You scope the joint, I’ll distract the pooches and my hulking great friend here will break a hole in the wall. We’re going in.
Adam: I was predisposed to fall for Monaco. The jazzy soundtrack. Pop pourri of happy influences and central fact of cooperative stealth could have been designed to attract me like a lungful of carefully engineered pheromones. Throughout its long development, I’d followed news and video releases, but hadn’t really understood what it would be like to play. I expected studied analysis of the glowing blueprints of each heist, and methodical avoidance and takedown of guards and security systems. I expected to plan and perform the perfect heist.
When the game finally infiltrated my hard drive, it knocked me sideways, and not in a good way. Rather than being a slow and calculated stealth game, I found myself playing a weird multiplayer variant of Super Turbo Pacman 2013 Edition, with a colour scheme so loud that it would have clashed with a sensible pair of slate grey trousers. Half of the time I didn’t know exactly what was happening, as dogs chased me and guards mumbled and roamed. Each character’s ability seemed to overturn the structure of the maps in a way that disrupted the flow too severely, making me feel as I was cheating rather than succeeding on the game’s own terms.
Half an hour into my first proper multiplayer session, I cast the weight of expectations off my back and managed to approach Monaco on its own terms. It wasn’t that those expectations had been too great, it’s that they’d been almost entirely false. Monaco is chic and elegant, channelling the cool of several decades to create an absurdist neon noir that exists in a timeless place, but it’s also a stage for improvised farce. The beauty of the characters and their game-changing abilities isn’t simply that they are able to circumnavigate obstacles, but that they can create fresh dilemmas for one another as they blunder along. A well-drilled team can clear even the most complex map with clinical efficiency, but to learn the ropes, they’ll have to hang themselves a few times first.
I only appreciated the intricacy of the design when I learned to love those experimental first forays onto a new map, or with new companions or skillsets. But I couldn’t enjoy the madcap chaos until I’d found a way to unpick some of the earlier levels, discovering that the perfect heist is possible. Once I understood that – and had learned to decode the systems communicated by the busy screen – I was content to laugh as I learned, and to replay again and again, experimenting and living (or dying) with the consequences.
Of all the games on this year’s calendar, Monaco is the one that I initially bounced off the hardest, but when I did fall for it, I went head over heels.
Jim: Having played a bit of Monaco with a range of friends, it seems that there are two broad personalities types identified by this game. The first is the kind of person who wants to approach it as a stealth game, with the caution and planning that such games afford, and often demand. The other is someone who wishes to play it as a slapstick heist, probably featuring Peter Sellars, and for whom the game is nothing for a toppling series of disasters, each of which might lead to disaster. When these two types play together there is a necessary friction. The first type is necessarily going to be annoyed by the second type, until the finally give in and accept that free-wheeling crisis-juggling is also an entertaining way to approach the game.
What this says about the game itself, though, is that it is varied and flexible enough to be played in a manner of ways. Indeed, with the combinations of characters and situations resulting in drastically different outcomes, I don’t believe I’ve ever had the same experience on a map twice. Or at least not the same experience of success. Each win is different, though there are many similar failures. Monaco is as masterpiece of design. A masterpiece of two dimensional design, too, which despite having a resurgence in recent years, seldom happens quite like this. Monaco isn’t simply inventive and polished, it’s also deeply original. Nothing looks, sounds, or plays quite like this. If you haven’t had a crack at it yet, then you should. Not just because it’s a great game, but because it’s crucial that you get a sense of the variety that games offer. If we’re talking about design diversity, then this is an essential experience.