When Payday 2 released back in 2013 for last-gen consoles, it scratched a particular itch for fans of co-op games. Grand Theft Auto V might have been the biggest heist game that year (to no one's surprise, really), but Payday 2 carved out its own niche with some unique ideas and a gameplay focus on careful planning and thoughtful execution.
Five years later, Payday 2 has made its way to the Nintendo Switch. While the game's heist-centric premise still holds up today, most of the rest of it does not. Although bolstered by a strong progression system and the Switch's portable play, Payday 2 ends up feeling outdated due to poor controls, repetitive gameplay, and obtuse mission structure. Add to this the absence of in-game voice chat and a lack of content parity with the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions of the game, and Payday 2 is an extremely difficult recommendation at its $50 price tag.
Payday 2's premise is as strong as it was five years ago. As a bank robber, you take on increasingly difficult heists alongside a crew of fellow criminals. By pulling off these various crimes, you and your team gain cash that you then divide among the group on "payday." With your cut in hand, you then can invest the money in new items, weapons, and cosmetics for your character. Completing jobs also earns you experience, known in-game as "reputation," which you can use to unlock new perks and abilities as well as build up your crew's safe house.
Building yourself up from rags to riches in a video game is hardly new, nor is the idea of doing so from the perspective of the traditional "bad guy." Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row have explored these concepts for years, after all. However, Payday 2 takes things a step further by integrating these themes into a co-operative gameplay experience. With up to three friends, players can complete four-person missions either online or via local wireless play (no split-screen play on a single Switch, unfortunately). By organizing group loadouts and determining strategies to complete these often tricky heists, players can fulfill the time-old (and, frankly, more than a little messed up) fantasy of planning and pulling off an elaborate Ocean's Eleven-esque caper.
Heists play out from a first-person perspective. After players and their teammates scope out a venue, such as an upscale jewelry store, they can pull down their masks and initiate the robbery. From here, controls play out like you'd expect for a traditional first person shooter: players can sprint, crouch, aim down sights, and fend off waves of oncoming police and SWAT teams as they complete the objective at hand. In the case of the jewelry robbery, for instance, players need to grab a sackful of jewelry and survive long enough for the getaway van to pull up outside in the parking lot.
Although compelling on paper, Payday 2 stumbles in its execution. On-foot controls are loose; despite trying with both the Joy-Con and the Pro Controller and fiddling with the in-option sensitivity, I never felt as if aiming and shooting were tight enough. Driving cars, a feature new to Payday 2 over the first game, is equally unwieldy and imprecise, feeling too arcadey to be helpful during certain heists. And while I'll give a slight pass to developer Overkill Software on the fact that Payday 2 on Switch is a port of a five-year old game, the fact remains that the game looks blocky and muddy. A touch up, no matter how slight, would have been greatly appreciated for this dated release.
Levels, while abundant and diverse in locale, are held back by monotonous gameplay. Most scenarios devolve into standoff shootouts, with three crewmates laying clip after clip into authorities while the fourth manages a drill in order to break into an office or safe. While fun at first, the novelty of shooting waves after waves of enemies soon wears off, to the point where it feels more like a chore than compelling gameplay. Enemy AI doesn't put up much of a fight, either, as Payday 2 opts instead to push quantity over quality; don't expect elaborate enemy types that'll flank you and your team. Instead, enemies act like artificial bullet sponges, waiting to get mowed down as your team completes the "real" objective at hand.
Unfortunately, Payday 2's objectives are often far too obtuse and difficult to follow. Again, on paper, these missions are straightforward; one, for example, will task you will stealing expensive paintings from an art gallery during the quiet of night. However, once you and your team put on your masks, levels become an exercise in patience. A carefully planned heist—sneaking into the art gallery through a window and lifting the paintings in secrecy—can immediately turn into a shootout if someone triggers an alarm.
Aside from a generic briefing at the initial loading screen, levels rarely give hints on how players can progress. The game is bafflingly frugal in its use of traditional waypoints, leaving players to analyze what obscure door they need to open to complete a heist. In the case of the art theft, this led to me and three others wasting ammo, wondering how to unlock the paintings that had been locked down with bars in the chaos of an alarm. The solution for us? To drill into an office and hack into the security feed, a process that took over five minutes of waiting while shooting at incoming SWAT teams. So while Payday 2 may boast an impressive variety of locations, from banks and galleries to docks and warehouses, they often all devolve into the same repetitive loop of shooting, drilling, hacking, and shooting, ad nauseam.
These issues hold back what otherwise would have been a deep and complex gameplay experience. Payday 2 features an insane amount of customization for your character. There are scores of different guns players can purchase with money gained from heists, ranging from assault rifles and machine guns to snipers and pistols. Each gun has its own list of tweakable mods such as sights, silencers, and grips. Better yet, players can also spend money on cosmetics like masks and color schemes to better personalize their own avatar.
Leveling up rewards skill points that can be used to develop five skill trees—Mastermind, Enforcer, Technician, Ghost, and Fugitive—each with its own three subtrees. For those keeping track, that makes 15 branches to explore, with each containing upgradable "tiers" with enhanced effects (a lot like in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt). On top of all that, there's a completely separate progression system called "Perk Decks." By exchanging XP, players can level up individual perks within one of 18 available "decks." When a certain deck is equipped, those perks buff the player during any given heist.
While daunting at first, Payday 2's deep progression system is ultimately the game's greatest strength. There's a ridiculous level of detail in the way players can create various builds, and I have no doubt that clever teammates will pour countless hours into finding the optimal loadouts to conquer each heist in the game. It's just a shame, then, that the gameplay of Payday 2 feels so tired and uninspired by comparison.
Making matters worse is the fact that, as of now, the Switch version of Payday 2 lacks a fundamental aspect of a traditional online experience: voice chat. While Overkill has stated that voice chat will be implemented alongside the launch of Nintendo's online service and smartphone application, it's a huge disappointment that a workaround couldn't have been found in the meantime. Payday 2 places such a huge emphasis on in-game teamwork and pre-game planning that the lack of voice chat for matchmaking is absolutely crippling. Dedicated friends will obviously find other methods of communication to use (Skype, Discord, etc.), but this is a pretty sizable hurdle to overcome in order to experience an already mediocre game.
If you're looking for the final nail in the coffin, Payday 2 on Switch is a full update behind the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 releases of the game, both of which are already behind the lead PC version. While the version Switch owners are getting here is still a sizable step-up from the base game that launched in 2013 (it contains years of added content, after all), that doesn't make the lack of parity between platforms any less disappointing.
Payday 2 is a dated experience on Switch. It controls poorly, its objectives are unclear, and its gameplay is repetitive. While this is reason enough to avoid Payday 2, throw in the lack of voice chat and the fact that the Switch version is an update behind the already inferior PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, and this becomes a nearly impossible pill to swallow. Did I mention this game is 50 bucks?
If you're already familiar with Payday 2 and are dying to play the game on the go with a group of equally excited friends, then Payday 2 on Switch will scratch that itch. For those unfamiliar with the Payday series looking to give it a whirl, you're better off sticking to the far cheaper (and feature complete) version of the game on PC. Meanwhile, everyone else should probably spend their money on something much newer and fresher than this.