I’ll admit, I don’t follow the indie development community as closely as I should. It’s only since last year with games like Hotline Miami that I started to get interested in the independent gaming scene. As a result, Monaco flew under my radar until just a few weeks before release. And for that I should be punished. This is the sort of game that was made for me.

Ever since I discovered Richard Stark’s Parker books a couple years back, I’ve been a fan of heist stories and I’ve been trying to dream up just how such a thing would work as a video game. Monaco nearly has it right.

Monaco puts you in the shoes of the classic Ocean’s Eleven-style team of criminals. You start with a lockpicker, a pickpocket, a lookout and a cleaner. Once you and your buddies bust out of the cooler, the fun begins as you collect the last few members of your team and go to work.

The Blueprint

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After a bit of story and character selection, you enter the map—a bank, museum, etc.—and go to work, avoiding traps and guards and bypassing security measures to collect the loot and make it out with everyone in one piece. The controls are simple, really only using the stick and triggers. If you want to bypass a lock or pick up a disguise, just point your character at it. You can carry one item at a time, and use it with the right trigger, while the left trigger slows you down for sneaking.

What sets Monaco apart is the sort of thieves’ fog of war; you can only see what’s in line of sight. You can estimate where someone might be if you can hear their footsteps, and you can remember where a safe is once you’ve had a peek at it, but much of the map remains dark throughout the mission, making every corner a bit of a nervous venture.

The Team

When I started playing, I was a bit put-off. I wasn’t sure what everyone was raving about. Just as the developers suggested, I started the game single-player.

What you end up with when you play alone is a character ill-suited to most situations and ready for only a couple. This is okay at the beginning but as the game goes on, the chaotic missions start to break it down. It all falls apart as you spend each mission longing for one of the other seven characters you didn’t pick. The grid of lasers would’ve been a fun problem for the hacker to deal with, but only once the cleaner took care of the guards. And here I am with the pickpocket and his monkey. This could’ve been mitigated by letting the player pick a team of maybe 3 heisters, rotating through them with the shoulder buttons.

Multiplayer is where Monaco shines, though, and is definitely for what it will be remembered. Monaco can be played with up to four players on the couch or online, with each player picking a different class. This immediately solves the problems that hurt the single-player mode so deeply and adds a new layer of New Super Mario Bros. Wii chaotic insanity to the game; even the best-planned heists have a way of going wrong. That’s the fun part in a heist, after all. How will our favorite crooks make it out of this situation?

While the single-player gameplay leaves something to be desired, Monaco is a work of art in the other departments.  The reactive soundtrack, composed by Austin Wintory (best known for last year’s Journey on PlayStation 3) matches the tone and pace of the game perfectly. And not just because it changes depending on the action going on.

A Work Of Art

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Monaco‘s minimalist art is some of my favorite game art yet this year as well. The limited sight I mentioned earlier leaves much of the screen grey, especially when there’s just one burglar on the map. Despite that, Monaco is just as colorful as its title screen suggests. Instead of the whole screen blowing up in your face all the time, though, you’ll see brilliant flashes of color as you zip through the rooms and tight corridors of the blueprint-like map.

The only problem with the simple, retro-style visuals is that almost everything is, well, either a rectangle or a diamond. Which is just a tilted rectangle.  Things can become confusing (and in multiplayer, amusing) as a result. Swirling fire can look a bit too much like a coin, and sometimes it’s hard to discern a hallway from a wall. You acclimate eventually, but it takes a bit.

The Loot

Rating

7.0
A great mix of co-op, originality and chaos makes Monaco a stellar game.

Monaco

For people who can get a group together, Monaco will have very long legs. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a cooperative game in a long time; I might even pick it up for PC to play with console-free friends. For the more solitary players, Monaco will be a frustrating purchase. It’s hard for even the best planner to get a group of good heisters together, but once the team is assembled, what happens is magical.

Disclaimer: We purchased Monaco for Xbox 360 with personal funds. We played the single and multiplayer modes extensively before starting this review.