Rarely, a game has a good enough trailer that I can point at it and just say ‘yeah, that.’ Dishonored has a trailer that doesn’t do it justice, for example, since it’s just about being a neck-stabby bastard. Leviathan: Warships had a wonderfully groovy, stylish trailer that didn’t really convey much about the game, but stuck in the memory. The thing is, sometimes a trailer will convey to you that the people who crafted the trailer have a very true, deep grip on the game itself, in a way that just exudes from all aspects of the product. You can’t see this sort of grasp in Triple-A titles, serving as many masters as they do. You will, however, occasionally see a trailer for a game by a small studio that is great in reflection of the greatness of the game.
Welcome to Monaco.
I could just knock off and say I’m done there, because really, the question that these reviews always come down to is in what conditions is this game good enough to be worth my money, and I think that after watching that trailer if you weren’t already tapping your fingers on the desk and frustratedly wondering why you didn’t alreadfy own this game, there’s some part of you that’s dead inside. Oh, that may be hyperbole, but for my tastes, thieves are always one of the most stylish characters to fix a story around. There’s betrayal, there’s diversity in motivation and yet unified purpose, and man, there’s so many fun stories you can tell around thieves. And yes, before you ask, Monaco has a good story, it’s coherent, it uses its narrative options well (multiple characters retelling a story in different ways), and while it doesn’t tell any unique or fascinating stories in the narrative sections, so what?
With its caper-like feel and its down-to-the-ground blocky aesthetic, at its finest, Monaco is like being in a really good Michael Caine movie, and not the one all about murdering teenaged drug addicts. You’re a pack of thieves evading guards’ attention, picking up gold across levels, flipping switches, hacking computers and tearing holes in the walls. Yes really. Hypothetically, a person could play Monaco without friends, or without using the online matchmaking, but it’s really missing out given the reckless, hapless way the game works out in-play. It’s a team stealth game which is built around the assumption that you will mess up and you will have to spend time scrabbling away from some variety of guard.
Okay, okay, okay, so Monaco has style and great aesthetic and its framing device is fantastic, and it’s a stealth game, a genre that I seem to have basically bathed in this year. Right, those three things are likely to make me sit up and beg at the best of times, and I know I’m quite weak. But if those things could carry me through a game I probably would have quite liked Assassin’s Creed Revelations, and not view it as the flawed thing it is. There are two big things that set Monaco apart as a game.
I’ve been playing Stealth games a lot lately, and those games tend to be based around two very rudimentary forms of level design. The first is one where your objective moves around a lot, in an environment which puts them near a variety of possible angles of attack. Right? You know what I mean, where the Doge waddles around the party, this way and that way, around and around until you pick or find the way that best leads you to neck-stabbing range. The other kind are levels with a linear progression towards a fixed location for your target, where many different paths all converge on bottle-necks until you get to the thing you want to get to. In my mind, these two options were basically how things went in stealth games.
That’s not how levels are designed in Monaco. Levels are big, yes, sprawling even, but they don’t have perfect paths. They don’t have perfect play. They have patrolling guards, distracted people, they have passers by, seagulls, dogs – and they have all these things because they are based on realistic maps of places. The train station has multiple ways in and out and through because a real train station will have multiple ways in and out and through. The fact that the levels are designed like actual areas, and then the gold trail that you want to follow weaves through them to create the feeling of flow you’d expect from a level works together excellently at making the game feel like a game but the places feel like places. This realness both creates a narrative in the players’ mind (because we’ve all been to train stations and fancy museums and the like), and it makes every level non-linear.
Most stealth games I’ve played lately have been very much about attempting a perfect solution. You map your way through the level, and when you get noticed, you either run away rather hard, or, if you’re more like me, you reset to an earlier save irritated because dammit I want the ghost bonus. In any case, being observed is a failure state that fundamentally changes the way the rest of the level plays. It’s a bit like ringing a bell.
In Monaco, you are expected to screw up. You are going to get spotted and then the music changes and suddenly you’re running for corners and avoiding things and hiding from things and trying to sneak into pot plants and listening as guards spatter French near you. With this expectation in mind, the ways to recover from a screw-up are actually really well distributed throughout the levels, but also aren’t just easy to jump into. It’s not like Assassin’s Creed where you can round a corner, sit on a bench and suddenly you’re invisible – you have to spend a few crucial seconds out of sight diving into cover and hiding in the bushes. Believe it or not, that’s amazing for game balance, to keep things fun and to add tension.
The thing is, that Monaco, a social, funny, charmy, friend-oriented game, owes its best direct connection to, of all things, Hotline Miami, the bloodthirsty derangement simulator I talked about earlier this year. The gameplay experience is very much about trying to mutually juggle something, dropping it, then recovering and bailing out of it. This is a bit like how Hotline Miami encourages you to be reckless, but the people whose voices you hear while you’re playing Monaco are people that actually exist this time. Finally, if you want a stealth game in the same price range and with a more tight success/failure spectrum, try Mark of the Ninja.
Buy it if:
- You want a fun social game to share with your friends.
- You like competing against leaderboards and times.
- You’ve any appreciation for thief caper movies.
Avoid it if:
- When you play with your friends, you’d rather compete than cooperate.
- You want really tight success and failure options, and find the ‘oops’-recovery style described here unpleasant.