Monaco is a great cooperative game and a great single-player game. That combination is sadly rare, but Monaco balances both playstyles with ease. It’s all thanks to the exceptional level design and how the game presents the player with obstacles.
Every mission begins with you dropped at the edge of a black screen. You’re usually tasked with stealing something, but first you have to find that something. Naturally, it’s usually on the top floor of whatever building you’re breaking into, but if there are multiple objectives, they can be spread out across multiple floors. Exploration is part of the challenge.
(In a way, you’re kind of a terrible thief, trying to break into some high security structure without doing any recon or planning beforehand. Though the story does explain that most of these robberies are spontaneous events, you’d still think they would at least know what the perimeter looks like. Oh well, that’s what multiple playthroughs are for.)
As you explore each floor, you’ll encounter a variety of things that impede your progress. There might be roaming guards with machine guns—and you certainly don’t want to be spotted by them—panning or pulsing lasers, security checkpoints, and handprint locked doors that all set off an alarm if you touch them. Other rooms might be filled with civilians who will gladly single you out as a threat and call those guards with machine guns. Making things even harder, if you want to “clean out” a level by collecting all the coins available in it, then you’ll have to find a way past all of these things one way or another.
Certain characters have an advantage when facing certain obstacles and a disadvantage in other areas. Obviously the Hacker is good with electronics, but he first has to find a computer to hack. Meanwhile, the disguised Gentleman can just follow a guard through a checkpoint or handprint door. The Pickpocket’s monkey can collect coins while you hide safely in the bushes, but he’s helpless against all the defenses. The Cleaner can knock people out, but the Lookout can see people through walls. The Redhead can seduce one person, but only one person, into following her. And so on.
What all this means is that if you’re playing solo, you’ll inevitably reach what feels like a dead end. Maybe you’re the Hacker and you stumble across a hallway littered with guards—you can’t do anything about that. Or maybe you’re the Gentleman who can sneak past all those guards in disguise, but there’s a laser blocking the way, something that you’re helpless against. In these situations, it’s tempting to think that there’s some way through with every character, but that’s not true. To get past this hypothetical example, you’d need multiple players. Tell the Hacker to disable the lasers while the Gentleman sneaks past—teamwork. The Hacker and Gentleman can’t do it alone, and really no one can. However, while some blockades can only be passed with certain characters or certain teams, there’s always a way around that blockade. That’s the genius at the core of Monaco: The level design forces players to work together but only to get through the most obvious routes.
This is frustrating at first since it feels like the game is rubbing in your face all the things that you can’t do, but part of the puzzle of Monaco is figuring out how to get around the level. If you investigate every nook and corner, you’ll inevitably find another way to your goal: A vent that takes you across the level, a hidden passageway, or just go up another floor and cross the level there, then come back down.
The pace of Monaco is very different depending on the number of players. With four players there’s more of an action focus because it’s okay to die. You have infinite lives as long as someone can revive you. This allows the team to concentrate on confronting obstacles and overcoming them, like disabling the lasers or distracting the guards. When you’re alone, there’s more of a stealth focus since you don’t have any backup. You have to be more careful in everything you do. You have to focus on avoiding the obstacles.
The levels in Monaco are near perfect constructions. We can tackle them in a variety of ways, and every way is viable. The number of obstacles encourages teamwork, giving each member a specialized chance to shine as the hero of the moment, making everyone feel useful even though they’re not necessary. If I ever get frustrated by a team of horrible players, I know I can always tackle this mission solo. It might take longer, it might be harder, but it’s doable. Knowing that I have that experience to fall back on makes the co-op feel like a spontaneous benefit rather than an obligation like it is in so many other games.
With so many people making too-early proclamations about the death of single-player games, it’s ironic that Monaco—a game that was hyped as a fun and frantic co-op experience, specifically—proves that both playstyles can exist side-by-side. Quite literally in this case.