Payday 3 review: The time for crime

Payday 3 is an exceptional heist game that's held back by head-scratching design choices.

Deep Silver

More than a decade after the release of Payday 2, Payday 3 has finally arrived. Helmed by Starbreeze Studios, the co-op game once again allows players to take on daring heists, earning cash and unlocking a slew of weapons and cosmetics. It’s an excellent foundation that fails to reach its potential due to the decision to make it an always-online game.

Show me the money

Four heisters firing guns in an alley.

Source: Deep Silver

Right out of the gate, I admire how straightforward Payday 3 is; there’s a brief intro cinematic that informs you why all of these people are turning to a life of crime to make money, and then boom—you’re off to the races. There’s no drawn-out prologue or frustrating prerequisites, the developers know exactly where the fun is at, and let you get straight to it.

Each level in Payday 3 is like its own little universe. There’s a brief description of each location, who you’re stealing from, and how you’re going to do it. This information is conveyed through voiceover from your quest-giver every time you select a heist. It was a bit annoying that I couldn’t mute this dialogue outright, as I got tired of hearing it after the fourth or fifth replay of a heist.

Each heist in Payday 3 is a sprawling puzzle box with countless moving pieces. Each mission can be completed stealthily, loudly, or in some hilarious marriage of the two. For my first couple of runs of a heist, I’d mainly just walk around and take it all in, trying to understand its design and the best way to tackle it. I’d observe NPC behavior patterns, push random buttons, and determine which weapons and gadgets were best suited for the setting. I never got tired of carefully concocting a game plan, watching it blow up in my face, and then escaping by the skin of my teeth. Starbreeze captures the moment-to-moment stress and anxiety of heisting, where it feels like things can go terribly wrong at every turn.

Dollars and sense

Heisters running down a street in the dark.

Source: Deep Silver

Each heist has a minimum and maximum payout depending on how much cash you’re able to snag during the mission. If you’re not incredibly coordinated, it’ll be tough to hit that maximum payout without losing at least one member of your party and suffering a penalty to your income. That said, even during the hardest missions, I couldn’t help myself from going back to grab “just one more” bag of cash, often to my own detriment.

The money you make goes straight into your account inventory and can be used to purchase guns, weapon attachments, masks, clothes, and decals to further customize your look. These items also require you to reach certain levels (or weapon levels) to unlock, so simply gathering the cash won’t be enough. There are items that don’t unlock until well past level 100, ensuring that players will have something to look forward to and work towards for a long time.

The depth of customization conveys a deep sense of replayability in Payday 3. Playing all of the available heists once wouldn’t be nearly enough to unlock most of the cool weapons and items in the game, as you’d only be scratching the surface of money and account level. In fact, Payday 3 is designed so that you’re playing each level multiple times, racking up the dough and developing an intimate familiarity with each stage, and being rewarded for it. Your first run through the SCB bank in No Rest for the Wicked will probably be a chaotic mess, but by the fourth time around, you’ll be cruising through it like you’re in an Ocean’s movie.

If you can’t do the time…

First-person view of a character wielding a silenced pistol, with infrared lasers in front of them.

Source: Deep Silver

With Payday 3, the publisher made the perplexing decision to make the game always online, requiring players to have a constant connection to the internet and the game’s servers in order to enjoy it. It’s a relatively common model in the era of live-service games and one that can backfire tremendously when things go awry. Such was the case on Payday’s 3 launch weekend when the game was inaccessible for days on end.

While I can generally look past online server issues (even ones so severe that they delay my review), it’s hard to ignore just how severely the folks in Payday 3 shot themselves in the foot here. The game requires you to register for a Nebula account with Starbreeze in order to play, which is annoying, but again, something that can be overlooked for an enjoyable game. Of course, an error surrounding Nebula accounts was one of the key errors that kept players out of the game for hours and days on end.

Even once all of the server issues are out of the way (which they are, at the time of this writing), the decision to make Payday 3 online only dampens the overall experience. If you want to play a heist alone with three bots, you have to open a heist and set it to invite-only privacy and press the matchmake button. There is no private match or “solo” button. I couldn’t believe it actually worked like this the first time I played. This also means that you can’t pause the game, even in a solo game where you’re the only actual player. This is incredibly frustrating when you consider that the average heist can take between 20-30 minutes to complete on normal difficulty.

Starbreeze Studios has already expressed interest in updating Payday 3 so that it doesn’t require a 24/7 connection to the internet and game servers, and I genuinely hope that’s something that they’re able to see through.

Secure the bag

Four heisers looking over the river at New York City in the distance.

Source: Deep Silver

Payday 3 gets most of the important stuff right: the heists offer a nice variety and encourage players to experiment with different systems and mechanics. Customization is deep and will keep players on the hook for dozens and dozens of hours. But it’s hard to overstate the blunder that is the online foundation that this game was built on. It makes Payday 3 needlessly frustrating and was the cause of one of the most severe online game outages I’ve seen in a long time. Payday 2 was a game that grew into a co-op masterpiece in the years following its release, so I’m confident that Payday 3 will only improve as time goes on.

This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Payday 3 is available now for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X.

News Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Scream nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

Review for
Payday 3
  • Excellent heist design and variety
  • Plethora of customization options and unlockables
  • Replayability is built into the game's DNA
  • Always online undermines the overall experience
  • Can't pause when playing single-player
From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 3, 2023 9:00 AM

    Donovan Erskine posted a new article, Payday 3 review: The time for crime

    • rms legacy 10 years legacy 20 years mercury super mega
      October 3, 2023 1:54 PM

      Hope you guys try another staff gaming session with Payday 3!

      • reply
        October 3, 2023 4:25 PM

        Oh I reckon we will. I definitely want to get more staff heists in haha

    • reply
      October 3, 2023 5:16 PM

      Played with 3 friends, we all thought it was pretty poor overall as an experience, at least for our group. Stealth is nearly impossible with 4 people, and the fights are okay but kinda insane and nonsensical. You kills dozens to hundreds of police in the middle of a city and it's no big deal to anyone. For the first several missions you don't have a choice in weapons. It was regularly unclear to all of us what you're supposed to do or how you're supposed to do what they say. 4/10 max.

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