It’s a well-timed coincidence that a group of thieves made off with tens of thousands of dollars from a Justin Bieber concert in Johannesburg just days after the release of Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine on Xbox Live Arcade. Apparently, they rappelled and chiseled their way into a vault room at the stadium while the concert was happening. I’m not usually one to root for the bad guy, but these heist-type crimes are undeniably cool (especially when they happen in real-life), and Monaco lets you step into the shoes of shady players who pull off big scores.
Unlike the Johannesburg criminals, though, there’s nothing realistic about Monaco’s band of crooks. They play to the classic heist movie archetypes–such as the Locksmith, the Hacker, the beautifully distracting Redhead, and the wily Cleaner, who uses chloroform to knock out guards. Though the characters may be slightly cliched, the game design itself is anything but. Monaco is a top-down action game that mixes elements of stealth, twin-stick shooting, and well-timed strategy. Your goal on each level is simple: get to your goal (typically money, or a person or object of value), and then escape. Sounds easy, right? Well, there’s a bit more to it than that.
[ad#longpost]There are armed guards, and in some levels, dogs. There are laser tripwires and security alarms. There are civilians who will alert guards to your presence. There are computers to hack, doors and safes to unlock, and disguises to wear. It’s tough enough to keep track of everything while flying solo, but bring three other players into the fray, and the variables leading to your possible capture increase exponentially. Even with proper teamwork, you can’t account for the actions of your teammates–and if one of them is spotted by a guard or walks carelessly through a laser beam, all hell breaks loose and it’s every man for himself. Gameplay is simple, however, with most of the work done by pressing the left thumbstick in the direction of whatever door, device, or object you want to interact with. You can also sneak by holding the left trigger, but outside of a few key scenarios, I didn’t use this feature very often.
Monaco has a visual style all its own. When you start a mission, everything except the area you start in is blacked out. As you unlock doors and search the level, places you’ve visited turn black and gray. This allows you to see the basic layout of the rooms, but it doesn’t show locations of guards, tripwires, or other obstacles (unless you play as the Lookout, of course). The only colors you see while on a mission are revealed within your character’s line of sight, which changes and wraps around corners as you move around. This creates a stark contrast between what you see and what you don’t see, making exploration exciting.
In each mission, you’ll find items to help you evade, confuse, and even kill guards and dogs. Those include disguises (which hide your identity for a limited time), smoke grenades (good for escaping hairy situations), and shotguns (good for…well, you know). You can only hold one type of item at a time, and you keep it stocked by collecting pieces of loot. Loot is scattered around each level, with some laying in hallways and rooms, and some hidden in safes surrounded by guard patrols or laser tripwires. By collecting all of the loot in a mission, you “clean it out,” which in turn unlocks more missions. There are dozens of missions of varying difficulty, with some taking only a minute or two to finish, while others may take upwards of ten.
Since Monaco is primarily built for cooperative play (supporting online and couch co-op), taking on missions solo can get tricky and sometimes, extremely frustrating. In a group, you can revive downed teammates, but if you’re killed while playing alone it’s back to the character selection screen, to pick up where you “left off.” There are definitely characters that are best-suited for certain missions, but often it’s a matter of trial and error to figure it out. The game has very little in the way of a tutorial, so you’ll have to use caution when interacting with objects you haven’t encountered before. The first time I stepped on a sensor plate, I didn’t even realize what had happened until the armed guards came running and gunned me down.
All of the action is set to a playful piano-based theme, which dynamically changes with the gameplay. It’s fairly laid-back until you’re spotted, at which point it picks up the tempo. Guards and bystanders in each mission blurt out funny little lines in French, cats meow loudly when you step on them (and why wouldn’t they?), and laser beams and cameras give short beeps and blips before tripping the alarms. It is disappointing, then, that during a few missions I encountered a glitch that caused the audio to stutter and even drop out completely for a second or two at a time. I tested this on my surround sound and through a pair of headphones, and the results were the same. I’m not sure if anyone else has dealt with these issues, but for a game in which audio cues play an important role, it’s too bad that they weren’t smoothed out prior to release. Perhaps a future patch will fix the problem. [Editor’s Note: Brady sent this review over a couple of weeks ago and a search turned up no new information on this. If a patch is out, it’s my fault he doesn’t mention it, not his…if somebody is aware of a patch, please let me know in the comments. -Widge]
At the time of writing this review, I’ve noticed something disturbing: there’s hardly any online matches when I search the online lobby. I hope that means people are playing in private parties or on their couches at home, because it would be a shame if this game didn’t find an audience. Monaco got off to a shaky start on XBLA due to some bugs that delayed its release, but it’s definitely worth the $15 price tag if you have some buddies or online friends to play it with. Lone wolves beware, however: pulling off any heist alone can get ugly.
Video review below…