PCJune 1, 2013 by Omar Elaasar
In Monaco, things never go as planned. You come in with exactly the right crew, mark out the guards and coordinate the plan. Action. Computers hacked, electric grid down, guards knocked out---the one of you looks the wrong way for a moment, a civilian catches you runs to a guard and now the whole floor is on alert and there are machine guns on the dance floor. Monaco is a game about planning the perfect heist, and everything that goes wrong in between.
Monaco starts simply enough. You and your assorted group of no good criminal types break out of prison and then pull off some heists to obtain the appropriate materials to get the hell out of Dodge, er, Monaco. Grab some cash, pick up some passports, then smuggle yourselves out of the country, right? Told in brief interludes before each heist, with each chapter narrated by a different member of the crew it tells the tale of a simple escape that spirals into a narrative of constant sidetracking and chaos. Each character represents an archetype of the heist and noir genres and plays an appropriate function.
This is where it gets interesting. While most games include cooperative modes, Monaco requires it. While it is possible to complete stages alone or with only another buddy, later stages will have you lamenting the gaps in your team if you decide to. Each character provides a simple but crucial service and without it certain tasks become much harder and your approach will have to change to adapt to it. For example, the Lookout provides the crucial function of marking guards on the screen while sneaking or still, allowing you to easily discern guard routes and make on the fly changes to your plan. The Cleaner allows you to knock out unalerted guards temporarily, the Hacker allows you to take out large chunks of a security system quickly and so on. Some characters will be more useful in certain situations, but you'll usually be best off bringing along a crew of three or four to make the heist as smooth as possible. That is, if you can get everything properly coordinated.
Plans get complicated, and complicated plans get screwed up. That's why Pocketwatch Games have elected to use a decidedly simple control scheme and art style. Actions such as lock picking, opening doors, and hacking are all done by simply walking up to the appropriate object and holding the direction. Aside from that, there are buttons for sneaking and for using equipment, and another to bring up the HUD to check ammunition and objectives. The simplicity means that you waste less time explaining controls to new players and more teaching them how the systems work. Also crucial is the top down blueprint art style, where rooms, characters and objects are rendered with simple geometry and iconography. While playing with others I often found myself pointing things out on the screen and tracing routes as we plan our heist, the level layout doubling as a blueprint for the plan. Where it gets complicated however is in the myriad of bright colors and ever changing lines of sight that throw parts of the map in and out of color and shadow constantly. It looks like an indecipherable mess to anybody simply looking at the game, and until you spend some time playing it and learning to read the icons and shapes it can feel that way sometimes as well.
As such the game is at it's best when played with friends that you can more easily cooperate with, preferably in the same room with a large TV or monitor so that you point out threats and opening as they appear. More than once we had developed tunnel vision looking into whatever action was occurring around our characters only to be saved by pointing out imminent threats to each other. However, if this isn't an option, Monaco does support four player online co-op through Steam as well as LAN play. Simple enough to set up and get into action, although playing with randoms can be difficult as players' familiarity with the game varies. There are also consistent leaderboards, shown before the start of each level, giving you top times for various categories and what characters were used.
Throughout the game there are a lot of neat details like that which make it obvious just how smart the design of the game is. The game feels like a genuine co-op game, with characters each working together to support and enhance each other. While some of them may feel more specialized than others, none feel unnecessary. The sound design deserves special mention as well. Sound effect share the same sense of brevity as the rest of the game, communicating actions in clear, iconic sound effects and helping give an aural cue to the chaos. The soundtrack, a ragtime dynamic piano accompaniment complements the chaotic nature of the game as well, kicking up the ante when things inevitably go south.
The whole game carries a playful weight with it. From the chaotic reactions to being spotted that allow keen players to quickly steer the action back on course, to the steganographic techniques used to transmit level data (a clever and amusing technique as interesting as Bangai-O Spirits' Sound Load), or even the simple joy of the very snappy menu. A very underrated detail, but one that goes beyond functional to simply feel good to navigate.
While it may be a difficult game to explain to others, the appeal is obvious and the satisfaction of pulling off a well coordinated heist immense. It may be obtuse initially but Monaco is a game that is easy to sum up: a glorious playground of criminal capers and chaos. Grab a few friends, force some controllers into their hands and get to work making Monaco a slightly less wealthy place.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
Omar Elaasar is an hobbyist artist, writer, and game developer, and is dedicated to playing obscure games in order to maintain his status as a most pretentious hipster.
About the Author: Omar Elaasar
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