For twenty minutes, I was locked in a battle of wills with my co-op partner that I didn’t think was technically possible in a video-game. Evenly matched, the developers had forced us into a scenario where our skill with a controller wouldn’t be enough to tip the balance in one way or another – it simply came down to our skill with our hearts. I haven’t encountered an experience as ridiculous, dumb, tense or as silly as I did in the arm-wrestling mini-game in A Way Out, and I need others to experience the same technicolour dreamcoat of emotions I did. Oh, and there’s a whole prison escape game too, I guess.
I was present for the announcement of A Way Out back at E3 2017, and I was impressed by EA’s willingness to dedicate a fair chunk of time to an IP that was original both in terms of its content, and its design ethos. A Way Out demands that you play it in co-op, in fact it can’t even be launched without someone present with you on the couch with a second controller, or an invited friend over your online service of choice. There’s no AI-controlled partner option, and there’s no matchmaking system either (although OS-level systems like Xbox One’s game hub serve as good ways to get around this). It comes at a welcome cheaper cost, only AU $39 for the full game, presumably to make it more attractive for multiple friends to purchase and share the experience.
A Way Out‘s roots are firmly planted in the split-screen multiplayer games from the 90’s, but now expanded and experimented with to make something more cinematic from those foundations. Most of the time, the screen is split equally between the two players, allowing each to independently work on solutions to their shared problem, while being constantly aware of how the other is doing or how they may need help. The shared problem in this case is a prison escape – A Way Out follows two recently jailed in-mates, Leo and Vincent, as they not only try to free themselves, but take revenge on the man responsible for their predicament.
A Way Out has to be commended for its overall thesis; its raison d’être, which is to break down, analyse and play with player relationships in multiplayer games. At times, Leo and Vincent have a singular short-term goal that requires them to work together – hiding in a cart while another pushes it, for example. At others, the two are separated and have their own tasks, sometimes getting into their own conversations and cutscenes, with the split-screen shrinking and growing to accommodate whichever the game deems more important. Familiar tropes are present, from barriers that require one player to give a leg-up to the other to progress; to co-operative cover shooting, where one player is on the ground and another takes the high ground with a sniper rifle. The final act of the game also goes to great lengths to reverse expectations, and once again draw upon the game’s 90’s split-screen roots.
The success of all this varies, as the main thrust behind the entire endeavour is a 70’s era crime movie narrative, complete with a diamond heist. The story goes to great lengths to build up Leo and Vincent’s characters, although this is mostly done through cutscenes out of the players control, to the point where the split-screen disappears and both players watch the scenes unfold. While the voice acting and performances are quite good, ultimately the story doesn’t feel as successful as it should in making the players care about the characters. Instead, the story serves its purpose in driving the various co-op situations, but not much beyond that.
In terms of actual gameplay, A Way Out falls a little short here, as well. The game flits between several genres, from adventure games to cover shooters, but fundamentally most of your actions boil down to running around environments and quicktime events, much like many other narrative-heavy games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Also like Telltale’s series, you are given clear choices along the game’s route on which course of action to take, often a ‘diplomatic’ or a ‘violent’ choice, although ultimately you’ll carry on a similar path regardless. To a degree it often feels like you’re watching or playing an interactive movie, with control only sometimes returning to your hands and failure resulting in only minor setbacks.
Sprinkled throughout the game are simple mini-games, that serve as little sandbox distractions that more than anything else aren’t very fleshed out, from baseball and basketball, to darts and the afore-mentioned arm-wrestling. The arm-wrestling really just boils down to mashing one button as hard and fast as you can, with no other strategy involved, and if you have a partner who’s as stubborn as you, you’ll be deadlocked for ages. There are also quite a few little hidden surprises, be it jokes or secret achievements, that reward exploration rather than just pushing through the story.
As an emulation of 70’s dramas, A Way Out looks perfect and visually runs fantastically on the Xbox One X (which we played through it on), with plenty of great looking areas and a smooth and steady frame-rate. Lag in the connection between partners, even in one session I played with a guy from Alaska, was essentially non-existent, making for a great cinematic presentation.
I think I respect the creativity and originality of A Way Out more than I enjoyed it, if that makes any sense. The team behind the project clearly had some cool ideas for mixing up player interaction in a co-op setting, and when it works in A Way Out it works really well, particularly in the final act. And hey, not to give anything away, but the final significant action you have to take? Mashing the same button as the arm-wrestling mini-game. It all comes full circle, and it could make Hazelight Studios secret geniuses if it was all planned as part of some twisted arc. A Way Out is an interesting experiment, one that isn’t always successful, and one that will not be for everyone – but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t encourage everyone to at least try it out if given the chance, which at its cheap price point isn’t such a bad proposition.
- Creative and compelling spins on co-op gameplay - A well performed narrative with a convincingly detailed presentation - Cheeky mini-games and hidden surprises
- Gameplay frequently takes a back seat to narrative, to the point where both players are kept waiting - Lack of an in-game matchmaking system isn't insurmountable, but disappointing - Much of the gameplay is made up of simple quicktime events