Payday: The Heist is probably the closest we'll ever get to Heat: The Game, and that's a bit depressing. To be more accurate, Payday is basically The Best Part of Heat: Done as a Game With Middling Results. Payday is about heists, often heists very similar to those seen in Michael Mann's Los Angeles crime classic. Four players get together, take down a bank, or a jewelry exchange, or a cash-flush meth lab, fending off waves of cops and rival criminals while achieving specific, randomly-generated objectives. It's a neat idea that could be amazing were it more rich in atmosphere, storytelling, and excitement. Sadly, Overkill Software's game is lacking in all of these things. There are moments of multiplayer thrill to be had here, but they're infrequent, and sometimes tough to get to.
First and foremost, understand this about Payday: The Heist: this is a multiplayer game. Offline play exists, albeit in a form similar to Left 4 Dead's own single-player mode. It's there if you want it, but there's no conceivable reason why you'd want it. The accompanying A.I. is radically inferior to just about anyone you could possibly scrape together for an online match, and the total disconnection of the action from anything resembling a story means that there's no real progression here. There are six heist missions. You do them entirely independently of one another. The only constant is the characters, who are less characters, and more differently-accented voice actors who are solely there for player differentiation purposes.
With this in mind, also understand that it is not the easiest process in the world to get into a game of Payday: The Heist. A couple of days after its launch, only a handful of players seem to be online at any given time, and I found myself running into a variety of strange "this lobby has already been filled" errors, even for lobbies that only appeared to have a single player in them. Getting into a game proved far more of a chore than it arguably had any right to be, considering the meager number of players seemingly hitting the servers.
But let's presume that you do manage to navigate potential errors and a dearth of players, and find your way into an actual game of Payday, and let's also presume that the players you're in a game with are competent, collected individuals who know how to follow instructions and patiently follow the progression of a map. If all these various things prove to be true, you will have some fun with Payday: The Heist.
The missions are varied in style and objectives; some involve straight money-heisting, while others involve revenge plots, and even a prison break that plays like a weird reference to the opening scene of Grand Theft Auto III. All of this stuff seems referential in one way or another, though most of those references are directed toward the aforementioned Heat. From the bank job that uses a musical score almost identical to the one in Heat's iconic bank heist, to a mission literally called "Heat Street" where you run around shooting up cop cars, it seems that Overkill's crosshairs were aimed squarely at Mann's movie when developing this game. There's even a hacky reference to Tom Sizemore's "For me, the action is the juice" line shoved into one of the loading menus.
I wish I could say that any of Payday's content was anywhere near as compelling as Mann's film, but frankly, it's not even as compelling as most modern shooters. Overkill has liberally cribbed from Valve's Left 4 Dead methodology, building missions around a lengthy series of objectives--kill the alarms, set up saws and drills to break into various things, find a guy who has a key for something, and so on--that sometimes employ randomized locations to keep things fresh. There are even horde-like waves of SWAT cops and FBI agents that periodically show up to try and derail your mission in aggressive fashion. Again, pointing to that ideal scenario where everyone knows exactly what they're doing, these missions can be quite fun. Heists are lengthy and full of fast-paced combat and strategy that keeps you on your toes. If you and your cohorts can communicate, there's a good bit to like here.
If you can't, you're boned. All it really takes is one or two associates with a Waingro mentality to completely screw up a mission. You have to know what objectives each of you are taking on, and when to stick together. A heist can still be successful so long as one of you survives, but the waves of cops that Payday tosses at you are so hefty that it's damn difficult for anyone to survive if even one person decides to freelance. A tight challenge is a good thing, but the action itself is not necessarily thrilling enough to want you to keep coming back time and time again to try these missions should you end up with some regularly lousy players.
Part of that comes from the weirdly antiquated feel of Payday. It looks okay, but often feels like a game out of time, like something that should have popped out around the early 2000s, back when a game could sort of ride on controversy over gameplay. The shooting is fine, but there's something Counter-Strike-mod-feeling about the action that makes it feel kind of...fake. Like one of those fake video games some writer on Law & Order would have conceived for an episode in which real bank robbers used the game as a road map for a real robbery, and Jack McCoy is up in arms and wants to charge the developers as an accessory or something. Except Payday is real, and feels a few years past when it might have actually made some kind of impact.
Ultimately devoid of impact as it is, Payday is a game that does manage to offer a few hours of entertainment. Its spartan slate of features and atmospherically lackluster missions fail to give it the kind of addictive quality so important to a game like Left 4 Dead's lasting appeal, but for those who just feel like mowing down some cops, heisting some loot, and reminiscing about how damned good a movie Heat is, Payday is serviceable enough across the board.