Version tested: PC
Every good criminal needs an accomplice - someone who'll pull the strings and help drive the long con home. Monaco: What's Yours is Mine's choice of allies is wonderfully risky, though. The undercover operative it's employing is the imagination of its audience. Its inside man is inside the player's head.
Your imagination is tasked with translation and embellishment: mapping the game's top-down mazes to the bright arc of the French Riviera and transforming this brisk steal-'em-up's elegant 2D blueprints into lavish museums, hotels and casinos ripe for raiding. That's a neat trick, and it's a testament to the cues that Pocketwatch Games provides that it works as brilliantly as it does. What's even more astonishing, however, is that the developer has the guts to try such a strategy in the first place.
Gambles like this suggest the rakish, confident thinking of a master thief. Monaco is a class act and it knows it. It uses stylishly abstracted visuals and time-worn arcade mechanics to create hilariously unpredictable set-pieces. It's fun for a single player or for four. It uses two interrelated campaigns (an easier one to kick things off and a remixed follow-up that piles on the challenge) to both build and then all but dismantle a breezy crime narrative filled with feints and double-crosses. Finally, it hangs everything on a power fantasy that, for once, almost everyone will be able to endorse. Gather your crew of wayward hardnuts and then spread out across one of the richest city-states in the world, robbing the place blind and avoiding the cops as you finance your escape.
Monaco's the perfect foil for the age of austerity, and its looting presents an ideal structure for a video game, too. Each criminal you collect comes with their own handy perk should you employ them for a heist (the mole can dig through walls, for example, and the redhead can subdue rentacops with a kiss) while the individual crimes offer the chance to see the mechanics of Pac-Man - the same sense of hectic momentum in a complex space, the same stomach-twisting lurches between advance and retreat - played out in the kind of real-estate you'll more commonly find on a Cluedo board.
Narrow corridors and wide open spaces: these intricate layouts heighten the tension and the game's ability to create genuine criminal role-play. They give Monaco the leverage to make you really think like a perp. Channelling the impulses of a seasoned cat burglar, you'll learn to dread the yawning cavern of a kitchen or courtyard, while a retreat to the warrenous channels of a sewer brings a palpable sense that the balance has shifted back in your favour. Even with friends in play, you'll crave darkness as you make mental notes of patrol routes, the security around each level's grand objective, and the locations of medkits and weapons, and you'll always be thinking about egress as well as ingress. To be a professional baddy is to have your attention constantly divided: Monaco's circuit-board maps are all short distances and doglegs, and a good mission will stack three or four of these on top of one another before hiding their turrets, laser traps and brutish coppers behind a dynamic fog of war that ensures you're almost always advancing into the unknown.
Monaco doesn't want you to leave before seeing the fun you can have when the attack dogs come out. It wants you to view disaster as an opportunity
The quickest route to the next exit is never the most interesting, though, and so you'll rarely want to take it - not least because you have ample means of coping when things go wrong. Along with the perks of the character you've chosen, every criminal has a basic knack for picking locks and hacking security systems, for donning disguises and picking up weapons or other gadgets when they're available. Interacting with any of these things takes time - precious seconds when you're dangerously exposed and praying to the god of countdown clocks - but while such a set-up could be tiresomely exacting, it's generally being deployed with chaos rather than punishment in mind. On your first playthrough, with or without buddies, the shifting sight-lines and the bombardment of tempting possibilities encourage you to act before thinking and ad lib your way through the ensuing havoc with a cheeky grin. Monaco's a game that comes alive at full pelt, invoking memories of those rushing point-of-view shots from early Coen brothers films.
Pocketwatch isn't really trying to construct a stealth game that works as a precision puzzler - although it contains a few set-pieces where you'll definitely have to think about your approach pretty carefully. Instead, Monaco's eager to create the ultimate chase scene, to ferment the steady bubbling of tension that erupts, spectacularly, into the chaos of flight where foolish improvisation is actively encouraged. Mistakes are entertaining and not necessarily terminal here, and you're frequently best served approaching things in a roguish, off-the-cuff manner.
The AI is pleasantly blinkered for the majority of the first campaign - slow to draw a gun in most situations and quick to forget about it afterwards. Relatively stupid and relatively plentiful, the security forces you face provide a suitably playful adversary for a design that elevates the ancient art of running away, of hiding in a pot plant for a few cheery seconds before regrouping and giving things another try. Just as cinema abhors the robbery that goes without a hitch, Monaco doesn't want you to leave before seeing the fun you can have when the attack dogs come out. It wants you to view disaster as an opportunity.
If you're a completist or a speed-runner, Pocketwatch is capable of tightening the screws, however. To open up the second campaign you're going to have to clean out the first, collecting your main objectives while also snagging all the loose gold lying around the place. This isn't easy, but it is thrilling. Suddenly, you have to really think, to work out how to cover every inch of a map without being spotted, and to be tactical in single-player as to the order in which you select gang members since, in place of a standard lives system, each defeat sees you re-entering the fray with a different character and different skills.
You'll come to appreciate the diabolical manner in which Monaco's elements are tied together - how the gold you collect provides more ammo for the weapons you pick up, and how time spent out in the open is actually your most vital resource. It's surprisingly strategic for a solo thief, while multiplayer piles on the accidental comedy - Left 4 Dead: the Lavender Hill Mod.
With its no-fuss co-op and its roomy maps, multiplayer is clearly how Monaco is meant to be approached - as a hilarious rolling bloodbath, shot through with moments of almost instinctive teamwork. Not too many moments, though: for every occasion where things sync up beautifully there are times where even the slickest of gangs will feel that they're divided by a common objective as alarms go off, lasers are tripped and turrets unleash salvoes. Give in to the chaos! Enjoy it. Revel in the elbow-y slapstick churn as characters converge. Giggle with idiot happiness as the whole campaign builds to a wonderfully inventive (and thematically inevitable) climax.
Stealth, chaos, cops and robbers: you can describe the individual pieces - the carefully judged fallibility of the AI, the limitations of the weapons, the cat-and-mouse intricacy of the floor-plans - but Monaco truly lives in the moments where everything comes together as one. Pocketwatch's game is as much a victory for conceit as it is design, and that victory is delivered with every perfect sound effect that enlivens the frantic tapping on a computer keyboard or the lockpicks scrabbling at a security door, with every twitch and lunge of the strangely beetle-like animation of your tiny criminals.
Monaco drives home the fantasy of being a quick-witted thief in a way that no Hollywood cut-scene ever could
Hack a PC in a busy level and you'll see the true scope of Monaco's achievements in play. You can follow that crisscrossing electronic trail right across a map as it deactivates any connected alarms, one at a time. It feels great, but it also looks amazing - it drives home the fantasy of being a quick-witted thief in a way that no Hollywood cut-scene ever could.
As Austin Wintory's music-hall piano struggles gloriously to keep pace with your moment-to-moment decisions, as fountains and fireplaces are captured beautifully with a few shimmering squares of colour, as the best-laid plans are confounded by inept teamwork, it's hard not to marvel at the economy, the wholeness, the underlying confidence of Monaco. It's a glorious conversion of art and design and an audacious example of indie principles employed to create big-budget spectacle.
Like any great thief, then, Pocketwatch Games understands the tremendous power of suggestion. It's tagged you as an easy mark - and it's got that man on the inside, too.
9 / 10