I don’t hate Monaco, but I’m pretty sure Monaco hates me.
The gendarmerie have flooded into my penthouse suite like they just piled out of a clown car. I can’t walk five feet without encountering a guard, a security laser, or my old nemesis, the ever-vigilant tracking dog. For the next 45 minutes, I meticulously scout every room, crack every safe, and pilfer every last coin as I make my way to the groundfloor. With the utmost care, I tiptoe into a bush near the lobby exit and wait for the perfect moment to start my dash to freedom.
This is it. I make a break towards the getaway vehicle…and promptly take a double-helping of buckshot right in the middle of my back.
Maybe they should update that old saying: Crime does pay, but it’s also really, really hard.
For any of you that might’ve missed out on the indie hype train, Monaco is a 2D, top-down, co-op stealth game about a gang of crooks trying to escape the small European country that lends its name to the title—but not until after they’ve robbed it blind. Each of the game’s levels is presented as an empty black-and-white blueprint that only reveals itself to you in full color and detail once you have has a direct line of sight. Characters consist of a few blocky polygons with pixelated textures, and the controls have been streamlined to work with just two sticks and two buttons.
And yet, in spite of all its minimalist design, Monaco never really feels simple. In fact, even with the pared down control scheme, I’m not exactly sure I’d call it accessible. It takes a fair bit of practice to learn to properly read the blueprint-chic visuals at a glance, and the wide selection of gadgets, pickups, and characters mean there are plenty of strategic combinations to master.
The characters in particular offer a surprising amount of depth, since each has a special ability that demands a unique playstyle. The Locksmith can open locked doors and safes quickly, the Cleaner can knock unsuspecting guards unconscious, the Pickpocket has a monkey that automatically collects nearby loot, the Lookout can detect distant enemies, the Mole can dig through almost any wall on the map, the Hacker can disable electronics by using power outlets, the Redhead can charm attacking enemies, and the Gentleman can disguise himself if he stays out of sight for a few seconds.
As you can see, there’s an awful lot to digest, and you’re not exactly eased into it, either. The levels start off approachable enough, but they quickly ramp up into one of the most demanding stealth experiences I’ve ever seen. If you want to do well, you’re going to need to master your gadgets, utilize your surroundings intelligently, and be ready to lose the last 30 minutes of progress with one mistake. Can it be annoying at times? You bet, but I can’t say it ever really feels unfair. There’s certainly a tremendous amount that’s expected of you, but you always have the tools you need to succeed—give or take the patience.
The difficulty is most punishing in single-player, since you’re obviously limited to just a single character and their ability. The burden is eased slightly by the fact that you have four lives—once you die, you can swap to any other living member of the crew—but it’s difficult to formulate a strategy that capitalizes on the skills of multiple characters unless you plan on dying in advance. More often than not, you carefully try to beat the level with your best character, die, and then scramble to stay alive as someone you’re much less comfortable with.
Fortunately, mixing in some human co-op partners—either locally or online—makes things considerably easier. Being able to use the powers of different characters together provides a lot of useful synergies, and the ability to revive fallen teammates makes death much less of an issue.
That being said, adding more players on screen complicates the visuals somewhat, and things tend to get a bit confusing when there are four players running around the screen. The biggest issue is that a few of the colors used to differentiate the characters tend to blend into one another: cyan, blue, purple, magenta, and pink. It’s easy to lose track of which character you’re controlling, and while it’s usually only a brief problem, every last second counts in a stealth game.
Monaco‘s co-op also demands some phenomenal teamwork. In the later levels, when there’s not as much room for error, your group needs to operate like a well oiled machine from start to finish. If one person slips up, it’s entirely possible for them to singlehandedly bring a swarm of guards down on the entire team and end your crime spree right then and there. Frustrating, to say the very least. Remember those jokes about how the co-op in New Super Mario Bros. U ruins friendships and breaks up marriages? I’m fairly certain Monaco is going to be responsible for a few murders. This really isn’t the sort of game you can pick up and play casually with your non-gamer friends. It’s certainly possible to play it like that: just goofing off is still a lot of fun, and you can always just get in, snatch the primary objectives, and get out, but you won’t be getting the complete Monaco experience.
That’s because the game is split into two separate campaigns, and to unlock the second,you’ll need to steal all the loot in each level—or “clean it out,” as the game says. Each half of the story follows the follows the testimony of one member of the group, provided in quick dialogue bubbles that precede each mission. A la The Usual Suspects, the two crooks have very different accounts of what went down. As such, the levels in the second campaign actually send you back to the same locations as the first, but with different objectives, altered maps, and an even higher level of difficulty.
It’s on these missions that my largest gripe with the game really begins to surface: It’s almost impossible to always be truly stealthy. Every so often, you’ll find yourself in situations where you practically need to trigger an alarm or be spotted in order to clean out a level. So much of the fun in a stealth games comes from the tension of almost being detected. If the best way to clear a room is to lead five guards on a Benny Hill-style chase while I clean up all the gold, then dodge around a corner and hide in a bush, a lot of that tension evaporates. It’s certainly not something that crops up on every level, and it’s hardly a dealbreaker once you get used to it, but it’s just uncharacteristically un-stealthy from a game that otherwise nails the spirit of the genre.
Still, every time I want to dislike Monaco, even a little, I discover some new facet of the AI, animation, or level design that wins me over again. Push into a wall, and you’ll cling against it and nervously look from side to side. Lean into a toilet, and you’ll automatically begin to relieve yourself (though I will say, the stream looks an awful lot like it originates in the center of your face.) Narrowly escape from a guard, and you’ll huff and puff as you catch your breath. There’s a certain lushness, a completeness to to world that you don’t usually see in indie games.
That attention to detail, combined with the big-picture brilliance of the design, make for an experience that’s hard to master but easy to love. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you’ve got a lot of patience, an affinity for stealth, and three likeminded friends, Monaco might just be your next big addiction.
|Developer: Pocketwatch Games • Publisher: Majesco • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 4/23/2013 (PC), TBA (360)|
The demanding difficulty may be a turnoff for some, but Monaco manages to deliver an impressively minimalist twist on stealth that doesn’t sacrifice the depth or strategy the genre is known for.
|The Good||More imagination and meticulous design than most stealth games in the last decade.|
|The Bad||Brutal difficulty curve, visuals that can get cluttered in co-op.|
|The Ugly||Peeing out of your mouth. Not even going to ask how that works.|
|Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA) and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.|