So a few weeks ago I finally got my hands on a new computer (yes, this does mean I’ll stop making jokes about my computer being powered by coal), and so naturally I’ve tried out all sorts of processor-scrambling stuff to put it through its paces. The irony, now that I have a computer capable of recreating Far Cry 3‘s absurdly beautiful tropical islands or Sleeping Dogs‘ pseudo-Hong Kong with nary a dropped frame, is that I’ve been spending most of my free time doodling around with a relatively low-fi top-down game.
In fact, Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine has infiltrated itself into my life to the extent that I’m chucking in this games journalism lark and moving into cat burgling. It’s more glamorous, it pays better, and it’s one hell of a response to “So what do you do for a living” at parties. I just need to work out a mysterious-but-suave pseudonym for the newspaper headlines. “The Cat” is bland and clichéd, and “The Gentleman Caller” makes me sound like someone who solicits prostitutes.
Monaco is a top-down heist-‘em-up in which players take on the role of one of eight archetypical thieves, and attempt to rob a variety of buildings blind. That description is entirely accurate, but in terms of giving you an idea of the scope and scale of thing, it’s also about as much of an understatement as “a nuclear blast is more dangerous than a slightly miffed basset hound.”
You’ve got the boring description, so let’s try that again: Monaco is intense, exciting, clever, funny, charming, swift, and very easy to get on with (much like a gentleman thief, I suppose), and if it doesn’t turn out to be one of my favourite games of this year, then we’re in for an unbelievably good year for gaming.
Those eight thieves have their own skillsets. Some – like the Locksmith – are very, very good at one particular task; he can pick open safes and locked doors in a matter of moments. Others, like the Gentleman, can bend the rules in their favour; he puts on a disguise every time he’s hidden, meaning guards take longer to detect him. Then there are a few which break the game in interesting ways; the Lookout, when standing still or sneaking, can see the position of every NPC on the map.
You might think that the latter types are the ones that make the game “easy”, but that’s not really the case; they just facilitate different types of play. If you want to play Monaco like a pure stealth game, then yes, the Lookout might be your character of choice as she’ll help you avoid patrols and stationary guards, but if you want to incapacitate your foes then the Cleaner – who can knock out unaware guards with a sickening squelch – is the one for you. Me? I favour the Redhead, who can charm a single guard at a time, forcing them to follow her around like a lovesick puppy. Each character can also find equipment in the level, from shotguns to smoke bombs, with an extra use earned for every 10 pieces of loot you filch.
There are really three things that are beautiful about Monaco‘s design. The first is the emergence; every situation the game presents you with can be conquered in dozens of ways depending on your character and his or her abilities, and because of the way the game works (loot locations and guard paths are randomised) it’s unlikely anyone else will necessarily have the same experience as you. I’ll relate a story later.
The second is its simplicity. Pretty much everything in the game is easily comprehensible – if you’re playing a game about robbing buildings and a question mark appears over a guard’s head when he’s looking at you, it’s not hard to figure out what that means. Bushes and vents are decent hiding spots. Red lasers sweeping across rooms will likely result in Bad Things and Loud Noises, and standing on cats is ill-advised (and not just because that would make you a total bastard). Even the controls are simple; the entire game is essentially controlled via your movement keys, a button to sneak, and a button to use your equipment. That’s it. You use environmental objects by walking into them. This is not a hard game to control, or pick up, or figure out. It’s very reminiscent of the excellent Mark of the Ninja in the way that it boils down the stealth genre to some simple rules, but layeres them in numerous clever ways to create something more than the sum of its parts.
The third is the way that the game pretty much caters to you, no matter how you want to play it. It’s clearly designed for co-op play – some of the abilities, like the Lookout’s enemy highlighting and the Cleaner’s hopefully-not-erotic asyphxiation habits, slot together like jigsaw pieces – but you don’t have to play it that way. It’s very clearly a stealth game, because guards are almost always capable of overwhelming you in a stand-up fight, but it’s not a game that you’re necessarily encouraged to ghost through (I suspect a few levels would be near-impossible, though I’m sure YouTube will prove me wrong within a week) or forced to play with other people. If you’re a solo gamer then you’ll find a pair of tough-but-fair campaigns, and you can either try to sneak around as a ghost, or race to finish the level as fast as possible, or focus on cleaning the loot out of the entire level (which is incredibly difficult, incredibly rewarding, and the means of unlocking the second campaign’s levels). If you play in co-op with a friend over Skype, then you can either strategise together and finish a level as efficiently as possible by working in tandem, or you can run around madly doing your own thing and just backing each other up when necessary. And if you’re just playing casually with a bunch of friends on the same PC then it’s a hilarious party game with chaos regularly erupting around the mansions and casinos you’re burgling.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re playing with people of your skill level or not, because this is a game that’s largely focused around just having fun. If you want to get through a level with a minimum of fuss, then yes, okay, having three highly-skilled players on your side will help, but if you want to play with some newbie friends you’ll have a fantastic time anyway. Good players act as a bit of a safety net for newbies, as they’re skilled enough to revive players who fall in well-guarded areas, while the less skilled ensure that the game is chaotic and is constantly throwing up challenges which the better players will enjoy adapting to.
As an example, I played one map with a friend who managed to die in one of the worst situations imaginable. Three civilians and two guards were stationed on his corpse, and there was absolutely no cover nearby. I hid in a bush, and for five full minutes, we discussed possible solutions over Skype until we had a plan in mind for how I’d get to him, revive him, and then how we’d both escape. And it worked.
This is brilliant for two reasons: for one, it felt like a genuine triumph, because we were in a tough spot and we figured a way out of it. Secondly, it’s an experience that was entirely personal to us; the chances of you having the same characters, the same equipment, the same health levels, the same guard patrols, and the exact same situation as we did are practically zero. It wasn’t a scripted moment – it was a challenge thrown up because of mistakes we made, and any game that gives you wonderful, personal stories to tell is a game that’s worth at least a glance.
Y’see, I called the game simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy – this really is more of a case of “easy to learn, hard to master.” Things start off fine, with huge text on the floor giving you hints while arrows point you in the most sensible direction, but once the training wheels come off the level design gets devious. You’ll encounter rooms that seem completely insurmountable, but bit by bit, you’ll figure out how to get around, how to move guards to where they won’t bother you, and when to use which items. Here’s a room with eight alarm lasers, rotating in sequence. There’s a room with a camera, a sweeping laser, two guards, and a safe. On the floor above is a room defended by two guards, and there’s an alarmed door blocking access. All of these challenges are entirely beatable (cleanly or otherwise; you could just take a shotgun to that last one and damn the alarm) but figuring out how to crack them – or adapting when things go tits up, which they do with alarming regularity – is what makes the game so enjoyable. You instinctively learn how fast guards move, and when it’s safe to avoid one by ducking around a corridor. You learn when to deliberately alert a civilian so they’ll run off and drag a guard to your last known location. You learn, and you improve, and you keep digging deeper into the myriad layers of possibility.
It helps that the simple aesthetics build a wonderful atmosphere. Each level is laid out sensibly – the casino has gambling halls across multiple floors; the diamond district has an open-plan top level linking the various stores, while underground vaults are connected by air ducts; the bank has a wide entrance with the back stuffed with offices and a pair of vaults – while the plinky-plonky piano music adds layers and rises in tempo when things get tense. Anything out of your line of sight is replaced with a greyed-out blueprint, complete with printed room names. Monaco evokes heist and caper movies constantly through setting, style, ambience, and even an enjoyable story with both campaigns giving entirely different spins on the same events. While there are no cons going on in the gameplay itself, if you don’t at least get an Ocean’s Eleven vibe from breaking into a casino, I can only assume it’s because you’ve never seen it.
Monaco is a game that’s as much about thinking on your feet as it is about stealth and forward planning, and regardless of whether you’re after a fun co-op game for four people, or something to speedrun to impress people on YouTube, I daresay there’s something here for everyone thanks to its focus on sheer entertainment. It’s exquisitely pieced together in almost every way, it lets you play in a variety of different ways and challenges you to think outside the box, and I can’t imagine anyone that could fail to be taken in by its charms. I’ve played for 25 hours and I’m not even remotely close to being bored with it. Monaco is a fantastic and unique take on the stealth genre and a showcase of excellent design, and you should make it yours. Not getting your hands on this would be a crime.
Watch the team play and explain the game in our IncGamers Plays Monaco.