Monaco review: A good day to spy hard

I'm a terrible thief.

If ever there were an investigation into a string of high-profile burglaries in my neighborhood, all I'd have to do to clear my name is invite some police officers to sit down, get comfortable, and watch me play Monaco for five minutes. The officers would see my glowing, pixelated character get caught on the walls around doorways while running away from hordes of angry guards with guns; they would laugh as I rushed into rooms full of alarms and set off every single one; and they would leave soon after I forgot, again, that my character could dig through walls, hack locked doors or easily knock out unsuspecting enemies, and I'd be a free woman.

Just like I'd planned all along.%Gallery-168499% Monaco is a classic heist game for a modern audience. In order to support its Rat Pack allure of mystery, sex and humor, Monaco takes a retro style – 8-bit graphics – and twists it into a contemporary, clean frame. The characters are blocky and indeterminate, early visions of cardboard-box robots, but from the game's top-down angle they're bright avatars on a dark gray map, lighting up rooms in stark, flashlight pastels as they sneak around walls, windows and doorways. Each room is designated by translucent white writing, right on top of the map, and tips appear in the same manner with every new ability or item. The effect is subtle and gorgeous.

It's also complex. The game features four characters to begin with – the Locksmith, Pickpocket, Cleaner and Lookout – and each one has specific abilities. The Locksmith opens locked doors and safes quickly, the Pickpocket has a monkey that collects coins for him, the Cleaner knocks out oblivious enemies by running into them, and the Lookout can see all of the enemies, all the time. These characters can be used one at a time in a single-player run, or in combinations of up to four players with local or online co-op. Players are tasked with collecting as many coins as possible (missed coins add to your completed time), picking up weapons, hacking computers, and reaching the goal, and then escaping from the entire situation – running through the entire level in reverse – with their lives. It's a lot to ask of any person, let alone four at a time.

Developer Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games created Monaco as a multiplayer experience, first introduced in 2010 as a couch co-op game and now a local or online title, single- or multiplayer, with layers of tactical options for every combination. The unique talents of each character are most apparent in multiplayer, when they must work in combination with other abilities, controlled by other players with their own individual skill sets.

In co-op, I'm not as good with active abilities such as the Cleaner or the Mole, the first unlocked character, who has the ability to dig passages through walls. When playing with friends, I gravitate toward the Lookout because she gives every member of my team the ability to see where the guards are in every room, like radar. Monaco doesn't have any other radar system, so the Lookout's ability is priceless for my friends as they plan strategy and tell me what to do (strategy really isn't my strong suit, really), and it leaves them free to choose offensive abilities. The Lookout also runs slightly faster and enters certain passages in one second, compared with the other characters' three-second standard, allowing me to run away from trouble when it strikes. And it strikes often.

Monaco forces players to take their time, while simultaneously asking them to complete ridiculous tasks as quickly as possible. Steal diamonds, spring allies from guarded rooms, rescue a femme fatale: In all of these tasks, the main obstacle is the sheer number of guards and lookouts in every room, placed inconveniently (for a thief) in the middle of narrow hallways, peering out from behind desks and patrolling main rooms. Sneaking around them – holding left trigger or shift – is slow and unreliable, since enemies that get a chance to look at you oftentimes notice you're not supposed to be there and sound the alarm. Assets around the map, such as disguises, can improve sneaking but don't guarantee a clean getaway. Perhaps I'm impatient, but I find rushing through some of these situations and hoping for the best is sometimes the easiest solution, though possibly the sloppiest.

Sneaking through these areas would be infinitely easier (and much more boring) if there were a clear path to each objective. Instead, the goals in Monaco are clearly delineated in theory, but vague in practice – players enter each map without any overt directional guidance and a slim plan to "steal the evidence" or "rescue the redhead." They must creep through each visible area to feel out the map, find exits to other levels and eventually discover the desired items. There's no way to move the map around or get a hint as to the correct direction, other than to confront all of those enemies head-on, and hope for the best.

This is a frustrating mechanic, at first. Every route on every map does eventually lead to the goals, but that first run-through – wandering blind in a hostile environment, tempted by rooms full of coins and guards, uncertain if the current path is the best one – is infuriating for someone like myself who, in the middle of a level, says "screw it" and blows through entire rooms hoping to find a clear exit before the bullets can take me down. I die often in this scenario, and it's easy to blame the game – after all, if I knew where the goals were, maybe I wouldn't have acted so rash in that completely unnecessary room. Thanks a lot, Schatz.

But in the next run-through, I know more about the map, I predict how enemies will react, and I have a better idea of where I'm heading. It feels smoother and I have a sense of burgeoning accomplishment. I still die anyway.

In the next run-through, I feel even better and I progress even further.

By the fourth, I'm an absolute stud, sneaking in the proper places, taking out guards in other areas, throwing on disguises and unlocking stairwells to collect the prizes and escape in a daring chase. I still miss half of the coins, but by the end, I'm not dead, I've got the goods, and it feels amazing.

This is mostly regarding the single-player campaign, where players have four lives – one chance with each character of their choosing – and checkpoints that start precisely where the previous character died. In multiplayer, it's a shared sense of accomplishment – good job, team – heightened by the fact that if everyone dies, the entire stage starts over again, no matter how close they were to the escape car. Co-op players are able to revive fallen comrades, though it takes time and sounds like someone vigorously kneading a bowl full of KY jelly.

Speaking of sounds: The music, a simple jazzy piano that reacts to each player's actions, is by Journey composer Austin Wintory and it's exceedingly catchy. Think old-timey, black-and-white chase scenes in a ragtime bar. Very cool.

Technically, the game runs perfectly on an Ultrabook, a bonus for laptop owners, and is best experienced with a controller – the keyboard set-up doesn't use a mouse and is entirely functional, but not as comfortable as a controller. Steam has tips for setting up local co-op games with a variety of control options on PC.

Monaco handily captures the Ocean's 11 flair for fun and action, but it runs deeper than its heist theme, presenting a challenge for hardcore fans of strategy and clever design. It's all very devil may care. You don't know where the objectives are? Find them. You want to play the entire level as the Lookout? Too bad, you're going to die. You want what isn't rightfully yours? It's mine – come and get it.

This review is based on a PC download of Monaco, provided by Pocketwatch Games. It will also be available on Xbox Live Arcade once an update is approved.

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