Most games are better when everyone knows the rules. In the cooperative realm of multiplayer, nothing could be more important. Ever trudged your way through a three-hour family game night? No one wants to teach grandma and grandpa how to play Pandemic. All the same, a four-player game is a hell of a lot more fun than a two-player bout. Learning the ropes requires a time investment, and it’s not always fun. When you get down to play, however, that investment starts to pays off. Monaco, the latest release from Pocketwatch Games, asks for a lot of your time. For some, the upfront cost required to understand the game’s nuances might be a little too high. For the patient and social, however, Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine delivers some of the best returns in the business.
First off, let’s be blunt. If you’re left playing solo or offline, this is a game to avoid. Pocketwatch Games, in all of their indie ambitions, have set out to capture the thrill of the heist. The developers have stolen inspiration from decades of pop culture source material, and the resulting work provides a half-decent remixing of classical genre tropes. Drawn halfway from Reservoir Dogs, and halfway from The Great Train Robbery, this is a title that excels in multiplayer, but quickly forgets the storied history of independent swindlers. Most heist films are characteristically cooperative, the assemblage of a crack team a la Ocean’s Eleven. This works, for the most, in Monaco’s favor. Unfortunately, it’s also caused Pocketwatch to ignore the Bonds and Catwomen of the past. Instead, the developers have focused solely on crafting an unparalleled co-op experience. For the social gamer, Monaco is the digital equivalent of a cherished board game. For the lone wolf, however, it’s playing solitaire in a ratty apartment.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Monaco feels like the strange, in-bred child of Sly Cooper and Pac-Man. The camera stays top-down for the duration of the experience, and you’ll be running your character through a geometric maze of tunnels and floor plans. “A new twist on stealth,” claims the development studio, by which they mean that you won’t be able to hide in the shadows for more than a few minutes of each level. With friends, this is absolutely delightful. Either a teammate will create a distraction while you fly through the current objective, or you’ll be the one running rampant to keep the guards busy. Playing independently, though, comes with an unfortunate set of disadvantages. You’ll start each level sneaking vigilantly past each obstacle, but it can never last. Monaco won’t let you fill Batman’s shoes. Instead, the mechanics force you into conducting a haphazard, dangerous, and unplanned burglary each round. Due to the inherently strategic nature of the stealth genre (not to mention the leaderboards), it’s hard to accept that the best route through a given building might be to bulldoze straight through. As you might imagine, this detracts from the single player experience, which just isn’t the same without the backup support of the multiplayer suite.
From the ground up, this is a title founded on the notion of strategic cooperation. Whether playing with local friends or distant strangers, Monaco is only fun when your team works together. Right off the bat, players choose a character from a long list of genre staples. There’s The Gentleman, The Lookout, The Lockpick, The Mole, The Cleaner, The Hacker, The Pickpocket, and of course, The Redhead. Each brings something unique to the table, a certifiable skill that presents a distinct set of strengths and weaknesses. The Gentleman can wear disguises, the mole tunnels through walls, and the cleaner wipes out unsuspecting enemies. When playing as part of a crew, this works to build an atmosphere of strong synergy. Playing alone, however, you’ll be left to rely on the perks of a single character at a time. The solo experience, then, becomes a very shallow one. The Redhead, for example, is able to distract guards. Yet, when there’s nothing around to distract them from, a good portion of the fun and motivation leaks from the experience. Even with a bloated package of levels, the unaccompanied player will be hard-pressed to justify a repeat performance, let alone a single playthough.
All of that being said, Monaco is still a great game. Viewed from the correct perspective, it’s a co-op masterpiece. Nothing on today’s market can compare to the incredible thrills of a successful, timely run. As you set out to perfect the art of the steal, you’ll work through seamless, silently coordinated patterns of achievement and progress. You’ll quickly fall into a state of flawless synergy, and it’s at this point that you’ll start to notice that the corners of your mouth have snuck their ways upward into a yearbook grin. Despite playing alongside a herd of nameless, faceless avatars, there’s a sense of camaraderie. Truthfully, this sense of almost sport-like community is what sets Monaco apart from its many well-funded competitors. In this sense, Pocketwatch has taken the magic of Hokra and embedded it within the high-octane confines of Payday: The Heist.
If you’re wondering how the game works visually, it’s not quite what you’d expect. Monaco pilfers the flat, aerial perspective of a game like Hotline Miami, but remixes it for a more tactical approach to setting. Levels are floor plans, plain and simple. At any given time, the screen looks like an aging digital Clue board owned by a pixel-spewing Jackson Pollock. A variety of unmatched color schemes have been haphazardly splattered across the visual spectrum, and it amounts to a confusingly lo-fi UX disaster. Buildings have been fully abstracted to their 2D layouts, which again, is only fun when you know the rules. No one wants to teach grandma about all the secret passages necessary to sneak through the Lebanese Embassy. Yet, it’s all but required if want a return on your investment. If you devote the time to learn the maps, memorize the iconography, and create your own color guide, the game flows effortlessly. Unfortunately, the interface often feels like the result an unresolved form versus function argument. From an artist’s perspective, it’s ugly. From a designer’s perspective, it’s broken. On top of all that, Monaco’s abstract level reductions shatter what could’ve been a narrative masterwork full of thoughtful, detailed settings. Instead, we’re presented with a mutated, stillborn compromise, one that dramatically shifts the slope of the learning curve.
Judged solely on the strength of its multiplayer, Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine will go down in history as one of the indie community’s most prolific co-op titles. Just like family game night, however, there’s always going to be newcomers. Uncle Gary doesn’t know how to play. All the same, it’s not the learning curve that drags down Monaco, it’s the learning process. It generally takes people a few hands to learn Pinochle, but they’re having fun the whole time. With Pocketwatch’s latest, there’s only one way to truly learn the ropes, and it’s the heartless, monotonous solo campaign. With the possible exception of a no-holds trial-by-fire, every player who buys this game is forced to drag their bank-robbing heels through a couple levels of single-player. When you take into account how little fun that is, Monaco’s hefty time investment becomes all the more intimidating. This is a downloadable game that deserves a symbolic spot on the shelf next to Risk and Apple to Apples, but much like its physical counterparts, it’s only fun when everyone knows the rules. Disappointingly for some, the upfront costs required to enjoy Monaco may prove too high to get everyone in on the ground floor. But if you’ve got time, friends, and 1200 Microsoft points, well, you know what to do.
An unparalleled multiplayer experience, solid sound design, a plethora of long levels, and an incredible roster of playable characters.
An overly steep learning curve, the subpar single player campaign, and some very questionable user interface design.
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/