INT, NIGHT. FLOOR 22, GARNET GROUP SKYSCRAPER.
(HOXTON, WOLF, DALLAS and MONTAG enter the darkened office building by cutting out a pane of glass. They are dressed all in black, wearing masks and carrying submachine guns.)
WOLF: All right. Time to go. Synchronise on my mark...
HOXTON: Let's go. Remember; stay low, stay dark, avoid guards and gunfire.
MONTAG: All right, bitches, it's time to PUNCH DANGER IN THE FACE.
(MONTAG immediately runs head-first into an armed guard and shoots him several times in the face. Somewhere, an alarm sounds, and the central vault is immediately sealed off by laser beams.)
Payday: The Heist is a four-player, co-operative, first-person shooter/fuck-up simulator. And it's a work of genius. Essentially, a group of Swedish game developers were watching Heat, and thought to themselves, "Let's make a game of that." Albeit probably in Swedish. Nonetheless, that's both how I envision the design concept, and a pretty handy way of explaining what the game is about. You and three friends/enemies/strangers from the internet set out to conduct a series of exceptionally violent armed robberies in a variety of situations; amongst others, there's the obligatory bank robbery, a raid on an armoured car, and more esoterically, stealing a panic room full of cash from a gang's fortified inner-city compound under cover of a drug deal. What they all have in common is a ludicrously intricate plan. And inevitably when playing it, you'll start out with one of your own. "Oh, well, I'll find the manager, you can stay in the lobby and keep an eye on the hostages, and the other two can grab the thermite to get into the vault," you might say.
The genius is that it's never that simple. You'll get into the lobby and the guards will see your guns and shoot one of you dead. The drill will break. And just as you have it restarted and you've erased the security footage, the SWAT team blow in the side windows and tase another of the team. Set the difficulty high enough and the game turns into a constant barrage of 'oh god, what now' situations, while at every turn you'll be being shot at by more police than is wholly fair. And while you're dealing with them, another dozen are sneaking up behind you with a riot shield. It's really not a forgiving difficulty curve. Possibly I'm suffering from, aptly, Stockholm syndrome, but the atmosphere of tension this game is capable of putting out is remarkable. Moreover, this is a game that knows how to pace itself. The police response to your various acts of villainy comes with timed assaults, explicitly pointed out to you by your handler/criminal mastermind, where you can do little but try and keep your head above water. And they get more frequent and longer the more time you take. Spend too long catching your breath between them and you'll get crushed utterly.
Of course, the other great thing about this framework is that it sets you up for acts of heroism. More than once I've been the last surviving member of my team, making a desperate run for the exit with the cash/gold/jewels/rare issues of Action Comics, dodging bullets left, right and centre, with the music pumping, and feeling positively exhilarated. For every time the plan goes dramatically wrong and the game becomes a desperate attempt to salvage it and escape, the more you'll feel invincible on the one time in a hundred where it goes off without a hitch, like clockwork. That one time where the vault opens on the first try, when you pile into the helicopter just in time to escape, when you turn just in time to unload a shotgun into the face of the guy who could've killed you. That little heist I recounted at the beginning is in the game, and it's theoretically possible to get in, disable all the alarms, open the vault, steal the contents and escape without firing a shot. I've only done it once, and it was a level of tension that I've never got from the likes of Modern Warfare.
Conversely, this can make it an incredibly frustrating game. There's, with a sense of inevitability, a rank system which unlocks various weapons and perks, and this somewhat breaks it. Try one of the harder levels when you're just starting and you'll be crushed utterly. There's a lot of patience required, but if you do get into it, it's a lot of fun. The obvious comparison here is Left 4 Dead, and it's an apt one. It even mimics the mini-boss zombies L4D uses; in this case with riot shields you can't shoot through, tasers that can incapacitate you, some gigantic bloke in a bomb disposal suit who shrugs off bullets, and some manner of deputised ninja that sneak up on you with batons. On the higher difficulties, assaults devolve to fending off a huge stream of these, plus a very zombie-like number of SWAT officers.
It's also not a huge game, befitting the size of the studio that made it (also reflected in the pricing; about £20 for a single copy, or £45 for four if you have to bribe your friends into trying it). There's been some talk of DLC, but at the moment you're paying for six levels, each of which you can get through in half an hour with a bit of good luck. For what it's worth, they are very well designed, and replaying the same ones hasn't grated too much on me. So, if you like heist movies and FPSes, then Payday is highly recommended.