Much is expected of Monaco: What's Yours is Mine. Three years ago it walked away with two awards at the IGF, including the coveted Seumas McNally Grand Prize, and since then it's been eagerly anticipated. After what felt like an eternity the game is finally here. The question is: is it a botched burglary, or the score of the century?
Those who've kept tabs on Monaco will be delighted to hear that it's the latter. Pocketwatch Games' top-down puzzle/stealth ‘em up is absolutely superb, in every respect. From the defining visual aesthetic, and the engaging story, through to the wonderful soundtrack and the intuitive controls, it all fits together perfectly. I better slow down, because if I'm not careful I'm going to run out of superlatives.
Monaco works well as both a cooperative game and as a single-player experience. Players assemble a team of criminals, each with a set of specialist skills. The Lockpick can get in and out of any room in double-quick time; the Cleaner is a melee specialist who can knockout unsuspecting guards; the Lookout can see further than any of the others; and the Pickpocket has a pet monkey that hoovers up loot as you sneak through the game's various levels. There's four more characters, unlocked as you progress, offering a total of eight different skillsets to choose from as you attempt to pull off the perfect heist.
Action is viewed from a top-down perspective. Each level is bathed in grey, save for the areas that are directly visible by your team. Maintaining awareness of your surroundings is imperative, line of sight is key. Guards, armed with increasingly deadly weapons, patrol each area, and must be either avoided or subdued in order to progress unhindered. Much of the content is randomly generated, meaning you're never sure where guards will be, and which doors will be locked. It keeps things tense, even on subsequent play-throughs.
Each level has a goal that must be acquired. Whether it's a trophy, or rescuing a character to be then used in later missions, the aim of the game is to get in, grab the target, then get out. Scattered across each map are gold coins that can be collected. Any left over at the end are added to your overall score/time, so grabbing as many as possible is essential if you're aiming at hitting high on the online leader boards.
As previously mentioned, each character has a specific skill to help them through each mission. Interaction with the world is as simple as pushing up against the relevant tile, whether that be a safe to unlock, an alarm to disconnect, or a ladder to climb. These abilities are complimented by additional skills/tools that can be picked up, usually at the start of each level. There's smoke bombs, EMPs, crow bars, shotguns, tranquilliser darts and various disguises. At first I was going to criticise the lack of guidance for these additional tools, but on reflection learning how to use each effectively in the field was much more fun than having its purpose clearly signposted. Monaco never holds your hand more than it needs to.
There is some help, as objectives are usually clearly indicated. You always have an idea of which general direction you should be heading, but as there are usually multiple paths to each destination, there's always options. The maps are so huge, and so intricately designed, that despite the unshifting view point, and the sea of grey, each level feels sufficiently different from the next.
The single-player experience differs somewhat from the cooperative game. On your own you're handed four lives, and if/when your character bites the dust, another is selectable and it's straight back into the action. In later levels it becomes a tactical decision, with the player forced to work out which characters are best suited to the task in hand, and which order they need to be picked to maximise their abilities.
Cooperative puts between two and four players on the map together. Each has only one life, but if a teammate goes down they're revivable. After only a couple of matches, teams will be running like well-oiled machines, moving in tandem, improvising tactics on the fly, getting in and out scrapes, and thoroughly enjoying themselves as they go. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Monaco provided some of the most memorable and engaging co-op gameplay that I've ever experienced.
Visually it's a delight. The blocky little characters are full of charm, and despite the overhead view, are easy to identify. The various locations they scurry around - prisons, museums, casinos and palaces - are complex and thoughtfully laid out. The attention to detail is superb, and it's the little touches that really make the difference. Whether it's knocking out a guard whilst he takes a leak, or dancing round a series of pillars so as to avoid the gaze of an inquisitive patrol, there's so much going on, and so many little challenges to overcome that the pace rarely drops, and when it does it's usually because you're either catching your breath or taking stock of the situation.
The soundtrack, scored by Austin Wintory (who also provided the soundtrack to last year's Journey), is thoughtful and considered. The gentle plod of a solitary piano accompanies as you slink in and out of heart-in-mouth encounters. It really captures the mood, accentuating the action and invoking the time and place.
All of these ingredients mesh together wonderfully. As a single-player experience it's tense, challenging and engaging. It rewards creative thinking, and the later levels require tactical nous and careful planning. Often the first couple of attempts at each level are just to ‘case out the joint', working out what's where and how best to tackle each challenge.
Played cooperatively the experience changes slightly, but possibly even for the better. It's exciting, rewarding, and provokes camaraderie between teammates. You'll regularly be going back to rescue downed friends, or cursing them when a bad choice results in the whole team getting wiped out. Finishing a challenging level together (and as the game progresses, they're all challenging) is satisfying to the point of provoking cheers and high fives among the assembled players. There is a real sense of communal achievement that I've rarely experienced before.
Once you've completed the main story, and doing so should take you between eight and ten hours of play (give or take), you're offered the chance to go back and play it again from a different character's perspective. Here the challenge solidifies further, and unlocking each mission requires cleaning out missions in the main campaign (by collecting all the gold coins on a level). For those dedicated enough there's potentially hours and hours of additional content to plough through, though getting a clean sweep on some of the final missions will require huge amounts of dedication, and probably a bit of luck.
Apparently there's a level editor on the way (definitely on PC, but we're awaiting confirmation as to whether the Xbox 360 version will get the same treatment), and this is great news, because I fully expect a dedicated community to grow around the game, and with it likely a plethora of content. I'm salivating at the prospect of the potential new maps we'll see in the future. People will be making replicas of famous buildings, re-imaging the famous heist movies, and likely much more besides. We could be talking about a never-ending supply of content. There's also a competitive map in the main game (the Epilogue), with players running around a cathedral and competing to grab as many gold coins as possible, and this is something that will undoubtedly be developed further by the community.
I've found very little to fault in Monaco: What's Yours is Mine. Perhaps more levels, beyond those included would have been nice; as soon as I had devoured to campaign I was left with an empty feeling in my stomach. I wanted more, and whilst I appreciated the addition of the second campaign, earning these missions through subsequent play-throughs of the original content wasn't quite the same as experiencing a mission for the first time, even if you're playing it differently by trying things out with different characters. It's a very minor gripe though, and seeing as everything else fits together so perfectly, it's very easy to recommend. It's original, beautifully designed, good looking, well written, challenging, highly playable and deeply immersive. Everything a great game should be.