Game Review: Monaco
OverviewGenre: Action, Stealth
Pros:Fun, fresh, and a blast in co-op, with some great presentation.
Cons:Single-player can be a bit lacklustre, and frustrating at times.
The eagerly awaited co-op crime caper delivers a healthy dose of pilferous fun but, as Colm finds, it’s not without its shortcomings.
When you first sit down to play Monaco, there’s something that might take a while to sink in: it’s a stealth game, but it’s not a stealth game. That’s important. We’ll get to it.
Pocketwatch’s top-down co-op crime caper started life in 2010 as a prototype called Monte Carlo, and netted creator Andy Schatz the grand prize at that year’s Independent Games Festival. Since then it’s evolved into a more complex beast and, thanks to that original strong showing and an enthusiastically received beta, built a sizeable wave of expectation behind it. But after all that, is it any cop? Yes. And no. But mostly yes.
Unlike the streamlined, frictionless experiences of big-budget mainstreamers, this is a game you’ll have to work to get into — not that it’s needlessly complex, but it’ll take a while to get into the right mindset, to figure out how you’re supposed to approach the game. That’s why that qualification above about the stealth aspect is important: Monaco is a game about heists, of the classic Hollywood devious-dames-and-plinky-piano kind, and as much as heists like that are about meticulous planning and crafty execution, they’re also about hilarious screw-ups and snowballing panic. Things will go wrong, basically, and when that happens you’ll have to mentally gear-shift from softly-softly recon to mad dashes to to find a handy hiding spot to shake your pursuers. Or shoot your way out, depending on your inclination.
Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s a valid comparison to be made to IO Interactive’s Hitman games, in that individual missions are little clockwork puzzles of patrols and tools and routes and switches that need to be mapped out and memorised before you can really make a properly efficient run at them. Like in Hitman, this learning process can be slow and sometimes frustrating, more work than play, but it’s ultimately rewarding, and the systems of the game are loose enough that it’s never just a matter of memorising the ‘correct’ route — there’s generally room for a bit of improvisation, with even a seeming screw-up often lending itself to opportunistic grabbing of some out-of-the-way loot. Monaco strives to reward thinking ahead as much as it rewards thinking on your feet, and it succeeds more often than not.
The game, with its choice of variably-skilled characters (the Locksmith, the Hacker, the scenery-smashing Mole, among others) is clearly built from the ground up with co-op play in mind, and while it can be played single-player, it tends to be a more limiting experience. The recon and basic pilfering elements still work, but it can feel a bit rote — it never really lights up, and the chaos that can break out from an ill-planned approach feels a bit flat when you’ve no-one to share it with. Worse, you’ll encounter situations, especially in later levels, that simply can’t be solved in any kind of elegant or daring way. You’ll just have to pile in, take some damage and wade out, and hopefully not get cornered.
In co-op play, by contrast, brute force rarely comes into it. Depending on the size of your team (up to four, local or online) and the characters you’ve chosen, there will always be a way to combine your skills to pull off a score in some satisfying way; the Hacker shuts down the trip-lasers, for instance, allowing the disguise-wearing Gentleman to saunter in past security, or the Cleaner takes out a guard so that the Locksmith can run in and crack a safe while the camera’s looking the other way. At the very least, one of you can take the heat and lead a chase while the rest take advantage of suddenly unguarded goods. Again, the systems are loose enough that there’s never a truly right answer, and there’s enough scope for mischief and hilarity that the game feels fresh even on repeated plays.
Design-wise there are some great touches, most significantly the way the game area doubles as an automap. At the start the level is hidden, but once you’ve had line of sight on a particular area, it stays mapped — while you’re not in an area, you can still see its layout, entrances and exits, and any useful items like computers or breaker switches. It can look a bit confusing in screenshots but works perfectly in play, and it’s always great to see a neat visual touch that also functions as a solid gameplay element.
Overall, Monaco is a clever, fun experience with a wonderful sense of character. It’s often merely ok in single-player, but comes into its own as a party game, and if you can muster a reliable group of friends to play with you’ll have a blast. All the more so if you can play in the same room — this is a game that’s perfectly suited to sitting around with a bunch of friends, watching the plans play out and the chaos unfold. It’s not perfect, but it’s fresh and it’s new, and given the chance it may just steal your heart.