Mad Mack: Gunfire, Screaming & Rave – How Payday 2 Set A Spectacular New Standard For Sound

We often marvel at the atmosphere, mechanics and visuals of games – but rarely do we concern ourselves with the importance of sound. Having been blown away by the audio pyrotechnics of heist sim Payday 2, returning columnist Dave ‘Mack’ McConkey argues the title sets a lofty new standard for sound design in games.

Payday 2

Well. I am back. After something of a hiatus this summer, I have decided to grace you all once again with my witty observations and cutting humour. Some of you might have missed me; most will probably have wished that you’d seen the last of this bogsheet cluttering up your newsfeed. Alas – I care not.

Anyway, I wanted to get the new season of Mad Mack kicked off by talking to you about Sound. Now, I don’t just mean sound, like the sounds of horror women make every time I get near them. I mean ‘Sound’, like the Sound of bullets cracking inches from your head in Battlefield 3, or the stomp of a Sectopod somewhere out in the darkness on XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Hell, it could even be the goofy music and corny effects that go hand in hand with the zany action of a modern (and brilliant) Rayman game. It is the Sound that puts you in the game, and has the power to evoke fear, wonder, relief or any number of powerful feelings that put you in the middle of the action.

And occasionally force the 'action' out of you at high speed

And occasionally force the ‘action’ out of you at high speed

While many games now spend a huge amount of time on their sound design, there are few that get it so perfectly right as Payday 2 – the latest cop-killing simulator from Overkill Software.

So, first a little bit about Payday 2. If this were a review (it isn’t), I’d score it a solid 8 out of 10, plus or minus one depending on how many friends you have, and how tolerant you are of the odd bug (and minus an additional 3 if you are unable to ignore the fuck awful game selection screen, which I am choosing to do).

To summarise, it is a game where you take the role of one of a team of 4 career criminals. Each mission, or ‘Heist’, takes place over one, two or three days (with a maximum of a 7 day length suggesting more in store for future DLC) and are generally stealth focused if things go well, and action focused if they don’t.

And they never do. So the game boils down to:

  1. Case the location
  2. Attempt to infiltrate by killing guards, disabling security and neutralising civilians
  3. Fuck it up
  4. Trigger an alarm that summons the police
  5. Plant your timed MacGuffin in place and wait for it to get you access to the loot
  6. Fight off progressively harder waves of cops, SWAT, FBI and special tac units until the drill (it is nearly always a drill) bores into the vault so you can steal whatever is inside
  7. Bag up the loot
  8. Extract under heavy assault

The game is held back from true greatness by some occasionally dodgy AI, slightly dated graphics and a few bugs; some irritating, some infuriating. And I know I am not the first person to say this, but fuck, what a game it would be on the Frostbite engine! Christ, that gave me a semi just thinking about it.

Anyway, I digress. This is supposed to focus on Sound. So…Payday 2 and Sound.

Rarely have I played a game that was so augmented by its sound design than Payday 2. I know that might sound nonsensical if you have not played the game, but never before have I found myself actually taken aback by how good the effects are.

As it was with Battlefield 3 the first time I saw a whole building leveled thanks to Frostbite, so it is in Payday 2 the first time the music drops, the assault storms in through the door and you open up from the hip. Wargasm, fuck-yeah, fist bumping, adrenaline spike, rollercoaster, let’s go again motherfuckers!

Pictures do not do this justice

Pictures do not do this justice

It is very good, is what I am trying to say here.

The Streets are Alive with the Sound of Music…..

First, the soundtrack. From the start of each heist, the music is muted and relaxed as you case the joint and then move in for the takedown. It puts you in the mind of an Oceans 11 style operation, as you disable security systems, knock out guards and hogtie civilians. And then there is the inevitable Fuck Up (capitalised because it is as inevitable as any other facet of the mission sequence).

The alarm is set off and the beat picks up a bit. You fight a few waves of police before a real assault is set up, and then, suddenly the music drops…then BANG! You are in the fight of your life and if you could not already tell thanks to the stormtroopers kicking the doors in, the music is blasting at full tempo, adding a sense of urgency and pressure to an already tough fight.

The masterful use of rave and drum and base fusion with some metal overtones gives a real pulse pounding quality to the aural assault. On the easier difficulties you might notice the music standing out more, but on Very Hard and Overkill difficulties, when you are really fighting with your back against the wall, it merges seamlessly with the staccato bark of assault rifle fire, the cries for assistance from your comrades and the frustrated screams of the enemy AI (‘Centre mass! Centre mass for fuck sake!’) as their commander extolls them to put you down.

When you finally push the assault back, the music just calms right down again. You feel as though you have just survived a hurricane at sea, such is the calm. But soon, you hear the music pick up, and you know that the next, even tougher assault wave is about to be launched.

…And Gunfire….

You know one of the reasons I really didn’t like COD:Black Ops? Some of the weapons, when you fired them, sounded like peas rattling around in a tin can. It was just so off putting. When you are unleashing death at supersonic speeds via the medium of an explosion about an inch from the end of your nose, you should fucking well know it. As anyone who has ever fired a weapon on a range will tell you, they are fucking loud, even with the ear defence. Anyone who has ever fired a weapon without ear defence found it was probably the last thing they heard for a while.

A weapon going off is obscenely loud. Most people who get their idea of weapon sound from movies totally fail to realise that the noise is not realistically loud because a movie where the main characters are all like ‘what?’ ‘What?’, ‘No what did you say?’ ‘WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’ ‘WHAT DID YOU SAY?’ ‘No, WHAT DID YOU SAY’ would not make for sizzling viewing.

Though sometimes it would be better than the alternative

Though sometimes it would be better than the alternative

Well, Payday 2 took note of this. Here, when you fire your boom stick, it fucking well goes BOOM! The developers understood that any FPS is essentially a power-wank fantasy, and they wanted you to feel powerful. The resultant noise from firing an unsuppressed weapon sounds like it is enough to alert every lawman in the country. You know you have done something powerful and terrible and frightening, and you fucking love it.

The sound effects are dynamic as well. When you are indoors and are fighting in close quarters, the shots have a loud, reverberant quality that slaps you on the face as the pressure wave bounces off the wall right back in your face. When outside, the shots echo in layers as the sound waves are irregularly bounced off buildings, cars and alleyways.

Apart from making you feel like a God of War, the changes in the properties of the report makes it all feel very much more real. So real in fact, that you start to worry about that poor beat cop who was just responding to a robbery, totally unprepared to be gunned down by four heavily armed thieves. You wonder about his family, his young wife and child, husband and fatherless now, all because of your callous pursuit of ill-gotten wealth. Was it worth it? Tell me, was it really worth it? Just for a few measly grand? You monster. You absolute bastard. You mother fu-shit assault wave incoming!

Remembering the victims, and the families, of computer-generated Murder 1

Remembering the victims, and the families, of computer-generated Murder 1

…and Screaming….

I said at the beginning of this article that Payday 2 was a solid 8 out of 10. And it is. A riotous good laugh, especially if you have friends to play with. But, it can get repetitive and the AI is buggy and the graphics are not amazing (not terrible, just not exactly Battlefield-quality), and in many respects is an average game good for a few hours but with limited depth. Yet, here I am, 20+ hours played with a lot more to go.

When I described that moment when the music drops, the cops storm in and your weapon spits flaming death all about you? That rush, that feeling of exhilaration? That is why I want to play it again. And again, and again and again. And it would not even be remotely possible were it not for the power and savagery designed into the Sound Effects in the game. It is to the point where I would recommend playing the game just to experience the full effect. Put in some quality headphones, get that bass unit cranked up, and fall into the world of criminality and violence.

It is no secret that sound has the power to move us. Arie that move men to tears; advertising ditties that remind us of our childhood; beats that keep us running faster and further; the roar of the bike’s engine they drive away after doing your mom fills you with hope that you will never walk in from school at the wrong time again. But you cannot unsee what has been seen. You can never unsee…

Games have been moving forward in nearly every respect since they started, but while we might laud the atmosphere and gameplay of Half-Life (which incidentally made good use of sound), or gush at the vistas of Skyrim, or beat our breasts in joy because a shooter has a fucking dog in it (get a grip people for fuck sake), rarely – if ever, since Sinistar – has the sound design of a game been held up as an example, and with people saying: ‘This. This is now how it is done. This is the paradigm from now on’.

Not that everyone necessarily listens

Not that everyone necessarily listens

Well, as far as I am concerned, Payday 2 is how it is done. And it is now the new standard in regards to sound design in games.

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