Monaco review

Monaco Got Right

+ Stealth gameplay as it should be

+ Captures the heist movie feel

+ Fantastic fun to play co-op

+ Interesting story structure

Monaco Got Wrong

– Minor online issues

– Some character imbalances

Heists are fun. Assembling a crack team of specialists, staking out a joint, meticulously planning every step, bickering amongst your crew, dealing with unforeseen variables on the fly, watching the plan crumble around you, scraping through to victory against all odds.

It’s a formula that seems ripe for a great co-op game, but none have really nailed it. Payday: The Heist tried but was ultimately disappointing, reducing the experience to standing in a room shooting endless waves of cops, while a bar loads.

Monaco gets it. Heists are about stealth and strategy, in which your team is outnumbered and outgunned, but not outwitted. Shooting everyone in sight is a surefire way to fail: it’s noisy, ammo’s extremely scarce and enemies will revive each other anyway.

Good old fashioned guerrilla tactics are the key to a successful robbery. Each level is a heavily-fortified, classically-lootable location: a bank, a museum, a casino. Your targets lay deep inside, whether it’s a stash of gold, valuable documents, incriminating evidence of past deeds, or characters who need rescuing. Getting in, grabbing the treasure and getting out is often hard enough, but the added challenge of totally cleaning them out, swiping every last dollar, is enticing for greedy veteran thieves.

It might be frustrating when your idiot accomplice triggers an alarm during your thus-far-perfectly executed scheme, but that’s part of the fun.

To this end, each of the eight playable characters contributes a special skill, which require dramatically different approaches.

The Locksmith is adept at picking locks on doors and safes. The Hacker can disable security systems. The Pickpocket has a pet monkey who steals goodies on his behalf. The Cleaner can silently knock out unsuspecting enemies. The Gentleman is a master of disguise, sneaking through right under everyone’s nose. The Lookout can detect guards and civilians outside line-of-sight. The Redhead can distract guards. And the Mole can dig passages through walls with his “freedom spoon”.

On top of these defining specialties, characters vary in effectiveness in basic actions like stealth, movement speed, damage resistance, hacking, lockpicking, healing and how fast they can evade pursuers by leaping into bushes, staircases and vents.

It’s a broad skill set, and sometimes it can be hard to decide who is most useful for each mission. Thankfully, levels are expertly designed to allow multiple approaches, so it’s never impossible for any single character to make it through. No specific skill is ever “needed”, but they may be more useful than others in a given situation.

A complicated security network laid out between you and the prize? Use the Hacker to shut the systems down temporarily. Or the Mole to tunnel through the wall behind the sensors, snatch the loot and be out of there before anyone notices.

The classes are fairly well balanced, but not perfectly. The Gentleman became my go-to guy for single-player sessions, as his ability to nonchalantly stroll through crowds and past guards is a little too convenient. On the other end of the usefulness, scale sits the Redhead, whose charm can disarm just one person at a time. It’s hard to find a practical use for her when other characters have similar, more effective abilities.

The value of characters changes with each mission, and whether you’re playing solo or as a team. The Gentleman’s sly costume changes and slow, methodical approach makes him an effective lone criminal, whereas the big loud Mole works better with a crew to help cover his tracks.

And while it’s a fun challenge to tackle the game single player, Monaco is primarily designed for cooperative play. By allowing players to combine several character powers at once, multiplayer takes some of the pressure off, while adding a new set of obstacles.

It might be frustrating when your idiot accomplice triggers an alarm during your thus-far-perfectly executed scheme, but that’s part of the fun. As listed up top, “dealing with unforseen variables” is a key ingredient.

And when your crew works together as a well-orchestrated unit, a whole new level of enjoyment opens up. Say there’s a guard sitting at a terminal, watching over a vault full of loot. The Cleaner can knock him out, to allow the Hacker to use the computer to shut down the security systems inside the vault. The Locksmith opens the door while the Lookout watches for other guards approaching the room.

There’s a deep satisfaction in getting in and out without being noticed, especially as a team. There’s an equal satisfaction in getting caught, abandoning the plan, filling your pockets with everything nearby, bolting through a haze of gunfire and barely escaping to your getaway car.

But, as with any online game, other players make or break the experience. I tried a couple of online sessions but encountered some serious lag at times, and many uncooperative players. It’s best enjoyed with friends, but an overly-simplified lobby system makes setting up friends-only matches a little clumsy.

Local multiplayer is a welcome addition and is fantastic – when it works. The PC version allows up to four Xbox controllers, but we had issues with third-party gamepads. The keyboard/mouse combo is an option, but it’s awkward one.

The biggest blow to the game is that same-screen multiplayer is offline-only. We excitedly organized a four-player match over two computers and were bitterly disappointed when it would only allow one per PC (we’re not sure if the same goes for the Xbox 360 version).

It’s frustrating, sure, but far from a deal-breaker. It’s still a ball to play online with friends on separate computers, or locally offline.

Monaco’s blocky art style falls a little too close to the retro-pixel rut that indie games have dug themselves into, but for its own purposes, it works. Everything is clearly presented from a bird’s eye view, and useable objects are highlighted with neat symbols. Characters are brightly marked with different colors, so there’s no confusion over who’s who.

Adding further personality is the soundtrack, a lovely piano-driven score from Austin Wintory, the Grammy-nominated composer of Journey. The game’s theme in particular conjures images of old-timey heist movies, with crooks in black-and-white-striped jumpsuits carrying dollar sign sacks and whatnot. In game, the music adapts to fit the action, supplying an air of chaos to chase scenes and a sneaky confidence to quieter moments.