In the first-person shooter Payday, heists go no farther than the barrel of your gun; in the action-puzzler Monaco, they require whatever’s at hand, making for a more inventive and only occasionally frustrating gameplay experience. Save for the rare moments in where your actions leave you cornered, Monaco’s an inspired realization of Ocean’s 11-brand teamwork and The Prestige-style story twists.
As con men know, looks are meant to be deceiving, but Monaco’s minimalist design, clean and straightforward so that the only confusion in each robbery is the kind you sow, does the opposite. Each area is represented by a basic floor plan that’s filled in as your pixelated character peeks through doors and windows, climbs through ducts, and hacks into security cameras. Easy-to-read iconography notes the various objects (lasers, alarms, phones, and computers) and treasures (coins, safes, and registers) found in each room, allowing you to case the joint on the fly. Cones of vision allow you to slide behind guards, and if you’re close enough to a wall, you can often “see” the footsteps of a patrol—a crucial feature, considering how insistently stealthy Monaco expects you to be. (In early levels, kamikaze thievery is acceptable, as you have four lives and plenty of body armor, but toward the end of each campaign, you’ll be cut down attempting such selfless shenanigans.)
Assisting you in your endeavors are eight characters (unlocked throughout the story mode), each with their own unique skill, from the Pickpocket’s critical ability to steal coins from afar to the Lookout’s ability to see every enemy on the map and the Locksmith’s knack for unlocking doors and safes with lightning speed. (Objects are interacted with by pressing against them; haste is often of the essence.) Tools compensate for a character’s individual weaknesses: When you’re not the Hacker, who disables electronic devices faster and through wall outlets, you can use an EMP. Thieves who go without the Cleaner, who knocks out enemies from behind, might consider the silent, tranquilizing crossbow. If the Mole isn’t around to dig through walls, feel free to use C4, and if you want to mimic the Gentleman’s ability to hide in plain sight, simply don a disguise. Fools rush in, but smart players seek out the right tools and use them at the proper time. (This is especially true as ammunition is scarce: you’ve only got one use for every ten coins stolen.) Monaco prizes strategy over reflexes, adaptive intelligence over the repetitious exploitation of AI.
That said, the single-player game often feels unbalanced, especially if you’re attempting to “clean out” a level (collect all the coins), the condition for unlocking the game’s challenging second campaign. You can’t switch between characters mid-heist (unless you die, in which case you must pick a different confederate), which means you’ll often find yourself poorly equipped for a particular section, left with no choice but to trigger the alarm and hope for the best. While trial and error is fine early on, when missions last no longer than 10 minutes, later heists are set in expansive environments, and it’s frustrating to see a combination of cameras, lasers, and pressure plates that you could sneak past if only you weren’t playing as the Redhead, whose only skill is the ability to charm one enemy at a time.
Monaco’s tagline reads “What’s yours is mine,” but it’s fairly clear that these levels are designed for the robust co-op, in which up to four thieves must combine their powers to clear each heist. (In fact, I noticed no difference between single-player and multiplayer, save for the fact that if you die in co-op, your allies must revive you before moving on.) The Pickpocket, who seems essential for cleaning out some of the more crowded maps (a casino, a discotheque), can now be supported by an intelligent crew, and there’s a speed-run scoreboard to distinguish the most efficient of thieves. Of course, this being a teamwork-heavy game, it’s recommended that you play with friends, and a microphone), lest you end up being trolled by some of the random players. (There’s a reason thieves only work with those they know.)
A few griefers are a small price to pay, however, for the experience of a well-oiled four-player game of Monaco, and for the assistance this provides toward unlocking the entirety of the second campaign, which, as if channeling The Unusual Suspects, returns you to previous areas, but with an entirely new perspective. Moreover, considering the variety and quality of these 32 stages (high-stakes casino and art museum thefts; narrow escapes from a burning yacht and K9-filled hotel; elaborate multi-stage heists at the Royal Palace; and the specific obstacles of a diamond shop and hospital), there’s plenty of replay value as well. In short, Monaco’s a steal.