Monaco proves that things go right when everything goes wrong
Monaco may appear to be a stealth game, but stealth titles offer some possibility of success without being seen. True “stealth” victory in Monaco is so difficult that sneaking around is only a prelude to the true point of the game: Adaptation.
Monaco goes out of its way to make sure this isn't a game about memorizing guard routes like traditional stealth titles such as Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. Guards are a bit random, and the places where the all-important coins are placed throughout the level often changes. You can't memorize the area if you want to perfect your strategy. You have to analyze the situation on the fly.
You play as a band of master thieves who are trying to escape the Mediterranean city of Monaco, but not before robbing the entire city blind. Though you start out with just four characters known only by their class archetype (The Locksmith, The Lookout, The Pickpocket, and The Cleaner) you'll eventually meet other characters and add them to your team as well (The Red Head, The Gentleman, The Hacker, The Mole.)
The later levels may seem impossible unless you go into the game ready to use absolutely every trick at your disposal. It might seem cheap to abuse a guard's 10-second memory, but you must if you're going to get the job done, even if it seems silly that they forgot there was an intruder 30 seconds after their co-worker was killed in a C4 explosion.
This also means understanding that your character is almost inevitably going to die. In single-player, after a character dies Monaco allows you to resume progress on that map with a different character three times. Which means every map can be chipped away at by characters with different specialties. Part of the strategy of tougher levels is figuring out what you'd like to accomplish with a given character before their nearly inevitable demise, and in what order you want to bring them out.
This is the major factor that distinguishes Monaco's single-player and cooperative experiences. In single-player, you trot the classes out one at a time. In multiplayer there are no restarts, but four classes can be playing at the same time. The entire campaign can be played with up to four players, and which classes you bring is a large part of the strategy.
Finding the right combination that works for your group is important; certain classes work well in combination. The Lookout, for instance, can spot guards that are out of sight, while The Cleaner can sneak into position behind and knock them out. Meanwhile The Mole can noisily dig a path through the walls and past security while The Redhead charms any guards who get suspicious.
Learning how to fail
This focus of the gameplay fits remarkably well with the themes of the films that inspired the game. Monaco is a sort of homage to heist films from both the modern era and the early 1900s. As with every good heist flick, it's never about the plan, it's about what goes wrong and how the characters respond to crisis. Reservoir Dogs, for example, doesn't even bother to show the heist scene. The movie is about how its characters react when the heist goes sour.
Monaco is about how you will respond to bad situations.
While you're creeping through corridors, crawling through air ducts, hacking computer terminals, and diving into shrubberies, eventually your well-laid plans are going to fall apart and you'll have to make some tough choices.
Say you've attracted the attention of a guard. For the moment he's the only one who knows about you, which is bad, but not as bad as it could be. So what do you do? There aren't any good options, but what you choose can define the rest of the mission. If you have a gun you could shoot him, but that's a short-term solution; his buddies will come running, and they'll be able to resurrect him.
Or you could just run. Run as fast and as far as you can, putting as many doors between you and the guard as possible. That's less risky, but not by much. You might run blindly into more guards, or worse, a security laser which attracts the entire squad of guards. There's no “right” answer.
There are other options as well, and it all comes down to whether you're able to execute a workable plan on-the-fly with the tools you have at your disposal. Just like any crime film, the worst thing you can do is panic.
It can be frustrating when your brain doesn't want to let go of the old habits you've developed while mastering past stealth games. Once you learn to get over of the feeling of failure when the enemy alarm bell goes off, you'll find Monaco to be an enjoyable and unique experience.
Well-conceived gameplay isn't surprising; Monaco won the Grand Prize for Best Independent Game (as well as Excellence in Design) at the Independent Games Festival in 2010.
The most surprising aspect of Monaco is its story. It uses character archetypes brilliantly to ensure that you understand everything you need to know about the character despite him/her having neither face nor name, and in one case, no lines of dialogue. Anyone who has seen a heist film knows what The Hacker is like, and understands why The Cleaner is described as a psychopath who never speaks.
These characters are brought to life through a combination of the player's preconceptions and some fantastic dialogue. The Mole stands out due to his choppy French accent and comic relief, but the suave Gentleman and the 1337-speaking Hacker offer great lines as well.
Though the story is relayed only through brief pre-mission conversations with unvoiced dialogue displayed in speech bubbles, it's still interesting.
The main campaign isn't a groundbreaking tale, but it gets much more interesting when the second campaign begins. It's the same story told Rashomon-style from the perspective of The Pickpocket and is slightly different as it's being recounted in retrospect after all has been revealed. The levels in this second campaign are also largely different and offer a much greater challenge.
With all of these elements working together, Monaco becomes much more than the sum of its parts, especially played with friends. It's a game with familiar-yet-innovative gameplay blended with a surprisingly compelling story, and a beautiful abstract-Atari aesthetic.
If you can manage to disabuse yourself of the notions and habits that have been drilled into our heads over the years by the mainstays of the stealth genre then you'll find a highly enjoyable arcade-style heist simulation that will often surprise you with its depth.