Also On: XBLA
Publisher: Majesco Entertainment
Developer: Pocketwatch Games
To me co-op is one of two major aspects that define videogames as a narrative medium all its own — the first being the simple fact that no other storytelling comes close to video gaming’s inherent interactivity. Nothing else out there allows you to share the (obviously unrealistic) experience with other people in the same way. Sure, you could watch the same movies or read the same books and discuss them afterward, but in terms of sharing a narrative, albeit a fake/virtual one, no other medium can do it.
Monaco dubs itself a heist game, where you assemble a crack team of thieves, case a joint (this is non-existent), and pull off the perfect heist (basically go in, make it to a designated area and/or collect all the coins, then flee the scene). Basically the 8-bit version of Sneakers. Needless to say I was intrigued by the description. However, even though it follows that outline, I still had trouble getting into it. As with most indie games, Monaco forgoes glitzy graphics, big sound, or insanely deep mechanics, instead relying on gameplay to keep you entertained. However, in this case you’re left with a fairly simple, albeit rather difficult game to fully grasp, which kind of defeats the purpose.
What was I expecting? Honestly, I was hoping for Metal Gear/Metal Gear 2 (the MSX/NES games), but with 4p co-op where each of the characters has a different skill which, when combined, makes them ultimate heist crew. And technically that’s pretty much what Monaco offers on paper, however I still found the the top-down/limited-visibility heists to be painfully awkward rather than inherently satisfying. After the first hour of playing I started to wonder if I just didn’t *get it*. The finer details of the gameplay and lack of cohesion ruined the entire thing for me.
Like the reasons for not being allowed to pick up more than one weapon are never explained and ammo is acquired almost randomly (you get more ammo the more coins/gold you collect, but I don’t recall explicitly being told how it works or how much I could carry.) Even graphically it seems simple on the surface; fun and bright. Rainbow colored outlines show what is visible to your character via line of sight and black&white is used to distinguish what’s beyond your vision. This is fine when you’re snooping around all sneaky-sneaky, but as soon as the guards are alerted or you’re in a mad-dash for safety, the maps tend to look incredibly cluttered, causing you to run into closets rather than escape routes on your first-time through maps (still colorful though.)
But don’t worry, it’s not like being caught is that big of a deal. Because the game is so laid back, I didn’t feel rewarded when I maintained stealth. On the flipside, being spotted by a guard results in a quick chase to the nearest hiding spot such as a shrub, vent, ladder, etc., at which point you’re promptly forgotten, so there are no stakes. This would lead one to assume you could just blitz through a stage, but that’d be no fun either as the game is designed for sneaking and collecting all the coins. So its neither here nor there; neither stealth nor action. It’s basically a ‘try not to get caught but if you do it’s okay’ collection game, and that's something that I'm not very fond of.
There is no ‘casing the joint’, either. Finding the necessary access points – locks, ladders, doors, windows, etc. – felt less intuitive than it should have been. Instead of actively finding these points of entry, I often just stumbled across them seemingly at random or merely followed another co-op player who had played the level previously. More, ‘whoa, where did that door come from?’ than ‘the door I need should be somewhere in this direction.’ A small distinction but one that makes playing feel less integral and more haphazard.
At no point did I ever feel I was in complete control of the game; at times it was as if I was essentially wandering around until I came across the correct path or last coin by mistake. For a sneaking game, that lack of objective/direction is no fun. Missions aren’t 'make it to the North-East Psyche Ward on the third floor and find the hacker’ they’re merely ‘find the hacker’ and then you trudge through the jigsaw-like levels comprised of small corridors and simplistic graphics.
Having to play through a game in order to learn how to best play it is a taste that I have no ambition to acquire. Investing time to learn the intricacies of such a small game (that should be pick-up-and-play) is a bit like trying to make a meal out of candy. The irony is that the game is so simple; you literally just go around levels picking locks, avoiding guards, collecting gold, and escaping the scene. It’s the clutter and nuance that got in the way and eventually caused me to wander.
When playing co-op the odds of wandering are less of an issue because one of the other players usually knows where to go and how to effectively collect the coins in tricky spots. That said, in most of the matches I played my teammates tended to rely on each other solely for revivals rather than for group strength. There are eight characters to choose from (four are unlockable) and each has their own skill. For example, the Hacker can take down power girds and override computers, the Gentleman can disguise himself, the Cleaner can knock people out, and so on. When it came to co-op I had visions of using The Mole to dig behind a safe before calling on the Locksmith to make quick work of it's lock, while the Red Head distracted the guards. However, trying to wrangle strangers with vastly different play-styles meant pulling off the perfect heist wasn't happening.
What is odd is that I could see how the game could excel, but it was quickly dashed by the lack of togetherness. Matches tend to play out the same way every time – teammates choose their character according to how well they know the stage (certain stages are clearly geared toward certain characters’ abilities, but you only know that after you’ve played them). And while everyone starts off on the same page, it ultimately ends up being a free for all to collect coins as quickly as possible knowing you have someone to revive you when you die. Moral of the story; play with like-minded gaming friends and don't rely on the auto-matching.
It's definitely not a good thing when my patience to learn a game’s nuances runs out faster than the game requires to sink it’s hooks in. Unfortunately that's exactly what happened with Monaco and by the time I got my bearings it was difficult for reconciliation. I have a feeling collectionist/completionist gamers will have an absolute blast with Monaco, but apparently I am not a collectionist gamer. Theoretically Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine is a great game. In actuality, your mileage may vary.
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