The lights are on
I love a good heist story. There's something fundamentally satisfying about rooting for the righteous thieves, usually a ragtag crew of specialists, come together and pull-off a dramatic high-stakes operation. Classic films such as Heat, The Italian Job, and The Killing all use a classic, tested caper formula: build a team, form a plan, execute said plan, overcome the inevitable screw-up. While numerous video games will insert a heist scenario, I cannot think of one that uses such a system as the basic architecture of its design.
When Monaco: What's Yours is Mine started to make waves a few years ago, it had my attention, but I had my misgivings as its development cycle lengthened. After all, what began as a six-week project to be released on Xbox Live snowballed into a six-year undertaking. Yes, Monaco has had a long and storied journey toward its release day, but the twists and turns it has taken have been worth the wait. The game blends a bit of something old with a few things new, resulting in a game that quite brilliantly blends a classic genre with classic gameplay. In fact, it is one of the most complete imaginings of the caper genre in any medium I've encountered.
From the moment you hear the piano music at the game's title screen (a frantic staccato bass punctuated with manic runs), you know exactly what tone to expect. The game's elegant minimalist art style suits the surprisingly engaging story. Beginning the game with four pixelated sprites (a Lookout who can detect movement, a Pickpocket with a monkey [A MONKEY!] that picks up coins, a Cleaner with a penchant for violence and chloroform, and a Lockpick with nimble fingers), the campaign moves quite briskly as new characters are added, each with individual quirky movements, text speech and skills. It's quite wonderful.
While the story and characters have their obvious charms, the gameplay facilitates the atmosphere more effectively than any other aspect. From a top-down perspective, the player navigates his/her character through maze-like locales (that range from aquatic museums, burning yachts, and casinos), avoiding guards and civilians alike. The player's view from the top sells the idea of becoming a mastermind to facilitate a perfect heist; each mission feels like navigating a blueprint. The player is less an active character and more of a mastermind pulling the strings.
This degree of removal from action enhances the player's ability perspective, but it's still limited in that you can only see specifics within your character's line of sight. Peering through window, across rooms, around corners only illuminates areas within a cone of vision, leaving all else shaded. You can easily open a door right in the face of an unsuspecting yet well-armed guard with an itchy trigger finger and a mean swing. It's Pac-Man by way of Ocean's 11: stylish and addictive.
These moments are some of the most the game has to offer. As is the case of most heist scenarios, something goes unpredictably and unavoidably wrong. In these situations, the suave veneer gives way to Benny Hill style madness. Sometimes the only way out of a bad situation is to use whichever weapon available, be it a shotgun, a smoke bomb, or a wrench. Alternatively, you can run and hide until everyone forgets about the guy who just burst through several walls and ducked away behind a house plant. Getting caught never feels like a failure so much as it is an obstacle, and the way the music kicks in to complement the hyper-kinetic chase through a museum is just perfect.
The game is not without its flaws. I played on PC with a mouse and keyboard, but I could not help thinking that using a controller would be the ideal way to play. Also, some of the fixtures in the environment suffer from a bit of homogeneity. I cannot count the times I had been running from guards and mistaking a window for a door, resulting in death. This problem coupled with random difficulty spikes in the latter part of the campaign can become annoying. Lastly, though the first campaign will take about four hours, depending on how you want to experience it, there's an entire other campaign that can only be unlocked by collecting coins in every part of a mission, making the game a bit of a grind.
These issues, however, are miniscule, and they may not even bother most players. The game has vast replayability, as using each character in different scenarios unlocks drastically different approaches to complete any given mission. My favorite was the Cleaner who could knock out unsuspecting guards, followed closely by the Hacker who can easily break into high tech security systems. The Pickpocket may be the most fun to watch because his monkey (HIS MONKEY!) leaps around the room and picks up coins next to people who pay him no mind at all.
Further extending Monaco's replay value is its multiplayer system which allows for local or online co-op. While I never got a chance to play local, which I could imagine being the best way to experience this game, I hopped online for a few sessions. In each mission, we began with clear goals on how to best tackle a mission, but each player's greed overcame our plans for the greater good when we all inevitably began collecting coins to suit our own needs. It's a pretty solid lesson about trust, I guess. I could understand how working with a friend could lead some really satisfying plans and executions. Still, I will confess a smug sense of satisfaction when I purposefully tripped the alarm near a fellow player and ran out while the poor Lookout got swarmed by security. Honor among thieves indeed.
I think 2013 is going to great year of promises for the next generation, and we'll see some fairly astounding feats of technological power and innovative design. But if I were a betting man, I'd be set on spending more time in Monaco than most of the high-profile games out there. It's a classic gameplay structure reinvigorated by its fusion with a classic genre that brilliantly makes something new, something exciting. Just like any blueprint for a clever and elaborate scheme, Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine offers the promise of riches for those interested in pulling of some dazzling feats of thievery. I love it when a plan comes together.
So, have any of you played it yet? What do you think?
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!