Developers: Pocketwatch Games
Monaco looks like a mess of ill-defined, neon-flecked, blocky pixels the first time you fire up the game. A screenshot brings with it instant connotations of muddled confusion, and the sort of head scratching alienation a roguelike newcomer might possess if they've never come across ASCII before (there's a first time for everyone). Alright, it's not quite that bad, but at first glance Monaco might perhaps appear a little intimidating unless you know what's going on.
But don't be fooled. Though it blossoms into a game of devilish complexity, Monaco is, like many absolutely brilliant games, an experience with a simple conceit at its core.
Ostensibly a top-down stealthy puzzler, Monaco plays out in the fashion of a classic crime caper. You choose from a range of operatives, each with a particular skill at their disposal, and infiltrate blueprint maps that have been shaded and coloured in, stuffed with the traps that one would expect to find, and patrolled by marauding guards and their dogs.
You're presented with a simple objective: grab it/hack it/retrieve it and make your escape.
You'll unlock new characters as you progress, and it won't be long before you've ascertained a favourite or two - characters that appeal most wholeheartedly to your own play style. The Locksmith, for example, is a great character for speed as he can bypass locked doors far quicker than the other characters. The Mole can create new escape routes by tunnelling through walls. You can charm and fool anyone you comes across with the Redhead's looks or the Gentleman's penchant for disguises. You'll play things rather differently depending on the character you're inhabiting at any given point.
The control interface is beautifully simple, and translates perfectly from PC to console. Everything pertaining to traversing a level in the XBLA version is governed with left stick or D-pad, and you simply hold fast in the direction of an interactive object -- be it a locked door, a safe to crack, or the controls for alarm lasers -- to make use of it. You'll be able to pick up the occasional weapon or smoke grenade, and then aiming and firing is conducted via the right stick and right trigger respectively, and cautious sneaking can be performed by holding down the left trigger. And that's it.
It's beautifully simple in execution, and that's important because it means you never have to worry about your fingers, just what's happening onscreen.
As with most stealth games, you have to be mindful of your surroundings. Scoping out an area is essential, but Monaco utilises a fantastic, dynamic mechanism that constantly alters your field of vision. You can see the basic blueprint of a building, but you won't be able to see anything of any detail unless your character has direct line of sight. So you'll bump into guards and have to hightail it out of there and hope you can find a nook or cranny to dive into, you'll find yourself beset by hounds and lasers, tripping alarms left, right and centre in the early game until you learn (rather quickly) to trust nothing you can't see.
It's here that the difference between solo and co-op play becomes truly apparent. When playing with others, and god bless Pocketwatch for including four-way local co-op, you have multiple operatives with their multiple skillsets all working towards the same objective. You're a criminal team, outsmarting the bumbling guards in tandem, and it becomes a game of squad-based, clandestine mayhem. With friends the game is a fast-paced and frequently frantic, but solo it's an entirely different beast.
One mission early on, for example, that has you breaking the Gentleman out from house arrest, saw myself and three others take the Lookout, the Cleaner, the Locksmith, and the Mole out for a spin. The extended range of the Lookout flagged up a cluster of guards at the end of a corridor, we dived into a side room, the Cleaner knocked out the unsuspecting inhabitant before they had a chance to raise the alarm, the Mole burrowed through a back wall to lead us all into the next room, but the noise attracted attention from the corridor. Yet, thanks to the Locksmith's speedy fingers, we made our escape from that floor without confrontation.
On one's own, however, Monaco slows down to a crawl. With no-one on hand to bail you out if things go awry, you're forced to play far more cautiously, and the little niggling quirks that don't seem so apparent in multiplayer can prove disruptive. The inaccuracy of the Redhead's charm ability, for example, can occasionally lead to you inadvertently distracting a nearby civilian rather than the gun-toting guard a pixel or two further away. Once dead, you have to swap out for another character and reset to the start of the blueprint level you've reached. The weapons are also problematic as you can only ever hold one at any time. So whereas you might mix up a shotgun with a smoke grenade when there's more than one of you, and a misfired shot might not mean the end of the world if your mate has you back, a wasted shot means almost certain death in singleplayer.
Along the way, you'll collect pointy, angular coins. Some will be littering the corridors you find yourself shuffling along, and others might require a little exploration. Cracking a safe, infiltrating a vault, bypassing security systems and discovering hidden areas. Thorough coin collection is essential if you want your level times to count for anything as each missed nugget of good will add precious seconds to your total and bump you down the leaderboards. You see, as much as completing Monaco's levels can bring its own reward, the real sense of achievement comes from revisiting areas with friends, executing heists to perfection, and unlocking new little tidbits and abilities alongside upgraded bragging rights. Online or sat on the couch together, whatever your choice, it's in the company of others, and working out ways to fully clear all of the loot out from each level, that Monaco really springs into life.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to critique this game with mentioning Austin Wintory's cheeky, reverb-heavy piano-driven score. It promotes overtones of the stylish heists synonymous with the first half of the twentieth century. There are musical vignettes that reflect the suave sophistication of the titular city state, and then all of a sudden the tempo will rise as if attempting to rouse the ghost of Chaplin from the grave, and the mood will be charmingly lightened.
And Monaco is a charming little game. If there's a complaint to be made, it's really only that we wish there was more of it! But with word of a PC level editor on the way (which might swing platform decisions as both are virtually identical otherwise), that might not be such a concern. It's an instantly accessible, yet impressively deep game of stealthy ingenuity, and one of the most rewarding co-op titles we've played in the last twelve months. It can get devilishly difficult when it comes to the final few jobs, but it's always a pleasure. Never a chore.
Unless you're playing with the impatient and the idiotic, that is.
- Fantastic level design
- Wonderfully unique and rewarding co-op experience
- Character abilities complement one another superbly
- More maps please
- Solo game can prove frustrating
- You'll need to be playing with like-minded people to enjoy things properly
The Short Version: An incredibly elegant game when it comes to both the game design and the mechanisms that power it, Monaco is a glorious gem of a game that manages to capture both the sophisticated strategy of planning the perfect heist along with the frantic, delirious fun of the crime caper. A unique co-op marvel in the right hands.