Let me start here: Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine does co-op right. Teamwork is the thing that really makes co-op work—a good cooperative game gives the players asymmetrical abilities, which imply team roles and specialties, then places them in situations in which success is reliant upon their ability to carry out these functions in a coordinated fashion. With this as a goal, Monaco comes in as an exemplar.
This low-budget production gives up to four players a romp through a classic heist story. Each player chooses from among 8 character classes, each with their own special ability—which are mostly very useful—then together they steal just about everything in Monaco. The characters are not just a little different, they are vastly different—each one creating a fully different playstyle. This is accomplished through simplicity: in general, characters can only walk, sneak, and use a limited selection of guns and gadgets. Each character then has a special ability which makes them function very differently from the others. Only one character, for example, is able to take out enemies without a gun, and, as rare as ammunition is in the game, that can come in handy, and a team with that character in it will approach situations very differently than a team without him. Nearly all of the abilities are this dramatically effective, but you can’t have all of them, so the team has to choose carefully which members they need based on their play style and the goals of the particular heist.
Good team mechanics is not all that Monaco has going for it. The plot is interesting, as well. The basic line is this: A group of criminals have escaped from prison and located some friends, and they’re taking on some last-second heists on their way out of the country. The players get the bones of the story in the first set of missions—then comes the interesting part. The subsequent chapters are the same story and missions repeated from the point of view of a different character on the team. It’s the same locations, but it’s a little bit different—the levels are layed out differently, the enemies will be differently armed, and in different locations and the story will play out differently, sometimes drastically so, as the players slowly begin to realize the truth of the twisty tale (if it is the truth; it’s unclear which character is lying). Unfortunately, the only way to open the second set of levels is to ‘clean out’ the first set. Normally, I’m not much of a completionist. If I get to the end of a level, and I won, but forgot a coin or two, I wouldn’t care—but here, if you want to play the second half of the game, you have to start caring about actually stealing everything in every level. If that’s not your bag, you’re only getting half of a game here—and not the interesting half. It would have been nice if there had been some other way to unlock the levels.
The game’s visuals are highly stylized: the 2D, top-down view on the levels helps players see the building from a schematic-level understanding, but the colorful, sometimes over-symbolic art-style can also lead to some confusion, especially when you are just getting into it. The game does a good job of getting the player into the style and the mechanics slowly enough that it’s possible to become accustomed to it, but even after many hours, the screen still seems very busy with colors and symbols. One thing that could really have helped was a HUD. I know that the display looks cleaner and more artistic without one, but in the heat of a complicated moment, it’s impossible to know things like how much ammo you have, or how many hit points are remaining until you KO. In a game where a team is relying on me to know my status at any moment, I would much rather have had a simple always-on HUD, than a cleaner screen. Besides that, so much information is already having to be conveyed in the environment, adding conditions, stats, and inventory to the environment too would just make an already cluttered space into a jumbled one. As I said, you eventually get used to it, but for the first few levels, it’s hard to know what you’re looking at.
The game is not an easy one. The controls are very simple, but the enemies are unforgiving, and usually the only recourse, once you’ve been discovered, is to run away—sometimes back to the previous level—before they give up pursuit. As sneaky as your team might be, and as well as they may work together, it seems nearly impossible to beat most of the levels on the first try. My group had to get killed or captured a few times on most of the levels before we figured out which team members we needed to bring, and in what order things needed to be done. The levels may not be particularly long (about 20 minutes a piece if you’re not going for a speed run), but expect to play each one several times before you get it right.
Monaco is not quite as interesting single-player, but it has its charms. Playing alone, you get only one of the many special abilities, and there is no one to coordinate with (which is where most of the fun comes in), but you get four tries at each level (each time with a different one of the characters) and can pick up from where the previous attempt was lost—which is a nice way to make up for the lack of teammate assistance and differentiate the single-player game.
We were surprised to find that the best number for a Monaco team is three. Two is fun, but gives limited options for special abilities, four gives more special abilities (and more friends!) but the tradeoff is not worth the team breakdown that we noticed. With three players, we tended to stick together in the levels, and really rely on one another’s abilities, but as soon as we had four people on a team, we’d start splitting up—either into two teams of two, or worse, four teams of one. With four players, no one player feels as essential as everyone does in the two or three player team, so interest in sticking together fades, and the team loses cohesion. Again, that was our specific experience. It may be different for your group. Of course, as always, the game is 1000% more interesting with friends than it is with strangers. In fact, just don’t even try to play with strangers. Across a dozen attempts, I failed to ever complete a level with players who were not my friends. As soon as a mission starts to go a little hectic, players start to drop. Many times, I found myself alone in the level within a few minutes of setting out. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever had good luck with strangers in a co-op game. At this point, I have to wonder: Maybe it’s me.
Overall, Monaco delivers a well-crafted, fun, co-op experience, if perhaps a bit unpolished in places.