The Heat Around the Corner: Are Heist Games Making a Comeback?

Starbreeze Studios
Starbreeze Studios /

There are few crimes more romanticized in the cultural imaginary than the heist. Films like Ocean’s 11 and The Town imagine extremes on the heist-style continuum that stretches from elaborate con games to messy shootouts. Video games have played with heists as a gameplay framework as well, with crime games like Grand Theft Auto V captivating players for nearly a decade. Still, high-profile heist games have been few and far between. Until now.

On Monday, multiple gaming outlets debuted their first impressions of Payday 3, the sequel to what is oft-considered the ultimate heist game. Critics from websites like IGN and GameSpot noted that Payday 3’s heist simulation aspects have been tuned to be more granular and realistic. For example, players must now manually complete some tasks, like cutting open windows and hacking cameras. Guards now escort trespassing players out of some restricted areas, instead of immediately opening fire. Hostages, one of the core systems of Payday 2, can now be used as bargaining chips and shields against gunfire.

A key takeaway from these impressions is that developers Starbreeze Studios and Overkill Software are sticking with what it knows best in order to deliver their sequel. Rather than drastically changing things up, Payday 3 is taking small steps to innovate on the addictive formula of Payday 2, potentially cementing the game as the definitive heist game for years to come.

One heist doesn’t constitute a spree, however. Gaming will soon be graced with another long-awaited heist game sequel: Monaco 2. Monaco 2 is the follow-up to 2013’s indie hit Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, a top-down stealth game with frantic four-player co-op that tasks players with completing a slew of heists in the world’s second-smallest country. If Payday focuses on tense, violent shootouts, Monaco is decidedly more playful, setting its story on the glamorous French Riviera with an elegant jazz soundtrack.

Monaco 2 is shaking up the gameplay of the original title considerably, changing out its strictly top-down perspective for an isometric one set in a procedurally-generated 3D environment, as well as introducing a whole new cast of playable characters. Monaco 2 might not have the same level of hype associated with it as Payday 3, but it has a solid heist game pedigree and is set to be yet another example in a game space that has oft been relegated to the fringes of popularity.

Payday 3 and Monaco 2 are both co-op titles, but competitive heists are another concept high-profile developers are experimenting with. Creative Assembly, the team behind Alien: Isolation, has switched gears and has been working on HYENAS for the past year, putting it through multiple closed tests. The game, published by Sega, pits multiple teams of quirky criminals against one another as they break into the spaceborne vaults of the ultra-rich in a post-apocalyptic future. The game’s offbeat style and zero-G gameplay bring some twists to the heist game formula, and the competitive aspects shake things up further.

The first game revealed during May’s Sony PlayStation Showcase was Fairgame$, developed by new studio Haven which is helmed by Jade Raymond, known for her work on Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed. The game features a similar premise and style to HYENAS (I initially mistook the trailer to be one for HYENAS), tasking multiple teams of players with breaking into facilities owned by the super wealthy and stealing everything they can. Fairgame$ caught my eye due to its seeming focus on cooperatively defeating security systems rather than killing human enemies, as the trailer does not appear to feature any lethal weapons like guns.

Details on Fairgame$ are even sparser than HYENAS, but it’s obviously attempting to bring competition and heist gameplay together. Both games are using heists as a means to comment on wealth inequality and to satirize the excesses of the rich — the success of this commentary is far from guaranteed but the move makes sense in a heist game space that deals with the illegal, often violent re-appropriation of financial assets.

While not always explicitly themed as heists, extraction shooters also play in a heist-like space, using the necessity of leaving levels alive and the stakes of losing what is earned in play as a means to deliver thrilling, tense gameplay. A core part of heist fiction is escaping, and extraction shooters focus heavily on escaping with collected loot, even if said loot is more often food and guns than money and valuables.

Triple-A studios have by no means a monopoly on heists, however, and indie studios are also playing with heists, often experimenting in bold, strange ways. Heartrender is an upcoming heist game that takes place in a surreal environment that defies definition and convention. The game takes inspiration from the open-ended gameplay approach of immersive sims like Dishonored and translates them into a bizarre world ripe for exploration and chaos. Heartrender looks to be in the early stages of development but is worth keeping an eye on for its eye-popping visuals and unique setting alone.

While the future of heist games looks bright, there have also been recent high-profile failures in the space. Hood: Outlaws & Legends was one of the first competitive heist games set in a gritty Arthurian setting, but quickly fell out of favor. Similarly, Crime Boss: Rockay City, which drew some attention for its cast of Hollywood stars, critically bombed. These failures show the risks and room for improvement within the genre that has yet to crystallize in video gaming.

I for one am greatly excited about the potential heist game renaissance emerging in the latter part of 2023 and into the future. It remains to be seen if any of the upcoming games find success, especially in the multiplayer market, or if this heist craze is isolated and fleeting, but it’s hard to deny the potential for heists in gaming. New games with these concepts even beyond those I’ve already mentioned are bound to come up, growing the profile of the genre as a whole as more titles round the corner.