The co-op heist game Monaco appears to be missing whatever qualities an online video game must possess in order to turn the strangers who play it into jerks. I'm worried about telling you this, because I'm worried that I'm wrong and that Monaco is as prone to being ruined by the burrs of humanity. I'm worried that this ride isn't going to be so comfy long-term.
Right now.... if you go play Monaco on PC right now, online, with strangers...you can assume you'll have a very good time. I've been having that very good time all week.
Monaco is a pretty simple game, but one that benefits greatly from teamwork. Perhaps those of us who are playing it now just instinctively get that and realize that being annoying or angry will only make things worse. For now, then, it's all helping hands, banding together and piling into the getaway car while cackling. The game's a thieving paradise.
What is this game going to be like when it comes to Xbox Live Arcade? That'll be the test. There are some monsters on Xbox Live.
Anyway, the game: it's a one-to-four-player co-op game about stealing stuff. Think Gauntlet with yacht/disco/bank robberies. It looks old-school in still shots but actually plays with modern slickness.
The game is presented as a couple of campaigns that tell the tale of a group of thieves. The campaigns are broken up into missions, each of those presented as a stack of floors that you'll ideally clean out of all its treasure.
The locksmith's campaign is for beginners, though it gets tough. The pickpocket's campaign is an extreme, more dangerous re-telling of the locksmith's, meaning the level layouts are similar but with more elaborate security and maybe a bunch of things on fire.
Each level is full of guards and locked doors. Those are the basic hazards. Eventually you'll be worrying about security lasers, guard dogs and pesky, ringing phones that send guards rushing off of their patrol routes to take calls. To foil this stuff, you'll be able to unlock locked doors, hide in bushes, hack computers and even pick up an array of items—from guns to smoke bombs to wrenches, all of which are permitted one use per 10 coins you collect. Most of each level's map is obscured and shows up as a gray floorplan with no indications of guards or alarms. What your character can see, however, is colored in. This changes as you move and is your key to understanding the level and pulling off the job.
If you play solo, you're given four lives and increasingly long odds of sneaking and scrambling through the game's levels. You want to snatch coins, achieve a special objective and get to a getaway car. It's just not easy to do that when there's no one to distract a guard for you.
In each life you play as a different character, each with its own ability. The locksmith picks locked doors faster, the lookout reveals the location of all of the coins and guards on the map, the pickpocket has a monkey that can grab any nearby coins for you, the mole bashes through walls, the gentleman can always put on a disguise, the cleaner can knock unaware guards and civilians out, etc.
If you play with others, you pick one character class. The other players pick different ones. As a crew, you play in the same campaign missions that you'd solo, but now you're tackling them with up to four players at once. This changes everything. One character's ability makes life easier for another. The presence of the lookout enables the cleaner to scan the map and see which guards are in need of being knocked out. The redhead can distract the guard who is about to put a bullet in the pickpocket. The mole can make a tunnel that the rest of the crew can scurry through, bypassing some guard dogs en route to an escape ladder. If any player gets killed by a guard, another player can run over and revive them.
Get the picture?
Teamwork makes the game more fun than playing solo.
Teamwork is not what you'd expect if you jumped in with random people online. I expected that I'd need to play with friends to have a good experience and that we'd have to communicate carefully to succeed. When I first played the game online with some of my co-workers, I kept the voice-chat active because I was sure we needed to talk. We didn't. With strangers, I use the in-game text chat a little. So do they. It's not necessary, though, because the action of the game is so clear. You can just scan the screen and understand exactly what's happening. You can discern who is in trouble, who is sneaking through the back route, who is handling the safe in the upper left corner of the map. The teamwork just happens...and that feels great.
Is this the secret of why people really rob banks?
Do they not do it because they want all that money? It is that, as Monaco shows, well-coordinated heisting is in and of itself so much fun?
Of course not.
Real bank robbers want the money.
But for Monaco players, the coordination that comes naturally is just wonderful fun. It happens so easily that it seems that no one thinks to be a jerk. Look, I played some games online this week in which I was the bad player (shocking!) and, when I died, people just revived me. No sweat. I guess I'd revived them a few times, too. When I played and encountered players who I was better than (shocking, too!) I quickly saw them improve and feel good about it. I felt camaraderie playing with these strangers. I felt the collective rush of zipping through a level, bypassing the guards and getting away with another big score. I felt no rancor, just some tension, some scrambling panic and a lot of glee. Even when the random people I was playing with failed a level, we just jumped right back it. The second time was almost always the charm.
OK. There was one guy who bailed because of lag. His character was jumping all over the map. And he was probably a jerk. Screw him.
Otherwise... play this. Don't worry if you don't have any friends to play it with. Just go online, select a mission and wait for people to join you. Have fun. And keep up the good vibes. Be nice. There's happiness to be had among Monaco's thieves.
If you want to see more, here's a half-hour of the game in action. I captured this about a week ago off of a pre-release copy of the Xbox 360 version:
To contact the author of this post, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo. And a special thank you to reader Stewart Ridgway (X3RX3S) for creating the new version of our review box. It looks great!