Stealth game design has evolved considerably from the days of Metal Gear Solid, Thief and Splinter Cell. And depending on who you talk to, could have gotten better or worse over time. The problem is that the concept of stealth is different depending on the designer and fan in question. And for Payday 2, the definition has fluctuated for better and for worse since the release.
To understand how Payday 2 has changed, we first need to talk about the original system or how it was up until the last two updates. Originally stealth worked almost as a mini game: Challenging you to remove the guard threat in the level without setting off an alarm. With the majority of the skills needed for stealth in the ghost skill tree.
When a guard was killed they would set off a pager alert, requiring the player to answer it before time runs out. With the right perk, the team as a whole could answer four pagers before the operator grew wise and sounded the alarm. The easier levels always featured less than four guards, allowing a basic team to get by.
But harder levels featured five or more, requiring additional perks. They were: Dominator and Joker allowed you to force a guard to handcuff themselves while Joker made the guard your AI partner. These skills were found in the mastermind skill tree. The point was that dominating a guard would not set off a pager and joker would allow you to dominate a second guard. Ergo, your ability to safely take out four guards without raising an alarm would increase to six.
As mentioned, you had to take out or subdue every guard without raising an alarm or being spotted by a camera. Once that was done, the level was clear and you had complete control and could do everything you needed without interference.
What the developers decided was that this was not how they wanted stealth to be. Instead of being a one and done type mechanic, they wanted a stealth level to be a stealth level all the way through and not being able to relax.
And to do that, the developers have altered how stealth and the levels work. First off, body bags which could transport dead guards or civilians away from prying eyes has now been limited to one per player. People who spec into the Ghost tree would have a total of three bags and could buy a body bag perk.
You can now move civilian hostages around but not guards. To restrict the player’s ability to control the level, guards can no longer be jokered while in stealth mode and when they are dominated, the pager will go off forcing you to use one of your allocated pager responses.
For people who do take out guards to clear some of the level, now new guards will spawn in after enough time has passed and will patrol the level and if you already used your allocated pagers, you can’t do anything to them.
These changes obviously increase the challenge factor of playing stealth heists and prevent you from making any map easy. However there are several problems with this redesign and the effect on the gameplay.
First is the fact that Overkill basically dropped these changes onto the design after months of playing the game with the original system. Many people weren’t sure how the original stealth system worked and a complete overhaul has done much to confuse the player base.
To make things even harder to learn, there is still no way to practice stealth or to understand how it works outside of getting caught while playing a heist. For instance the stealth attribute: concealment which is based on what weapons and armor you wear, actually affects two things.
One, it determines how far away someone can spot you while you are sneaking around. And second, it determines where the stealth detection meter starts at when someone spots you. So wearing big bulky armor will not only get you spotted from further away, but you’ll have less time to get out of sight.
Stealth is still a black and white experience and now you have even fewer chances to get it right. This makes the team aspect of Payday 2 a determent as all it takes is one person to screw up the other three.
Once someone is actually detected, the alerted person must be dealt with before the alarm is sounded. And if someone else was looking at the alert person, this could set off a chain reaction alerting the entire map. So the more people you have wandering around, the greater the chance that someone will be spotted.
The other problem with the black and white nature of stealth is that on the higher difficulty levels, you are almost screwed if you are forced to go loud after equipping yourself for stealth. As the best weapons and armor for stealth, are the worst ones for fighting heavy FBI units and the special forces.
With the increased number of guards on patrol along with the somewhat open level design, it makes getting around undetected a long challenge. And as it stands it’s not worth it experience wise to spend the added time on a stealth mission compared to the other more lucrative missions. Overkill has added in a stealth bonus, but again the time it takes to get it makes it a hard sell.
And the final problem comes down to Overkill’s release schedule. Instead of making these changes all at once, they are releasing them in a series of patches. The problem with that is they are making grand changes to their mechanics piece meal style, making it hard for people to get accustomed to the changes.
Even after the major revisions of the stealth system over the last two patches, they have already promised more patches on the way. Many people are debating just playing the missions now or waiting for the changes to be finished.
Personally, while I like the increased challenge, I’m not a fan of the design. Too much of it is hidden from the players and the AI’s detection range is somewhat weird, with characters spotting players from behind walls or through the narrow gap in the environment.
In Payday 1, one of my favorite maps was the diamond heist, which was Overkill’s first attempt at a stealth level. What was great about it was that the design was straightforward: Get caught in a flashlight and you’re spotted. There were just enough guards to keep everyone on their toes but the level was big enough so that you had options of where to go and the group could split up pretty easily.
And the best part was that your equipment had no bearing on the stealth system. So that if things went bad you could still attempt to fight your way out without being handicapped by weaker gear.
In my original analysis of Payday 2, I said that Overkill was definitely reaching big with the game and that there was a lot more going on under the hood. However the developers seem to be painting themselves into a corner with the constant changes to the design. And even still they are planning on doing a complete skill tree revision at some point, which will radically change the game further.
But even with all the new patches and content, there is still things left out from the original promotion of Payday 2 such as safe house customization and greater multi day heists. And with them effectively continuing to rebuild the foundation of their mechanics, who knows when they will come?
In my opinion the developers either need to make stealth more forgiving and less black and white, or enhance the stealth mechanics and give the entire team a role during the heists. As it stands, the new stealth system is a definite challenge but it doesn’t feel rewarding.
When there are arbitrary constraints on your options, it feels more like jumping through hoops instead of being a legitimate test of your skill set.
The developers have talked about wanting to grow the stealth design to make it more involved and rewarding, but at the moment it has become a source of frustration for all but the expert players.
Without having tutorials or a better explanation, most players are left to a trial by fire where any mistake can cost them the whole mission and the group.
It still remains to be seen if Overkill will continue to update the stealth design and continue to work on the mechanics and reward expert players, or offer more bonuses or simpler ways for new player to understand what is going on in the game. Regardless, Payday 2 has become a constantly evolving game and there have been both good and bad times.
Overkill now needs to decide how far they want to appeal to the hardcore minority which will impact their player base. The idea of making Payday 2 more challenging is an appealing one, but that challenge has to be matched by both design and reward. Otherwise you’re just appealing to the truly masochistic which has a limited audience.