Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine

I'm always a sucker for a good heist story. It's a recipe for great entertainment: a cast of colorful characters jet sets to an exotic locale to take on a massive challenge with plenty of hijinks and mishaps along the way. Pocketwach Games' Monaco is not only the best co-op game I have played in recent memory, it's the first game I have played that successfully recreates the thrill of the heist.

Monaco has been affectionately described as "Pac Man meets Hitman," but it's not about murdering hordes of cops, or remaining unseen. Only two metrics are used to track your performance: How long you (or your team) took to steal the target object and escape alive, and what percentage of loot in the level you nabbed on your way out.

The act of playing Monaco is simple, and keeps players focused on grabbing loot and moving around the environment as quickly as possible. Unlocking safes, hacking computers, climbing ladders, and donning disguises are all accomplished by pushing your avatar into the object with the control stick and waiting for the action to complete. I usually take extreme caution in any game with a stealth mechanic, but Monaco's controls invite a rapid exploration and surveying of the environment. Besides just moving around, the player can also activate one of a multitude of offensive and defensive items like shotguns, sleeping darts, and smoke grenades with the right trigger. Even with such an extensive arsenal at your disposal though, you should get used to the idea of getting detected multiple times during your average Monaco game. Like any of the best heist movies, at least one important part of your plan is guaranteed to go wrong.

Getting caught by roaming policemen usually just means a mad dash to the nearest vent/bathroom/dark corner to hide -- it's not the end of the world. In fact, most of the time, it feels like Monaco wants you to get caught. More than one of my heists were foiled by a random telephone call that a security guard ran to answer. A stray cat might meow and get the attention of guards in the area, or might not. This would be infuriating in traditional stealth games, but remaining unseen isn't the point of Monaco. There's no "ghost" achievement here. Monaco, like Valve Software's Left 4 Dead, is a game that is most enjoyable when everything is going wrong, and your team is frantically hoping to make it out alive.

I eventually reveled in getting caught. Not just because tearing through exotic locales with policemen nipping at my heels was exhilarating, but because that's when the fantastic soundtrack by Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory kicks into high gear. What starts as a minimal plinking piano quickly breaks into frenetic chord strikes and arpeggios, evoking an air of hijinks along the French Riviera. It speaks to his incredible talent that Wintory achieves more impact here with one keyboard than other games do with entire orchestras. It's too bad, then, that I experienced audio glitches with annoying regularity.

Time attack arcade games are usually no more than gameplay mechanics and a level select screen but, to my surprise, there's a surprising amount of humorous narrative that strings Monaco's levels together. The "lobby" before each stage is a brief conversation between all of Monaco's characters, followed by a statement of the objective. The dialog made me laugh out loud more than once, and is a delightful addition to a game that could just as easily not had any narrative context to its gameplay. But with a campaign spanning more than 20 missions that take at least 10 or 15 minutes your first time through, Monaco spreads itself a little too thin, and the storyline suffers. What starts as a compelling "get the team back together" heist plot, complete with prison breakouts and nationwide manhunts, turns into a repetitive series of high-stakes robberies with no real rhyme or reason. The objective for one mission jokingly asks the player "do you really need a reason to do this?" which trivializes the fiction Monaco wants to establish instead of being cheeky. It's a real shame, because I really enjoyed the story until it was clear that the game didn't.

Monaco is definitely designed with co-operative multiplayer in mind. While the entirety of the campaign can be played single player, doing so robs the game of most of its charm and, sadly, most of its fun. When I played by myself, there was a very pronounced middle third of 6 or 7 missions that blended together, with no distinct new scenery or challenges. This all culminates in a finale that is awesome when played multiplayer, but hilariously anticlimactic when played solo. To Monaco's credit, it does recommend that you play through the finale with another person, but this is the first time it makes any such recommendation.

There are other gameplay quirks that emerge only when playing solo, as they are usually the result of design choices to make multiplayer more enjoyable. Before each mission of Monaco, players select a character that has his or her own unique abilities. This makes strategizing with teammates a blast, as in one scenario where my character (adept at lockpicking) cracked a safe while my teammate used his character's special ability to seduce the guards into looking the other way. When playing by yourself, though, these specialized characters can hamstring you into playing a certain way, and later missions that could be deftly pulled off by two or three people require brute force without certain abilities in tow.

Fortunately, jumping online and finding other players is pretty easy (once you figure out that you have to hit "start" to toggle between online and offline mode). The glut of missions can make it more difficult for players who are wanting to play through a certain level, as there are more than two dozen levels to choose from, but there is a "custom game" view where you can view all multiplayer sessions looking for players if you just want to jump in and play. This is good, because Monaco is one of the most satisfying multiplayer co-operative experiences I've had since Left 4 Dead. It is great fun when strategizing with your team and executing a heist, and even more fun when it all goes down exactly the opposite of how you planned.

Monaco is the first game I've played that truly nails feel of the heist, with enough traps, items, and different characters that co-op play with friends should be a staple of your online activity for the months to come. However, the over-long campaign is a chore when played solo, especially when the story suffers as a result. If you and your friends are looking for a new game to play together, Monaco is a no-brainer. But playing through Monaco by yourself, or leaving your enjoyment up to groups of strangers, can yield uneven results.