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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Monaco: What Yours Is Mine


By on 6:30 AM

Thieves are an indefatigable lot. Even the best surveillance equipment can only temporarily slow down a resourceful robber, and protecting treasure only gets harder as its value rises. So when a talented burglar lives in the affluent city-state of Monaco, the lure of priceless goods is impossible to resist. After all, just one late-night outing to an inviting bank could yield enough fortune to retire to an even more beautiful place than this quiet French Riviera locale. In Monaco: What's Yours is Mine, you fill your bulging pockets with every coin and gold nugget you can get your hands on, and though the bumbling guards have little chance of thwarting your hijinks, the rush of a successful heist makes you eager to dig deeper into the world of villainy.
Navigating the decadent buildings that populate Monaco is akin to reading a blueprint. Viewed from a top-down perspective, the floor plan is not immediately discernible. Room names are etched in bold font, clearly labeling where the vault or dressing room is located, but the details aren't apparent until your sight lines give substance to the rough sketch. There's a disorienting transition at first as a basic outline becomes a fully realized room when you enter it, and then transforms back to a lifeless map when you leave. Lights and colors seemingly flash at random, so getting your bearings can be troublesome because of the unique way things are communicated. But once you understand how to read the blocky shapes, there's a beautiful elegance to the abstract visual design.
You start by selecting one specialist from a group of skilled thieves and try to ransack Monaco, either by your lonesome or with up to three friends. Each character is well schooled in the art of stealing, which makes it possible to slink through darkened halls no matter whom you select or how many people are in your party. Everyone can pick locks, hack computers, open safes, and bamboozle guards, but each character has his or her own expertise as well. The lookout, for instance, identifies obstacles and valuables outside of your normal field of view, while the cleaner can knock guards unconscious with a whack to the back of the head. All of the characters have a role that makes completing levels easier, except for the pickpocket. Although his monkey pal can collect stray gold coins, he's not thorough enough to make him a worthwhile choice.
Objectives remain the same regardless of which character you choose. Infiltrate a building, steal a specific treasure, and then flee faster than you've ever fled before. Guards shine their flashlights down blackened hallways, marching in unpredictable patterns that keep you guessing which path you should take to avoid them. Locked doors and security lasers abound, and though it takes no more than a few seconds to disable most obstacles, there's an undeniable feeling of dread as you frantically try to pick a lock while a guard hovers dangerously nearby. When your trackers sense that something is amiss, they mutter French phrases that make you hold your breath. Quoi? Qui va la?? It's a tense ordeal, and your heart flutters all the more thanks to the excellent musical score. A simple piano melody accompanies your voyage through the shadows, but once you're spotted, the tempo quickens, making you feel the stress of imminent capture.
Trying to glide unseen through formidable compounds is nerve-racking, but Monaco stumbles when you're sighted. Guards yell frantically to their colleagues, and sirens issue a piercing blare, but you can escape from the chaos in a pinch. Memory issues plague every guard, so even if they watch you crawl into an air duct, they soon forget about your existence. Air ducts are not present in every level, but staircases are. When you move to a new landing, the guards have no idea there was a disturbance down below, and if you want to go back to where you started the ruckus, it takes only a few seconds for everything to go back to normal.
Still, you do have to worry about dying if you become sloppy. Armed guards can deplete your health in a hurry, and setting off certain traps means you're going to get a tranquilizer dart right in your keister. But as long as you're vigilant, you can avoid an untimely demise. There are health bandages and hidey-holes aplenty to keep you breathing, so staying alive is mostly a matter of not becoming overconfident. Because of the poor implementation of difficulty, you can often run through levels like a thieving chicken with its head cut off, scooping up treasure and scurrying to safety before you can be captured. Even the most well-intentioned thieves will grow tired of their pursuit of fortune when so little stands between them and vast riches.
Even though there's not much in the way of punishment, unlocking later levels is a tedious affair. In addition to the specific treasures you have to abscond with, there are hundreds of golden coins sprinkled in every hallway and room. When you nab every one and escape from the premises, you've "cleaned out" a stage, and that completionist mindset is necessary to gain access to the second half of this adventure. Slowly combing through every square inch of a building is a tiresome endeavor, and this roadblock to progress saps away much of the appeal of your looting antics.
Despite these foibles, Monaco manages to be an engaging experience. Being able to exploit the meager intelligence of the roaming guards doesn't squash the thrill of the heist. Sneaking past cutting-edge security systems and ducking into unoccupied bathroom stalls makes you feel like an expert jewel thief, and there are a bevy of gadgets to give some diversity to the action. Fancy slaughtering guards? Grab the shotgun. Or you can vanish into the darkness by throwing a smoke bomb. The devices let you play to your strengths, so if you're the pacifist type, you can trigger a roaming blackout or carry bandages. But if pain is your game, there are crossbows and C4 to make guards feel your wrath. Character selection ties in to this variety. The costumed gentleman can hide in plain sight, whereas the Hacker easily taps into security systems.
Playing with friends adds another twist to your looting ways. Organizing a team of thieves makes it possible to move through stages with smooth precision. Quickly jimmy doors with the lockpick character, knock down a wall with the mole, and then distract the angry guards with the fetching redhead. Working in harmony unleashes the enjoyment of a band of odd characters robbing a bank, though there's a certain appeal to the unruly collaboration of four stubborn robbers. The best-laid plans can go up in smoke if the cleaner decides to go on a knockout binge, and trying to figure out if you should revive the sloppy hacker or leave his body to rot depends on how much help he was while alive.
Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine has noticeable problems that keep it from reaching its potential. The appeal of stealth ties in largely to how scared you are of being caught, and because it's so easy to escape in this downloadable game, the tension slowly evaporates. Even with the soft-headed guards, it's still a lot of fun to roam through this novel adventure. The sheer diversity of tactics and the lure of silly cooperative fun make you happy to put on the gloves of a thief in training.

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