I’m constantly having to explain to my friends how I could like Payday:The Heist better than Payday 2. The second game is a popular rollicking juggernaut with developer support, dozens of heists and weapons, customization options to rival TF2, and a huge player base. The first game has a mere nine heists, 13 weapons and nobody plays it anymore. It isn’t nostalgia; I had over 100 hours in the sequel before ever trying the first game. It’s not community-based; all of my friends play the sequel. I just really feel like Overkill Software lost track of some tiny things that hurt the whole package of Payday 2, from matters of presentation to the enjoyment of actually playing.
1. Immersion. This is more of a cosmetic thing, but it’s really, really painfully absent in the sequel. Payday: The Heist had a number of world-building aspects that really sold the environment around you. NPCs will carry on idle conversations in the moments before you whip out your guns and set the alarm off. Birds are flying outside First World Bank, and it’s raining on Green Bridge (the heisters are even wearing raincoats!) When you arrive at the crash site in Heat Street, there’s a civilian giving another CPR. Touches like these are largely absent in Payday 2, which hurts the feel of the gameplay. The NPCs feel like set pieces and the map feels like, well, a game map. This video does a great job of comparing a very similar setting between both games:
This video also covers another aspect of immersion; player character interactions. As you see, in First World Bank the heisters are very talkative. The first one to see a new room in the bank will report to the others: “I’m in the cafeteria. There’s not that many people here.” During firefights, they’ll comment on the situation: “How much longer do we have to be here? It’s turning into a hornet’s nest!” Once they’ve reached the vault and are filling their bags, they’re whooping and cheering each other on. These might not sound like big deals, but it really sells the experience to the player. When the character is overjoyed at his hard work paying off with ill-gotten millions, I feel accomplished as well. In Payday 2, when the characters drill into the vault, silently fill their bags with money and then depart for the rescue vehicle, the money loses its value as the focus of the heist; it becomes yet another objective. Payday 2 is getting better at this, finally: In the recent Car Shop heist you can overhear a couple arguing about the husband’s business philosophies, and as the video notes, the Hotline Miami tie-in heist makes a conscious effort to subvert this. But that leaves a lot of heists that don’t, and the shining examples stand out all the more due to being exceptions.
2. The design of the heists. Here’s another feature Payday 2 is getting better at, but they haven’t yet reached the caliber of the original in my opinion. The heists in the first game were heists; daring capers full of twists and turns that played out like a pulp fiction plot. Just pick any of the nine heists and go read its plot on the wiki. All of them are long, involved, and cinematic. It felt awesome to shoot out the hospital cameras, subdue the personnel and patients, impersonate doctors, locate the quarantined patient, draw and purify blood samples while holding the cops at bay, get the power back up to summon the elevator, then crash the elevator into the morgue and commandeer an ambulance for the escape. In Payday 2, the heists are a lot more simple for the most part. Compare what I just described to Jewelry Store, where the crew busts down a window, grabs as many jewels as they can carry, then books it back to the rescue vehicle.
The loss of the complexity and scope of the first game’s heists hurts my motivation to replay these new heists over and over. I don’t feel like a world-class supercriminal when I’m smashing into a mall, dealing $50,000 of damage and leaving. I feel like a hired thug. And there’s not much motivation to replay the mission when the goal is so simplistic that you can quickly determine the quickest strategy to finish.
A lot of the mechanics added to the sequel are annoying as well. Pagers were added to stealth as a way to open up player options; now you can kill guards so long as you are careful and kept the kills to a minimum. Or you can equip ECMs and jam the alarm, turning the heist into a race against time. In the first game, the only stealth heist simply sounded the alarm if a guard noticed you or died, which is far more basic, and honestly I prefer that. The whole bag train didn’t exist either, avoiding the impossibly annoying and severely overused sequence of juggling bags of money to the escape vehicle. Now there are a bunch of new mechanics I do enjoy, such as the few heists that have a camera feed allowing one player to serve as the team’s eyes, but most of them are relatively small in the grand scheme of things, unlike the aforementioned juggling bags and pagers.
3. The Progression System. This is something of a personal gripe I’m sure that not everyone agrees with, but I dislike how complicated Payday 2‘s systems are. Its level-up system, its loadout system, its perk system, its cash system…they all demand your attention separately and I don’t think all the pieces are contributing to the whole picture as efficiently as Payday 1‘s intuitive system. In the first game, the money you earned from heists was the experience system. As you earn more money, you unlock new weapons/equipment or improve your old ones along a fixed tree. The end. And as already stated, the first game has fewer weapons, but the weapons it does have are all useful and fill their own roles. The Reinbeck is the shotgun. The M308 is the sniper rifle. The only weapon concepts with two representatives instead of one are the assault rifle and the submachine gun, and they let the player simply choose whether to favor accuracy or damage. And because the heists are so long and complicated, there’s no tried-and-true loadout that’s just better for the entire thing.
This screen is the only place you have to make decisions for the coming heist. That yellow money bar at the bottom is the only form of experience. Compare this to Payday 2‘s spending money, offshore account, skill trees, perk decks, weapon mods, reputation, infamy, pre-planning, assets, armor, card drops, side jobs, courier packages…it all piles up pretty fast, and not all of them are enjoyable additions. Half of them are just new ways to grind. A lot of it, at least to me, distracts from the meat and potatoes of the game, which is shooting. These sundry aspects, when mastered, all provide new and powerful options for developing strategy and learning your favorite role to fill, but they also steadily build up a large and complicated entry fee that makes it take longer for a brand new player to figure out what is going on. The starting weapons in Payday 2 are statistically inferior pieces-of-♥♥♥♥, further preventing the new player from immediately filling a useful role on the team. In contrast, the starting rifle and pistol of the first game can continue to fill a niche in the player’s arsenal all the way up to level 193, with the pistol in particular serving a vital role as the only silenced sidearm in the game. Not to mention there’s a team bonus that grants extra cash rewards to teams with a new player, automatically giving him a role that he’ll be able to shed once he’s a more advanced player. Sure, Payday 2‘s model encourages the player to buy new weapons and unlock new gear in order to craft the role they want to fill, but the first game did that too without resorting to giving a starting player useless fluff.
At no point am I trying to say you shouldn’t play Payday 2. Whether you’re already V-100 or you haven’t even picked it up yet, you’ll enjoy the 4-player co-op and the whole concept will probably suck you in. Even I still play the sequel occasionally. But you really shouldn’t skip the first game either. This isn’t like the Left 4 Dead series where the sequel took everything from the first and only added content and features. You’re missing out on a great piece of the franchise if you don’t visit Dallas, Hoxton, Chains and Wolf when they were just starting out.