“Okay, we need to strangle this assassin together!” I shout, exasperatedly at my roommate. It’s our third time trying this sequence, and we haven’t quite managed to get the timing right on the quick-time event of mashing the square button at the same time we take out our would-be killer. What should be a tense moment has turned into something far less interesting — yet it’s still entertaining because I’m playing with a friend.
A Way Out is the latest game from director Josef Fares released through his new studio Hazelight, in partnership with EA. Fares is best known as the creator of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a game from the Xbox 360’s indie golden age that had players control two characters at once to solve puzzles with strong story elements. A Way Out draws a lot on the co-operative nature of Brothers, but instead of mapping each character to different parts of the same controller, A Way Out fully embraces couch co-op by not only encouraging, but outright mandating that you’ll have to work together with someone to play it. There’s no AI or single-player option. If you don’t have a friend to play with, this isn’t the game for you.
I played through the entirety of A Way Out with my roommate Josh, who is decidedly not a gamer, but I managed to bribe him with baked goods. Fortunately, A Way Out is a very story-driven affair that doesn’t ask too much from players. You don’t need lightning-quick reactions or other typical video game skills. There are a handful of sequences that involve driving, and one extended gunplay portion at the end, but for the most part, if you and your partner are able to navigate a 3D environment with a controller, you’ll be able to play A Way Out.
A Way Out puts players into the shoes of two characters: Leo, a brash loose cannon who views violence as the first solution in a situation, and Vincent, who’s older and calmer. Each player sticks with the character they choose at the beginning of the game, and the stories play out as a strictly split-screen experience. (In theory, you could swap controllers to play as the other character, but there are no real gameplay differences between them. It’s not the sort of asymmetrical co-op game where each character has specific skills and abilities. Besides, I kind of grew attached to playing as Leo over the course of the game.)
The characters meet when they’re placed in adjacent cells in prison at the start of the game. After Vincent helps Leo out of a fight, Leo returns the favor by bringing Vincent in on his plan to escape the maximum security prison. The two go on to discover that they ended up in prison after being wrongfully betrayed by the same man, and they work together to find a way out and take revenge.
As you might expect from a game that sells itself on being a truly co-operative experience, the co-operative gameplay mechanics are the best thing about A Way Out. Some of them are old mainstays, like holding down a button at the same time to open a door, but A Way Out goes beyond that for some truly interesting moments.
The highlights of the game are when it forces players to work together. In one memorable sequence early on, the duo attempt to steal a wrench as part of the prison break, leading to a series of passes and dodges as they maneuver the wrench out of the prison workshop and past a series of guards. Another part of the game had me sneaking around the prison to steal a file, while Josh’s character distracted the guard and kept watch, letting me know when I was safe to move. The shifting, cinematic split-screen view changes perspective based on what’s going on in the story to add a distinctive style to the usual local multiplayer screen setup.
A Way Out is more of a story-driven affair, which is unfortunately where the game stumbles a bit. That’s not the say the characters aren’t interesting. In fact, watching the relationship between Vincent and Leo as they get to know and trust each other over the course of the game is one of the things A Way Out does really well. But the actual story itself is cookie cutter to the extreme, liberally borrowing cliches from The Shawshank Redemption, Scarface, Prison Break, and The Fast and Furious movies over the course of the roughly five- to six-hour story.
Also strange is a variety of fun co-op mini-games scattered through the levels, letting you play against your couch co-pilot in things like Connect 4, horseshoes, darts, or a wheelchair balancing minigame. They’re fun diversions, but they felt at odds with the story. At one point, we were racing to a hospital to visit Vincent’s newborn daughter before continuing on our revenge plot, and we were offered a narrative-breaking chance to stop and play board games for a while.
Additionally, the game doesn’t always make it clear where you’re supposed to go next or what to do when you get there, and while the levels tend to be large and full of interesting things to explore and interact with, there’s no hint or directional indicator. Once, Josh and I were forced to restart a section simply because we missed the characters talking and had to reload from the checkpoint to hear the line of dialogue again. Throughout the game, players are also given the choice between following Vincent’s plan or Leo’s for specific circumstances, which generally boils down to whether you’re taking the violent (Leo) or non-violent (Vincent) path. However, things generally seem to end up in basically the same place, no matter which option you chose.
But simply having someone else to experience A Way Out with makes it a more compelling game. It’s so much more fun laughing at the inane story beats or ridiculous slow-motion midair jumps when you’re with another person. And there’s a simple satisfaction from working together to pull off a robbery. A Way Out supports online play, but unless you and your partner have a microphone, I wouldn’t recommend it; half the fun was puzzling things out with Josh or trading apologies for messing up a shootout sequence for the ninth time or intentionally letting a fan crush the other player.
There are other frustrations, too. If one player messes up, both players have to start over from scratch, and replaying sequences multiple times can get tedious. This is made even worse by the fact that you can’t skip dialogue or cutscenes; if you have to replay a section, you also need to rewatch whatever story beats are associated with it.
Stripped of its unique co-operative angle, A Way Out wouldn’t be very good. The gameplay isn’t very deep, and the story is too shallow to make up for it. But add in a second player and the extra element of human interaction and working together to achieve a goal, and it somehow all comes together.
Now that I’ve played through the story once, I’m not sure if there’s any reason that I’ll revisit A Way Out again. But as someone who believes in the concept of local multiplayer games, A Way Out is a fascinating look forward at what a co-operative multiplayer experience can look like, and it’s one that I hope other companies will continue to learn from going forward.