Monaco is a neon-blooded marriage of Pac-Man and Thief, a grand tribute both to 1920s silent comedy capers and to modern-day heist movies. It's Ocean's Eleven meets Keystone Cops, played out top-down in a world of living blueprints. It's a criminal take on Laurel and Hardy, except with a four-man band instead of the dysfunctional duo. By and large, Monaco is one of those rare games that somehow stay magnificent regardless of whether you're getting things right or your mission has turned into an eight-lane car crash.
And crashes of the non-software-related variety will happen in abundance. With Monaco's minimal approach to player guidance, the only way you're going to figure anything out is through trial and disaster. Have a Hacker (one of the game's many playable characters) interact with a power outlet and watch as sensors go out and security cameras turn friendly. Walk across a red panel and discover that there are, indeed, pressure plates connected to the security system.
The missions are all performed to a similar tune: get in, get the prize, get out. Or, in some instances, simply get out. You start in a safe area of the level, surrounded by items that you can take along with you. Once you've selected your weapon (or non-combat item of choice), it is your prerogative to determine what 'getting in' will actually entail. Do you cut through a queue at the local nightclub or do you sneak through a locked door on the other side? Though all the levels operate in largely the same way, there's sufficient diversity in the contents of each to make every playthrough outright enthralling. Should you circle around the main area of the map and inch towards the safe on the third floor, or do you take a quick detour through the guard-infested inventory room? (Hint: don't do that second one.) Your choice, your years behind bars, monsieur.
For all its stylised visuals and slick action, Monaco can be a little silly; an understated, tongue-in-cheek sort of silly as opposed to Eddie Murphy made pixel. From the beginning, it's made clear as to what tone the game aims to evoke. It opens on a dark and stormy night with four felons, colour-coded for ease of recognition, coming together to escape from imprisonment. Here, you meet the first of the large roster of characters you'll later be able to select from: the Locksmith, the Pickpocket, the Lookout and the Cleaner.
The Locksmith is a moustachioed gentleman capable of accelerated lockpicking. Though everyone has the ability to open doors and safes, the Locksmith can do it faster – why risk detection when you can be away before the guards return? The Lookout serves as the eyes and the ears of the group: even when the local security personnel are not in her immediate field of vision, she (and anyone else she is with) will be able to tell their position via small icons on the map. The Pickpocket doesn't do terribly much himself: it's his primate companion who runs about, silently collecting whatever cash is in its vicinity.
Though not integral to the completion of the map, the money you acquire is still important: it influences the final calculation of your playthrough time (the less time, the better) and it helps you refill your item stash. Finally, there's the Cleaner, a silent brute who can knock the unsuspecting unconscious by running over them.
Later they'll be joined by others: the enviably articulate Gentleman, the Hacker who only converses in l33tspeak, the alluring Redhead and the Mole. Like the initial quartet, these four also have their own special abilities. The Gentleman will automatically don a disguise – it gives you licence to move in plain sight. Whenever he is successfully hidden, the Hacker can nullify security equipment – is that a locked door that will sound the alarm if you try opening it? Not anymore. By unleashing viruses through power outlets, the Redhead can charm random enemies into loving supplication. And the Mole will, quite literally, break down walls.
How the motley crew comes together is a story I won't spoil. Suffice it to say, however, that sticky situations arise. By the time you finish Monaco, you'll have hijacked prison transports, robbed palaces, stolen diamonds, acquired vital documents, met hammerhead sharks with lasers mounted on their heads, and more.
Maybe. It depends if you're playing with friends and if your friends are any good. On a good run, it's like movie magic. The Lookout hisses that the coast is close to clear. As a guard rounds a corner, the Cleaner steps up from the shadows and knocks the man unconscious. The Locksmith and the Hacker file through. The Hacker takes down the security system. You now have a few seconds. A moment before the turrets come to life, the Locksmith cracks the safe and your group grabs the cash, delicately stepping back as a red laser flares to life. A clean heist, if one that teetered a hair's breadth from perforation.
While Monaco is capable of moments of pure, unadulterated beauty, it's arguably best when circumstances are going to hell in a gift-wrapped hand basket. When the music-hall-inspired soundtrack swells, you'll know it's time to cut loose and get to safety by any means necessary. Sometimes, this can entail diving into a potted plant. Other times, it may involve unloading a shotgun into an unsuspecting crowd.
In this respect, Monaco is arguably easier when played alone: you only have to worry about yourself, your three lives, and which character to use next should the first be taken down. Unlike such games as Magicka, there's no friendly fire, but you can jeopardise a mission by strolling up to a guard and tapping his shoulder, something that can happen even when you're not trying to be jerk. A single misstep is occasionally all it takes.
Monaco is extremely economical in design. Its controls can be taught in minutes: the WASD keys are used for moment, the shift key corresponds to stealth, you activate non-combat items with the spacebar and handle firearms with the mouse. To activate anything interactive, you simply walk headfirst into it until the timer runs out. And like almost everything else about the game, it takes a very Spartan approach to its inventory. You can only have one thing with you at a time. If you want to use the shotgun, you'll have to surrender the EMP. Additionally, every item you find will only be good for one use – unless you pick up ten of the diamond-shaped golden pieces in the level to add an extra charge.
Tooth-achingly brutal at times, Monaco is so chock-full of little details that it can be absolutely flabbergasting to take in – until you've played it for a while, that is. The footprints you see everywhere tell both you and the local population where everyone has been. Sneak, and you'll stop leaving a trail. The faint patter of footsteps in a greyed-out area will let you know of imminent approach. Red lasers denote the presence of an alarm, punctuation marks convey the interest level of the people around you. A slowly filling question mark over someone's head will tell you of growing curiosity while a red exclamation mark should serve as a cue to exit stage right.
Filled with cryptic and not-so-cryptic symbols, much of Monaco's vagaries can be compared to map reading. You won't understand anything that's going on at first, but after a brief period of acclimatisation, you'll be able to distinguish between highways and pit stops – in much the same way that you'll eventually be able to tell at a glance the difference between a turret and an alarm.
You will spend a lot of time with Monaco, by the way. The game comes with over 50 levels and a map editor. You'll be able to keep things going long after the campaigns end (the Pickpocket's story, which unlocks as you clean out entire levels of money, is essentially Monaco's Infernal mode). Sadly, the game's map editor (which is purportedly the same one the developers used) is not particularly intuitive: you'll need to study the control system and test each feature individually to figure out what goes where.
But these are minor niggles. Monaco is only held back by the people you play it with: get the right posse, and it's one of the best co-op games of all time.
Expect to pay: $15 / £10
Release: Out now
Developer: Pocketwatch Games
Multiplayer: Up to four player co-op
An amazing blend of high stakes and comedic timing, one that will leave you hungry for constant four-player action.