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The game consists of a variety of 'heists' that a player can opt to either carry out by themselves, with the AI, or as part of a multiplayer game. There are heists such as bank robbery, a drug trafficking run, and rigging an election. Some of the heists put a large emphasis on stealth, often leading to bonus experience points and money on completion.
The level selection menu is styled as a fictional website, Crime.net, where missions pop up periodically as contracts in a map of Washington D.C. The player can pick up an open contract, join a contract another player has started, or buy a contract with in-game money in an offshore bank account. There are five difficulty levels, with increased money and experience payouts for higher difficulty levels. Independent of difficulty is the "pro job" condition - pro jobs give additional experience, but cannot be retried if the players fail. Some contracts in Payday 2 take place over multiple days, with each day represented by a separate level with different objectives. After a day is complete the game may add an escape level, where the players' original escape is thwarted and they must survive to reach their backup getaway.