Monaco won the IGF in 2010 with a compelling prototype and a handsome smile. In 2013 it's being released as a sprawling, brilliantly-composed heist game that is poised, like a ludological cat-burglar, to steal our imaginations. The years of polish show in layers of features and detail, while the core idea that won the IGF - of single or multiplayer replayable heists - continues to produce gold on every playthrough.
This is one of the most important independent games this year, and might well end up being one of the best-loved games of the decade.
Let's get this straight: Monaco is a fascinating, beautifully-made game. There's some unevenness. There are some oddities. Some people won't gel with its pace or its challenge.
Monaco is a meticulous cartoon of thievery and over-the-top smash and grab. It is a top-down perspective tale of complex heists in a world where the usual suspects of crime each have their own unique talents, like the character class formula of Ocean's 11 distilled down to tiny, racing pixels.
It has a distinct flavour to it, in the way that the best games do. I can't define this feeling well enough to really articulate it, but there's a sort of psychic remainder that comes from games having enough of their own inertia to really define themselves. It's not a game that has borrowed from others, particularly. It is a not a game that leans on other games in the genre for its credibility. Monaco is the guy who is cool because he is himself, not because he does the things other people do really well.
As I was saying: Each character has a unique ability, but can also pick up various bits of equipment that are available to all. So you might choose The Lockpick, for fast opening of doors and containers, but you might also carry a shotgun for dealing with pesky aggressive cops. Each level – there are many and they become huge – is a labyrinth of possible situations for infiltration and exfiltration across multiple floors, and with dozens of tiny challenges to overcome from moment to moment. A guard dog here, a locked door there. Combine the two of those, and you end up getting bitten.
A number of cast members have their own storylines, which takes place across several levels, and progress through these unlocks other characters. You also unlock further levels and storylines as you play, and these are filled with escalating, size, difficulty, and security variables. Each one is set up with mildly amusing backstories for the thefts you're heading into.
As you find your way through the environments, you must dodge guards and police (as well as the civilians who will alert them) and use both your powers and the environmental quirks to get through to the goal of the heist. Everyone can hack a security tripwire laser, or pick a lock, or hide in a bush, but some characters have extensions of those abilities or entirely different, unrelated abilities. The Gentleman, for example, is disguised when he's sneaking, so even if he gets seen, he doesn't actually get seen. If you are playing as The Cleaner then you will be knocking out guards, and using that to make progress.
My two favourite characters, right now at least, are The Hacker and The Mole (and The Gentleman for solo-play). I particularly like The Hacker because he shows off what teeming systems the levels present. While anyone can hack a computer terminal, The Hacker can use plug sockets to send “viruses” spinning around the level infrastructure. This allows you to disable alarmed doors, security cameras, and so on, but it also gives you an idea of how much there is going on in any single building. It's a beautiful thing to see buzzing around you. It adds more life to a game that already feels fresh and awake and busy.
The Mole, meanwhile, is able to smash through walls and scenery. I like this because it gives the world a sense of malleability, while at the same time offering up some big concessions to AI behaviour – you make a lot of noise breaking through stuff with your sledgehammer, and the nearby NPCs come running to see what's what – something that certainly shows off the moments where you find yourself chased through the level. And get chased through a level you will.
This point – that I have two favourite characters – sees me run into one of the crucial problems with game reviewing. I haven't played this all that long, despite having visited it at preview, and dabbled with it for a week or so, and right now it feels like some characters are much stronger and more interesting than others. I could put that down to poor design, or some kind of imbalance. But I'm not sure that's the case, and I am not sure because I think understanding the true potential of all the characters included here requires far more time, and far more multiplayer. It requires a longer view. A higher viewpoint over an extended exposure to the possibilities of mastering aspects of the game. But let's come back to that in two paragraphs time.
Monaco's presentation is odd and yet entirely charming. I am acutely aware that it doesn't work in screenshots. It really doesn't look... well, it's barely comprehensible in static images. Videos aren't much better. You need to play it. And even then it feels a little inconsistent, perhaps, but at the same time it is rich and super-animate. There's something not quite right about the characters, but the way they move and the way they act sells their behaviour quite convincingly. It's the audio that stands out, however, being both precisely informative about what's going on in the world, as well as very funny.
The maps are presented, in part, as the plans of the buildings you are breaking in to. This, though, is clouded by fog of war, and also line of sight. What is unknown stays black, and what can't be seen remains grey. What can be seen by a character is a brightly coloured and lively world, although not one that seems to conform to any particular world. It's vaguely contemporary, and vaguely European, but not distinctly either of those things. I had imagined that Monaco would have some kind of period feel, or some kind of heist-thematic palette to tie it all together, but it does not. There's something lacking there, although it is not to the detriment of the game in any serious way.
Let's return to that point about multiplayer. Monaco can be played entirely single-player and offline. You can jump in and play on your own – if you die you have to try again from the last floor change with another character – and doing that allows you to unlock characters and levels. Most people will play like that, I am sure, and it's well balanced – perhaps sometimes too easy – to get through on your own. But doing so would be missing the larger part of what Monaco is. Just as Borderlands can be played on your lonesome, the game is a much more rewarding experience when being played with others.
The comparison with Borderlands is an interesting and useful one, I suspect, despite the two games being so vastly different, because they both gain something from have 2-4 players. What they gain from adding in those players is quite different, and that sheds light on the nature of their individual designs.
In Borderlands, I would say, the effect on the experience (if not the number of baddies etc) is direct, linearly additive. The more people in a game of Borderlands, the more shit flies, the more damage gets dealt, the more chance you have to be saved from death, and so on. The shooter in it gets MORE. What Monaco gets from adding other players, however, is more like a multiplier, or an even more complex function. The characters are so different, and their powers so wide-ranging, that the possibilities for attacking any given level change quite radically. Hell, The Mole can literally change the layout of the map by putting a hole in the wall. The character abilities, rather than producing more damage, or more healing, as in the shooter, provide a wider range of possible variables within hacking, sneaking, breaching, and so forth.
What this means is that while each level of the game is essential a different experience with each character – The Lookout being able to see NPCs at a distance is quite unlike The Hacker fiddling his way through the electronics – each multiplayer game is an equation made of the different levels versus the abilities of the different characters playing the level. Playing a bank heist with The Cleaner And The Gentleman is almost like a different game to playing it with The Lookout and The Mole. Add another two abilities sets in there and you have a sum of gameplay experiences that look quite radically unlike the other possible sets that await you.
Of course this observation can be balanced by arguing that just legging it, supplemented by hiding, is the most powerful tool for all the characters (at least in some of the early stages), but I feel that also misses the point. What is critical in a heist is elegance, and the role played by the participants in that job. Timing. Getting that plan right, or winging it with grace and precision with things go awry. The levels become so tricky, with some many vectors for failure, that getting things absolutely right requires patience, timing, and multiple tiers of awareness.
Monaco is so often the alternate vision of all those seamless criminal plots where the sexy masterminds have their way with priceless works of art. You will sometimes pull off that perfect caper, but for the most part it's a chaotic rumble that leads to disaster. You probably will get out alive, maybe, you probably will become a master criminal, eventually, but there are going to be a lot of dead security guards and ringing alarm bells along the way. It is one of those games where it is at its best when your actions are causing an avalanche of jeopardy. This, I suppose, is mostly likely to be Monaco's weak spot: it's so easy to screw up that multiplayer games seem bound to spark arguments, in that way that so often happens when pairings are not between friends. You can play with friends, of course, so I'd imagine the RPS Monaco group will spring up soon enough.
Oh, there's lots of talk about. More than I can fit into this page without your attention drifting. If this game doesn't generate a lot of talk then I will eat my balaclava and plug my nostril with celery.
What I am saying is: buy Monaco. Play it with people. Enjoy 2013. This year is going to be great.