[20 May 2013]
Monaco is a stylish heist game that’ll make you wonder why there are so few heist games. Its minimalist pixel style belies a complex cooperative gameplay that’s designed to evoke one “high five” moment after another. Yet, despite this focus on co-op, the single player design never suffers.
It all starts with a prison break, and the neon noir story only escalates from there with a (literally) colorful cast of characters and a variety of break-in locations. Before each level, you choose your character or rather you choose your profession, since each character is named after their job and corresponding ability. The Lockpick can pick locks quickly, the Lookout can see guard positions through walls, the Cleaner can knock people out, the Hacker can hack lasers through outlets, and so on. The cast is surprisingly large and every criminal is surprisingly useful; everyone will have their moment to shine in any given game.
Each level is preceded by a short cut scene. The cut scenes are nothing more than simple pixel sprites and text boxes, yet each character oozes personality thanks to some clever text tricks. The Cooler only speaks in ellipses, giving him a cold and distant demeanor. The Mole refers to himself in the third person, clearly a bit of an ego-maniac. The Hacker’s text isstrungtogetherlikethis, making him sound frantic and impatient. Between their unique style of speech and their unique skills, each character becomes supremely well-defined on a narrative and mechanical level.
A similar thing happens with the story. The cut scenes are just long enough to give each level context, but when strung together, they tell a genuinely fun and twisty tale of criminals on the run. There’s a nice variety of objectives, so it never feels like the game is repeating itself in that aspect, but the visual style can get monotonous after playing for several hours. Missions will bleed together, and you’ll start to ignore the clever subtleties of each level. As such, Monaco is best played in short bursts.
Before that monotony sinks in, the visuals feel super slick. The neon color palette stands out beautifully against the black background, and the game does a wonderful trick with line of sight. The level is shrouded in darkness at first, but everything lights up according to your sightlines. You can see across the level if the view is clear, but if you’re looking through a window, you’ll only see a sliver of the inside of a room. It’s a stylish presentation that makes you feel in the thick of the action even though you’re controlling it from high above. In another nice touch, when you scout a room and sneak away, you still see a floor plan of the level but none of the guards. It’s a great way to relay information without giving the player an unfair advantage.
Monaco has been hyped as a co-op game, but it can also be played solo. At first, solo play can feel painfully restrictive: So many abilities feel necessary that limiting yourself to one just seems dumb. However, that’s part of the learning curve of Monaco. When playing alone, you get three to four lives, and every time that you die, you have to switch to another character. This is actually a powerful ability since the level doesn’t change when you respawn. Guards you’ve killed stay dead and holes you’ve dug stay intact, so in some of the more difficult levels, you might want to sacrifice a criminal if it can make things easier for the next thief. This is a great system that evokes a sense of teamwork even when playing alone.
This is a stealth game in which it is okay—and sometimes even necessary—to get caught. It’s a hard mentality to get into since stealth games usually punish you for that. Even if the punishment is slight, there is still some negative consequence attached to it. As such, it feels like you have to retrain your brain to play Monaco. It’s okay if a guard sees you—use that to draw him away from a door and don’t be afraid to just run around like a crazy person if you have a good escape route ready. Once the pieces start clicking into place, Monaco becomes an addicting action/puzzle game. It might take a few hours to learn how to properly use each character, but the work is worth it.
When playing co-op, the game is smartly designed to cut back on any potentially frustrating interactions. Teamwork is required but only in certain situations. You’re not punished for splitting up, since each level can be completed alone, but you can’t move on to another floor if one of your heist crew is dead. You literally can’t leave a man behind, and the ensuing elaborate rescue attempts are some of the high points of the game. There are usually multiple paths through a building, so even if your Hacker isn’t disabling lasers like he should be, someone else can make up for it. Have the Mole dig around the lasers or have the Lockpick open a nearby door before the guards come back or just take the long way around by circling to the other side of the building. The team makes up for its own weaknesses.
However, the chaos of co-op can become overwhelming in the later levels. It’s good that you can pass through teammates like a ghost, since that means they’re never physically in your way, but when four thieves are trying to scramble though a narrow corridor filled with roaming guards and pulsing lasers, it’s very easy to lose track of your avatar. In these moments, the perfect cooperative design falls apart, and it feels like other people are nothing but a hindrance.
Regardless, Monaco sets a new gold standard for cooperative multiplayer games. Each level can be played alone or with others, and both ways offer their own pros and cons. This all stems from the excellent level design that gives every character a customized moment to shine, every time. In a gaming era when some games are so strictly designed for co-op that the single-player story becomes a slog (see Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6, and Borderlands 2), it’s refreshing and heartening to play a game that’s so wonderfully attuned to both styles.