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Payday 3 doesn't radically change the criminal fantasy formula, but improves on it immensely

Turning up the Heat.

On the surface, Payday 3 isn't a sequel that radically changes the series' established formula. Instead, it improves on what was already good about Payday 2, and makes the series' heisting action feel far more believable. Starbreeze has always said it wanted to make the ultimate criminal fantasy game and, from what I played at a recent hands-on event, it definitely feels like Payday 3 takes a big step in the right direction.

The two missions I played during my hands-on included a traditional bank heist and a raid on an art gallery, the latter of which was tailored more towards players who prefer the stealthy approach. You can watch 4K gameplay from both of these missions, along with stealthy and loud playthroughs of the bank mission in my preview video below.

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The first difference you'll notice is the change of location. Gone are the bank vaults of Washington DC, as the action is now all set in New York. As you might expect, this change of place brings with it a brand new collection of buildings to ransack.

Visually, Payday 3 far richer than its predecessor. The surrounding environments are way more detailed, and you can catch a glimpse of New York's gorgeous skyline in the opening to the art gallery heist in my video. One of the main reasons why the game looks so much better than before is the move from the Diesel 2.0 game engine used in Payday 2 to Unreal Engine 4. This move, Starbreeze told us, also brings the possibility of an upgrade to Unreal Engine 5 for Payday 3 in the future.

Another benefit of the move to UE4 comes from the cosmetic destruction seen throughout levels. Shooting at walls and ceilings in the buildings you raid causes plaster and panels to rain down onto the floor. Shoot at cars and their windows will break and alarms will go off. These effects don't bring about big areas of destruction that change the level design, like you might see in a game like Battlefield, but they do add a bit more of that Hollywood heist movie vibe to the proceedings.

What a lovely night for a heist.

When it came to heists in Payday 2, everything was quite binary as there were only really two phases to a robbery. Players could attempt to complete a mission stealthily, which was entirely possible, but more often than not you'd make a mistake and the whole situation would go loud. In would come the cops, out would come the guns and chaos would reign.

In Payday 3 however, a couple of new heist phases have been introduced to make the gameplay feel a bit more forgiving. Now if a guard notices something suspicious, like a broken camera, they will enter something called 'Search Mode'. In the search phase, the guards will move a little faster as they start looking for the source of the problem but, if you can keep hidden for long enough, they'll soon return back to a normal pattern of patrol.

Make another mistake, however, and the guards will call the cops which will then kick off a second new phase: negotiation. In this phase, if you have hostages, you can start trading them with the first responders to earn extra time before the SWAT team arrives and the bullets start flying. These new phases not only make the step up from stealth to loud gameplay seem a bit more organic but also help to maximise Payday 3's idea of letting its players live out that fantasy of starring in their very own heist movie.

Old McDonald had a bank, AI, AI, oh no!

Payday 3 also features noticeably improved enemy AI, which helped to create more dynamic, believable bank robbery situations. What does that mean? Well, at the beginning of a mission when scouting the location, you'll notice more lifelike NPC interactions, as they chatter away and interact with the environment around them. Once things go loud, crowds will scatter and flee, leaving the streets outside feeling like a ghost town.

The series' law enforcement AI has also been worked on to make them behave in a more realistic manner. This means the cops and SWAT team will act differently when you have a lot of civilians around you. They'll be more careful overall as they won't want any collateral damage so, for example, they'll stop throwing grenades as they'll be afraid to hurt the hostages.

The AI for the main attack waves has also been improved to make things feel more tactical. In Payday 2, cops and SWAT members were essentially zombies that just spread out and ran at you, but in Payday 3 the enemy AI spawns in units. These units work as a team, sometimes with a shield carrier up front while the rest of the squad moves along behind. This push towards a more realistic approach meant the loud phases I experienced felt more manageable than in Payday 2. It they made the battlefield more readable and a bit less chaotic, leaving you space to think more tactically.

Staying stealthy in the art gallery mission means avoiding laser beams and using UV lights to quietly identify and then liberate expensive artwork from its display cases.

In terms of gameplay mechanics, Payday 3 has also introduced multiple new features to spice up the action for both new and returning players. Alongside new buff mechanics and over 100 skills to research and buy, Private Security modifiers will now be activated on higher difficulty levels. These include things like indestructible security cameras, additional guard spawns and another modifier that affects your hacking capabilities. What's interesting about these Private Security modifiers is they rotate on a weekly basis, meaning you and your crew are going to need to constantly work out how to adapt to the changing situations, week by week. These modifiers will stack up depending on the difficulty level and should add a nice bit of unpredictability to the game for seasoned players who really want to test themselves.

Payday 3 also introduces something called Overkill weapons to the loadout mix, which are over-the-top super weapons that allow you to wreak havoc for a limited time. Think of these like temporary power-ups that you can call in once you've killed a certain amount of enemies. There were only two of these Overkill weapons to choose from during our demo and you see the grenade launcher in action in my video. I also tried out a special one-hit kill sniper rifle that highlighted enemies with some kind of thermal scope. That gun ended up being my go-to Overkill weapon as, while I do love big explosions, the bouncing grenades from the grenade launcher seemed rather inaccurate and would often pass right by my targets and explode behind them.

Oh what a feeling, it's raining from the ceiling.

Movement felt faster and more fluid than in Payday 2, with the ability now to dash around and vault over objects and even slide along the floor so you can shoot out the knees of the cops as you skid on past them. This new fluidity of movement was also very noticeable in the Art Gallery heist as it meant we were able to climb up and onto boxes and air vents in order to reach the fire escapes above. From there we could get to the roof and use skylights to case the joint and mark guards and cameras so we could find the safest point of entry.

Although I didn't get to find out Payday 3's total number of heists at launch, I was told there would be six playable characters in the base game. These include the original crew - Dallas, Chains, Wolf and Hoxton - plus two unannounced characters. As an aside, Payday 2 once featured John Wick as a DLC character and, as Payday 3 is set in New York, Starbreeze did tease us with the idea that future DLC for the game could feature Wick's return with a raid on the Continental Hotel. This comment was said with a bit of a 'nudge nudge wink wink' to it, so I'm guessing this all depends on successful licensing deals. Nevertheless, that would certainly be a very cool tie-in indeed.

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