Developer: Hazelight Publisher: EA Originals Platform(s): PS4, XB1, PC
Review code provided
Although random online encounters might produce some moments of magic, there’s nothing quite like sitting with a friend on a couch and playing a game together. Whether it’s a 1v1 on Lockout or the shared misery of yet another failure followed by the elation of eventual success, local multiplayer really cannot be beaten.
Online gaming allows you to play with more people than you could ever cram into your living room, though there’s nothing quite like overcoming an obstacle together and turning to your friend for the highest of fives. It’s strange, then, that the industry has seemingly phased it out over time to become more of a rarity than a necessity. Whenever a game has local multiplayer, it’s seen as the exception to the rule, like something worth celebrating rather than accepting as the norm.
A Way Out is one of those games that should be celebrated. Not only because it makes full use of co-op far past the point of it just being gimmick, but also because it’s one of the absolute best games you can play with someone by your side.
Hazelight’s director, the wonderfully irregular Josef Fares, has previous with taking conventions and twisting them. The critically-acclaimed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons had players controlling two brothers with separate joysticks and A Way Out takes that to the next logical step. Either through local or online co-op, two players can live through the hard times of Leo and Vincent: two criminals with a common goal.
Leo is the hothead of the unlikely couple, constantly taking things to eleven when they need to be at a five. He’s impetuous, twisted by hatred, and somewhat naive, but his surprisingly warm heart is what makes him so likeable. Vincent, meanwhile, is the opposite. He’s reserved and level-headed, often going down non-violent routes when Leo’s anger gets the best of him. They’re the perfect ying and yang, or the non-fraternal equivalent of Ronnie and Reggie, and will likely suit the respective personalities of players.
My girlfriend, who would classify herself as a non-gamer, opted for Leo because she’s a fiery Welsh person and generally doesn’t take any shit. I went for Vincent not because I particularly related to him, but because he had better facial hair — that’s a very important thing to me. As time went on, however, I found myself more drawn towards his reserved nature; I couldn’t imagine picking anyone but him if I were to have another playthrough.
From the offset, both characters are playable as they live their daily lives in prison. Through constantly shifting split-screens, players must navigate the dangers of being locked up and eventually work towards escaping. Things start off simple enough as A Way Out is designed to gently introduce non-gamers into the fold. Aside from a few PlayLink titles and Until Dawn, my partner doesn’t play any games at all, so the low stakes intro where the criminal pair’s personalities are established before they eventually meet in a straightforward QTE fight with other raucous inmates was welcomed.
A Way Out’s application of its co-op goes far beyond shooting all of the people, though it does devolve slightly into that at some later points. You really need to work together to overcome its simple puzzles, which include trying to smuggle contraband out of workshop to use for your escape. As simply walking out with it will trigger the metal detector, both players must break a grate from either side before one passes the wrench to the other. The challenge escalates throughout the game to eventually require total synchronicity between both players, something which the game fosters over its six hours. An early sequence featured heavily in promotional material tasks Leo and Vincent with climbing up a narrow passage back-to-back, so timing button presses impeccably with communication and rhythm is key. There’s a tonne of great moments like these, those that think outside of the box of what a co-op game should offer.
Once you escape from prison in a toe-curlingly intense series of close calls, Leo and Vincent must evade the cops and find their mutual enemy in a cross-country escapade. The overall plot of A Way Out is nothing new; it largely feels like an interactive version of Prison Break. The real driving force is the camaraderie developed between players and the characters they play as. You may need to overlook some rather basic writing, however.
Fares has proven himself to be a more than capable director, but his writing lacks spark and is really just functional. Late in the game, Leo asks a pilot if she can fly a plane, she says I sure hope so, and then Leo just replies with “okay”. A Way Out is littered with flat writing like this, not helped by some performances that don’t always seem to be believing in the script. There’s also some dissonance in the line delivery, like the wrong takes were used or that the actors weren’t in the same environment. The writing and performances aren’t offensively bad, more so that they just hold A Way Out back from reaching that next level.
What A Way Out may lack in the story department, it more than makes amends for in almost every other regard. There’s a surprising amount of depth for what is a narrative-based title, including some choices that break up the linearity of the game. Early on, Leo and Vincent come across a farmhouse. Leo wants to subdue the elderly couple living inside whereas Vincent would prefer to let the horses loose and cause a distraction so they can sneak in to the house and change clothes. Both players must reach a consensus with different gameplay for either choice. Initially, I went down the pacifist route before replaying it later through chapter select and siding with Leo. Both were different and, although they didn’t change the overall narrative, were effective at building the personalities of the characters and providing more player choice.
Away from the story, there are plenty of distractions that range from the silly (a homage to The Legend of Zelda) to the brilliant (playing baseball). However, by far my and my partner’s favourite was Connect 4. Once the story was finished, we legitimately spent another couple of hours battling each other in the classic board game via chapter select. A Way Out’s attention to detail is hugely impressive and is likely to bloat your playtime if you want to go off the beaten path.
Prior to launch, Hazelight’s seemingly suicidal decision to allow an owner of the game to invite their friend online and play it entirely for free was a big talking point, like the most anti-industry thing they could do. Fares and co. weren’t content with fucking the Oscars, they also wanted to fuck what the current landscape of game design and development expects of them. It pays off for them in a big way: playing with a friend online is seamless and a massive selling point. I invited my fellow Vulture Ash to a game, he accepted, downloaded a special trial version, and was then in digital prison with me without much fuss. The only drawback was that he couldn’t unlock trophies and eventually the game’s very easy Platinum, but that’s just a small price to pay for, well, not paying a thing.
A Way Out may be seen as something of an oddity, a pro-consumer title with some supposedly outdated conventions, but it proves the value of valuing your audience while also elevating couch co-op beyond the expected. As long as games like A Way Out are allowed to evolve conventions, playing games with your friend in the same room shouldn’t be going away any time soon.
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Even with some sloppy writing and a hackneyed story, A Way Out's gameplay is so infectious and its heart so since that it's almost impossible to resist. Long live couch co-op.
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