In my hour spent wearing a macabre clown mask robbing banks, looting armored vans and freeing prisoners, I rarely managed to succeed.
It wasn't because I didn't have the tactics, or the ability, it was because I had, perhaps, a tad too much avarice.
In most of the four scenarios of four-player cooperative shooter Payday: The Heist that I played, there was a clear moment when I could cleanly wrap things up. Metaphorically speaking, I kept coming to the light at the end of the tunnel, but went back for more gold, or higher scores.
The premise in Payday: The Heist is intriguing: Instead of fighting as a soldier in a war, or as a survivor in an apocalypse, or a space marine putting down aliens, you play as one of four guys breaking the law.
The $20 download PS3 and computer game comes with six capers, each with wildly different back stories, objectives and settings. The scenarios are called: The First World Bank, Panic Room, Diamond Heist, Greenbridge, Heat Street and Slaughterhouse.
My first, frenetic experience playing the game with two of the developers dropped me on the front stairs of the First World Bank. In this early level, players are unarmed and have their masks neatly tucked away. This allows you to case the bank, moving around on the hunt for the bank manager. Get too close to the many guards inside and things go sideways immediately.
Fortunately, I manged to make it back to the manager without raising any suspicions. Once there, I pulled the PS3's right trigger to pull out my gun, whip on my mask and kick off the heist. Standing over the manager, I held the trigger button to zip tie his hands behind his back. You can do this to any of the civilians you come across in any of the game's six levels. You just need to order them to the ground with a trigger pull and then hold in the trigger to cuff them. Players start the game with a very limited supply of the cuffs, depending on the the load out they selected in the pre-launch menu.
Cuffing a civilian turns them into a hostage, an important, key element to the game once things start to get hairy. But at the time, I moved past the manager, following the arrow pointing me to the next objective in the mammoth bank.
Two of the three other characters were being played by Overkill Software developers, both much more experienced then me. Both also obviously passionate about the game, not just as the people responsible for making it, but as players.
Yes, they barked a lot of orders at me.
This isn't your typical first-person shooter. You have objectives, but you also have to worry about things like not letting a cop or security guard slip up behind you and handcuffing you. If this happens, besides the immense embarrassment of being taking down by your own inattentiveness, you're taken out of play for a short time as you try to pick the lock on the cuffs, or another player uncuffs you.
If you get shot and knocked down and another player doesn't make it to your side in time to save you, you're arrested. That means you're out of the game for an increasingly long period of time. That is unless you and your buddies remembered to zip cuff some folks and turned them into hostages. Then you're given an opportunity for an instant hostage exchange.
You don't have to worry just about getting taking out of the caper, you also have to keep your eyes out for ways to lessen the rolling assaults police stage on your location. In the level we were playing that meant shooting out security cameras. In some rooms, if you cleared the cameras it cut down on the number of entry points the cops could use.
You also needed to keep an eye on some of the game's uber cops. These guys included a SWAT officer with a riot shield and cops with Tasers. Those Taser cops are particularly nasty. If one hits you with a shot, your character convulses, spraying bullets out of his gun in sort of uncontrollable bursts until someone takes the guy out.
You can mark targets, letting your three buddies know where these special threats are, but you typically stumble upon them first.
You also have to worry about shooting civilians. If you kill one it takes away from your score and can slow down how quickly hostage exchanges take place.
The First World Bank mission had the four of us drilling a vault door, moving into a massive interior structure, back into a vault, filling bags with cash and finally making a get away as a timer ticks down. That was the one mission I managed to complete, playing on hard on the Playstation 3.
Next we moved over to the computer version to try out Slaughterhouse. The developers told me that the game's missions all pull from over-the-top moments in cinema, and not always heist movies.
For instance, while playing through The First World Bank, they pointed out an area that looked like the columned-room seen in the massive shoot out in The Matrix.
Slaughterhouse opens with a moment inspired by Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, the scene that shows the ambush on several armored cars. Only in the game, we're the one doing the ambushing, attacking an armored van loaded with gold.
Eventually, the game leads us to a slaughterhouse where, hanging along side the slaughtered pigs, hangs the armored van, suspended by power lines following a crash. Next players need to shoot down the truck, set up a powered drill, and then wait out the waves of cops as the drill does its job.
We take position up in an office overlooking the slaughterhouse floor and take out the cops that keep rolling in on us.
"We've got a taser," one of the developers shout. "He's going to keep taking us out if you don't do something about it."
These are clearly developers who love playing their game, even beside someone who isn't so great at it. Later, the drill conks out and someone has to get back down on the floor which, packed with cops, has become another sort of slaughterhouse altogether. I whip out my submachine gun, run across a catwalk and jump to the floor. The developer standing next to me, winces. But I survive and manage to spray-and-pray my way to the drill.
When the van doors finally open, two of us grab gold bars and start heading to the exit point. When we finally arrive there we have a choice: Wrap up the heist, or go back for the rest of the gold. I make a run for the gold, and get shot down by a wall of cops waiting for my return.
Next, we check out Heat Street, an obvious homage to Heat. The missions kicks off with one of your team, a non-playable member, backstabbing you and fleeing the scene with you locked inside. Over the course of the 17-minute or so mission, you have to shoot your way through the streets of the city, find the backstabber and then escort him back to an escape point.
I make it nearly all of the way to the end, after shooting down about 70 cops myself, but at the last minute I decide to go back to try and save my captured crew. I don't make it.
At the end of each mission, if you actually succeed, the game awards you points for things like getting everyone out and not killing civilians.
You can also level up as you play the game, the leveling grants you instantly accessibly new abilities, as well as a complete reload of your weapons.
Another important strategic element of the game is the use and placement of things like ammo bags. Once placed on the ground, these ammo filling locations, can't be moved. That means if they're poorly placed you might find yourself on the wrong end of the map from them when you run out of ammo or are in need of healing.
The final mission we checked out was called Green Bridge, and had us blowing up a bridge to stop a convoy of armored prisoner transports, then freeing the prisoners and making our escape.
The games can all be played on varying level of difficulty and are backed by the sort of dynamic artificial intelligence overseer that made Left 4 Dead such a pleasure to endlessly replay.
This is a different sort of Left 4 Dead though, one for fans of crime fiction, one that seems far more tactical, grittier and, in some ways, more fun. It's also a game that doesn't steer clear of the obvious, gruesome underpinnings of movies like Heat, Reservoir Dogs and Ronin: Lots of cops, lots of people die in these games and in those movies. You are not the good guy, there is no excuse, no side-story that makes what you're doing somehow noble.
I'm not sure how that may impact the reception of the game, or how exactly I feel about it. But one of the moments that sticks most with me from my short time with Payday: The Heist was when I asked one of the developers playing along side me where the bad guys were and he replied, "We are the bad guys."
Payday: The Heist hits Steam and the Playstation Network for $20 on Oct. 4 with new mission packs already planned.