the game during the lower levels, your reputation will be too low to acquire any of the good stuff, forcing you to wait agonizingly tense periods while the drill does its thing, taking up to five minutes in an intense stand-off, jamming repeatedly.

If you want to hone your skills, you can head down to the new safe house. This feature isn’t particularly useful, but it acts as a virtual world where you can visit everything you’ve acquired; from guns to equipment, money to jobs, you can walk around this virtual home viewing and comparing items you’ve bought and won. The strange thing is, all customization and shopping is done in the main menus interface, where you can see everything, making the safe house sort of redundant, but that said it’s extra content which hasn’t seemed to deterred away from anything else, and it does help set a criminal underworld tone much better than the original.

Glorious weapon customization.

Glorious weapon customization.

Weapon customisation has also been heavily improved. Often, this feature is useless in many games where you could do the job well enough with any weapon and any mod, but because the weapons are so starkly different in Payday 2, it works a treat – albeit an expensive one. You’ve to first unlock the mod you need through a random card draw at the end of every mission, or as you level up, unlocking the ability to purchase them, and they’re expensive. Weapons and mods can be anything around $100k, typically earning about 10-15k in spending money per mission, which makes every purchase a serious decision.

There are a large range of weapons from SMG’s to shotguns, and I can’t say I found anything too over or under powered, although the Remington shotgun breaks the whole “shotguns are useful up to 4 feet” videogame rule, with a very long effective range – which is nice. Typically, you’ll want something with a silencer for some stealth, and then something with a little kick.

Let your turret do the work.

Let your turret do the work.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get into a game with someone more equipped than you, which can take a lot of the pressure off. Payday 2 isn’t an easy game, and having gadgets like sentry turrets can help in some of the tougher situations. That said, if you don’t want to go in all guns blazing, you can complete many of the missions completely in stealth without even being seen. This does require a decent team, and it needs to be discussed before you go in, but it relies on another couple of factors.

There’s no point trying to sneak around in one of the 6 or so full body armour suits, and every gun, armour, and mod has varying degrees of visibility. If you want to take hits, you’ll likely get seen quicker. Opportunities for stealth are rife, though, and if you’re good enough to avoid being heard, and avoid security cameras, then you could get yourself a whole lot of cash come pay day – but I’ve not yet seen a random match able to do that, you need friends.

Knock out the security cameras to cause an ineffectual assault.

Knock out the security cameras to cause an ineffectual assault.

There are a few times when I thought the price of items was just too over the top, especially when it came to customising your mask. You have to purchase the mask, purchase the material, pattern, and colours all separately and at around $80k each, which meant that a lot of people are playing with masks without any customisation, their money better placed on weapons and armour, but at this stage I’m just thankful it’s not real life cash in the form of purchasable points being thrown into it.

All this makes Payday 2 2013′s best FPS offering so far; the shooting has been much improved, and guns feel meaty, with great rag-dolls, and everything just feels so rewarding. From taking objectives on the map to simply holding off the fuzz, Payday 2 brings a complex team effort into the comprehensible, and makes even the smallest of tasks feel ultimately useful. It’s a joy to play with strangers online, and with friends, it has almost infinite replayability thanks to the Crime.net random mission pop-ups and multiple-day story based missions. DLC could extend this further, but for now, there’s more than enough to get budding criminals going. This is a game from a principled developer that knows what its doing, and Payday 2 is, ironically, the least criminal PVE F2P to hit the market this year.