Monaco is a very purple game. I mean that both in the sense that it literally does contain large amounts of purple, and also that it’s precisely the sort of critical indie darling that induces reviewers to lose their minds and write acres and acres of godawful tortured prose about how this game had such a profound experience on them that it redefined their entire worldview and now they’ve become disciples of the church of Jonathan Blow. Or whatever. You can find examples of these frothy pieces at any one of several reputable gaming news sources, but what’s slightly unusual about Monaco is that for once they’re not overegging the larceny pudding. (Much, anyway.) It really is that good.
As it happens Monaco is actually two very different games, each with its own gameplay strengths. The first is the one you play in single player, and is the one closest to how I imagine a lot of people thought a top-down stealth-based infiltration and heist game would turn out: you select one of a number of different characters, each with its own unique skill – the Lookout always knows the location of nearby guards, the Cleaner can temporarily disable them if he catches them unawares etc. – and then you’re dumped into the level to steal as much stuff as possible, and also incidentally complete some sort of themed mission objective along the way. Because you only have one thief sneakiness is key; you’re unlikely to recover from being spotted (especially if the guards have guns), and while you do get a limited number of lives you have to respawn at the entry point of the level with a different character meaning that an untimely death will undo a lot of your good work.
So with a dizzying array of security systems obstructing your entrance into whatever heavily guarded facility you’re trying to break into this time – alarm lasers, electronic palm locks, sentry guns, dogs that can track your scent — this forces you to make as much out of Monaco’s equally plentiful stealth systems as you possibly can. Hiding in bushes is the simplest way to avoid or lose any pursuing guards. Small windows might provide alternate, quiet entry points to a building. Hacking a computer will cause a virus to follow you around for a brief period of time, shutting down pesky electronic systems like the aforementioned lasers and palm locks. Sometimes you’ll even be lucky enough to find a disguise which can be donned to walk through guarded areas with impunity – unless a guard manages to get too close to you or your behaviour is too suspicious, at which point the spell will be broken and you’ll get clubbed to death in short measure. There are also utility items that you can pick up; these range from shotguns to medical kits to smoke bombs for a quick escape, but while they are incredibly useful they are limited by the fact that you can only carry one type of item at once, and it will have a limited number of uses. They have to be used strategically, not as a catch-all solution to every problem that you encounter.
Take the wrench, for example. This is an item which allows you to circumvent one of Monaco’s key gameplay restrictions: that any activity in the game you attempt that isn’t simply getting from point A to point B will take a certain amount of time to accomplish. Picking a door lock will take any character a few seconds, during which they’re going to be immobile and helpless. Cracking a safe will take even longer. Concealing yourself in bushes? That takes time. So does hacking computers, putting on disguises, opening cash registers, disabling lasers; the tradeoff for the temporary advantage these activites will give you is that you have to stay alive and unobserved long enough to pull them off in the first place. There are characters you can play which make things easier – the Lockpick and the Hacker are both much quicker at performing their respective jobs than anyone else – but for everyone else, the wrench is an equalizer which can be used sparingly to complete activities instantly. There’s a particular safe I’m thinking of which was covered by a terrifyingly elaborate security system; it wasn’t possible for one person to disable the entire thing at once and the safe took too long to open with even one bit of it functioning, so eventually I just said sod it and wrenched it open. Of course I then got shot to death while trying to loot all the gold that had spewed forth from its voluminous interior, but it was a worthwhile use of the wrench to do something which would otherwise have been impossible.
Planning your heist in advance therefore becomes quite important; using your available resources, the abilities of your character and the level topography to accomplish a sequence of actions that will let you steal all the money without being detected by guards. This is both aided and made more complex by Monaco’s exellent visual design. When you don’t have eyes on a portion of the map it’ll fade out to a simple plan of the various rooms and interactive items with no intelligence on guard positions/security systems (unless you’re the Lookout, of course). When you do have eyes on it, though, what was a previously dull grey-tone level blueprint comes to life with all the detail picked out in a gorgeous array of colours I don’t usually see in videogames, largely because the levels are lit in such a way that they’ve always got this ethereal night-time quality to them. Your line of sight shifts in real time with your position and is properly blocked by level geometry such as pillars and walls while going through windows with no problem, so Monaco manages to avoid one of the major problems I had with Hotline Miami and makes it very easy for you to tell when you can and can’t be seen. If you blunder into a room full of guards that’s usually your fault for walking somewhere you hadn’t scouted first, not the game’s fault for being stingy with information.
That’s how the single-player mode of Monaco plays out, and it is a perfectly respectable game. For all of its excellent design, though, I could never escape the feeling that there was something missing from the experience, and that hoovering up every piece of gold in the level was a somewhat empty task if it was only going to result in a decent completion time at the end1. This is why I haven’t spent all that much time in single-player Monaco, instead preferring to indulge in the game’s primary selling point of four-player co-op heists; there are no lives in this mode, but that doesn’t matter because each player gets to pick a different character (indeed, they have to) and can revive any fellow thieves who are unfortunate enough to get shot in the face by a guard. But that’s not the only difference between single-player and multiplayer Monaco, however, because multiplayer Monaco is absolutely insane.
This has nothing to do with the game’s design; aside from the lives thing it plays out in exactly the same way as the single-player does. It’s just that having four thieves running around the map exponentially increases the chances of somebody being spotted by a guard. When somebody gets spotted by a guard their frenzied attempts to escape often means they blunder into other thieves, who are then also chased by the guards. With the best will in the world and with the team coordinating their actions over Steam voice chat or a Teamspeak channel, it is still incredibly difficult to avoid this failure cascade scenario. If getting spotted resulted in a failed mission then that’d be the end of multiplayer Monaco, but fortunately the game is remarkably forgiving in this regard, only ending things when all four thieves have met an unfortunate end with no hope of recovery. As it is, it just means that multiplayer Monaco is a far more frantic, adrenaline-fuelled and often bloody affair. In the single-player you tend to avoid killing people, since this attracts unwanted attention. In the multi-player mode it’s often necessary to do so; you start out all stealthy and quiet, but eventually things will go wrong and your heist will turn into the bank robbery scene from Heat, with a horde of guards chasing thieves around the map while the one or two undetected members of the crew desperately try to complete the mission.
(It doesn’t help that in multiplayer somebody will always pick the Mole, a character who can dig straight through walls with no regard for common sense and who often causes heists to play out as documented in this rare example of a good Penny Arcade strip.)
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the multiplayer mode turning out this way. It’s still a lot of fun, and I suspect that if you and your friends had an inhuman amount of self-control helped along by a large dollop of luck you could still ghost even the most complex of levels. Also in fairness to Monaco it’s difficult to make multiplayer stealth games actually genuinely stealthy; I remember playing the Thievery mod for Unreal Tournament (which essentially turned it into multiplayer Thief with human-controlled guards) way back around about the time of the dinosaurs and its matches ended up playing in much the same way. Multiplayer does not coexist well with stealth, all things considered, and so ensuring that multiplayer Monaco would still work if turned into an arcade-y cops and robbers affair isn’t so much a missed opportunity as it is a wise design decision. Monaco is still an excellent game when played in either mode. It’s just not necessarily what you – or I – might have been expecting out of it
(Oh, and my usual stock warning for multiplayer games applies: I play these things with a group of friends I’ve known for years. Playing with strangers from the internet may result in a far less enjoyable experience.)
- Uncollected gold adds time penalty to your completion time, meaning it effectively functions as the game’s scoring system. ↩