|System: PC*, Xbox 360|
|Dev: Pocketwatch Games|
|Pub: Majesco Entertainment|
|Release: April 24, 2013|
|Screen Resolution: 480p- 1080p||Blood, Crude Humor, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
The story of Monaco began about ten years ago, when TKO Software was between assignments and a young programmer named Andy Schatz had an idea. Schatz and his coworkers created a prototype, but it was shelved when other projects arrived.
A few years back Schatz revived his concept for Xbox Live Indie Games, and it's been nothing but praise since then. Monaco won two awards at the 2010 Independent Games Festival, including the grand prize, and, more recently, game sites have taken to publishing long, fawning profiles of the up-and-coming auteur.
We now have Monaco for Steam and XBLA. It's obvious what everyone loves about this game - this is a stylish, polished top-down stealth title with a mix of modern and old-school charm. However, on Monaco's long road to release, numerous games have zoomed past it. The official tagline is "Pac-Man meets Hitman," which sounds clever and exciting, but nowadays most people would just call it "Hotline Miami meets Mark of the Ninja." Worse, some questionable design decisions prevent Monaco from being as captivating as those recent titles. Basically, Monaco is the Prey to Hotline and Mark's Portal. Sure, Prey's developers had the idea first, but Portal came out first, and it was better.
Monaco tells the story of a few criminals who escape from prison and embark on a wild adventure full of daring heists, accumulating money, and playable friends along the way. There isn't a lot of exposition, just a brief scene before each level, but it's enough to explain your new excuse for robbing a high-profile target. Interestingly, finding all of the loot in a given level unlocks an alternative version, with different objectives and perspective.
Unfortunately, the gameplay isn't nearly as inventive as we've been led to believe - or at least it isn't anymore - now that we have Hotline and Mark. The top-down view and control scheme are similar to those in Hotline; ditto for your ability to play as characters with different abilities, which was achieved with masks in Hotline.
In addition, like Mark of the Ninja, Monaco emphasizes stealth, requires you to pick locks frequently while guards approach, and features a line-of-sight mechanic that prevents you from seeing things that someone standing in your character's position couldn't actually see. Unfortunately, the line-of-sight limitation isn't as subtle as the one in Mark. Whenever you pass a corner, it looks like a spotlight is sweeping across the room, illuminating the areas your character can see - I found this highly annoying. However, the biggest problem with Monaco is its difficulty. The game is too hard in some ways and too easy in others.
The game is too hard because it limits your deaths in each level - something that few modern games do. There are checkpoints, but when you die as a certain character you cannot play as that character again, and when you run out of lives, you have to start the mission all over. The "Cleaner" character, who for some reason is the only one who can do a silent kill, is especially hard to lose. (I am not kidding you - not one of the other heist experts in this stealth game is capable of taking out a guard from behind.)
This is particularly frustrating in some of the more convoluted and irritating levels. You spend most of your time figuring out where to go next, exactly how to disable the alarms and lasers without being spotted, and which characters are best suited for the level's challenges. Once the difficulty started ramping up, I felt like I was playing a few times just to case the joint, and then one final time to execute the heist. The sixteen levels aren't terribly long - maybe ten or fifteen minutes apiece for a first-timer - but they're long enough to make restarts a pain, and they get tedious quickly.
In other ways, the game is far too easy. Your character is quite resilient to damage, absorbing several bullets or melee attacks before succumbing to death. As a result, when you are caught, you can usually hide, kill the enemy, or rush to the next checkpoint before you're killed. There are also health packs scattered about if you take non-fatal damage.
There are plenty of absurdities too. You can climb the stairs to the next checkpoint even while four or five guards beat on you. Guards will attack while you climb into a vent, but then not bother to follow you. You can end your alert by changing clothes right in front of a guard. A guard on high alert won't bother to check the bushes near where you were most recently seen. Dying doesn't even cost you the items you collected since the last checkpoint, including mission objectives. Schatz has said that the thrill of escape is supposed to be as important as the basic stealth gameplay, but all of this silliness makes the experience fall apart as soon as you're seen.
One fresh thing Monaco does bring to this genre, however, is co-op for up to four players. This makes the game much more enjoyable. Rather than just getting in, accomplishing the objective, and getting out, you and your friends can focus on collecting all the coins and breaking into all the safes for extra cash. This makes the game feel a lot more like a heist movie. There's also a special final level for multiplayer parties.