A Way Out, Fares’ new game, is something of a comedown. Essentially a boneheaded B-movie you play with a friend, it’s not a very good game by most standards, yet between its goofy charm and a handful of creative flourishes, it’s a hard one to dislike. It takes two players to guide a pair of convicts, a smooth talker named Vincent and a headstrong brawler named Leo, as they progress through a series of interconnected scenes of their prison break and the manhunt that follows.He kept his promise and I won’t have to break his legs either (though he kind of did that to himself). We played it on my couch in one seven-hour sitting. The game comes out as an EA Originals title on consoles and PC for $30 on March 23.Taking splitscreen play and injecting it with fresh ideas, wonderful cinematic camera work and creating something that’s truly built with two players in mind, it’s incredibly intuitive. Unfortunately, an unconvincing narrative, poor voice acting and inconsistent visuals don’t quite live up to these foundations.
Leo and Vincent will go off and have an entirely separate experience. They’ll complete separate objectives while also co-ordinating their efforts in a way that simply hasn’t been seen in a game before. This is in large part thanks to the wonderful cinematics.A Way Out’s small explorable environments often contain multiple characters to chat with, but if you and your co-op buddy both engage in different conversations at the same time, the game has no better answer than to play all the audio in parallel, meaning you struggle to hear either of the conversations happening in front of you. The problem is alleviated slightly if you turn subtitles on, as each side of the screen contains its own set, but the overlapping sound is still distracting.The protagonists and their motivations are the most generic B-movie fodder–gangsters with escape and revenge on their minds, but with the hackneyed added layer of troubled families. To make matters worse, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural. Conversations often end abruptly (regardless of whether your partner triggers a cutscene), and entire scenes go by without adding anything in terms of plot or characterization.It’s interesting to talk to the same NPC with Leo and Vincent separately, one right after the other, because while the conversation will usually turn out the same way, the path of those chats will be completely different. Leo is more violent and action-first, while Vincent prefers to talk his way out of sticky situations.A Way Out directs players specifically, leaving little room for puzzling out solutions. Physical challenges are easy and checkpoints are forgiving, meaning there’s not much repetition.Why Hazelight chose to make two characters both white, brown-haired males is a little confusing though. It can occasionally get a little confusing as to who’s who. Obviously Leo’s rather large nose and sideburns are supposed to differentiate him from the bearded Vincent, but it feels like there could have been a little more creativity in the character design, even if you only look at hair colour alone.
We’re introduced to Vincent—who’s about to start a 14-year sentence for embezzlement and fraud—and Leo, six months into an eight-year stretch for armed robbery. Placed in adjacent cells, the two form an uneasy alliance over a couple of skirmishes in the yard and the prison canteen, before they discover a shared objective that convinces them to join forces and make their escape. The player controlling Vincent might wander around the prison yard and exercise while the player controlling Leo gets into a fist fight. When the players converge, the pair both fight off Leo’s attackers. When lives aren’t on the line, Vincent’s player might be in a cutscene while Leo’s player tosses cards into a hat outside of the room.Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which was one of my favorite games of 2013. But that was very different, as it was a single-player game that received a lot of kudos for its emotional story. A Way Out shares the emotional tug, but it’s like a cousin to Brothers, and it is unique. Here, two players use controllers to pry the story out of the game.The way the camera keeps up with two separate players and what they do, dividing the screen before bringing it together as Leo and Vincent come together in the same room is so wonderful that there were times I simply sat back and admired the achievement.In one scene, A Way Out nails the feel of punishing prison life, and in another it lets you act like children on a playground swing. Sometimes those conflicting tones even crop up in parallel. One poignant late-game moment–where my character learned some surprising and emotional news on one side of the screen–was ruined by my partner interacting with a bicycle bell on the other side that caused his character to exclaim.
Sometimes you’re sneaking around in tall grass like Sam Fisher, choking out bad guys. Sometimes you’re punching people from a 2.5D side-scrolling camera like it’s a Double Dragon remake. Sometimes you’re driving a car, or throwing darts, or playing a banjo, or shooting hoops, or arm wrestling, or fishing, or…you get the idea. All of that variety is a double-edged sword: though this swath of activities often left me smiling, the trade-off is that none of them control and feel as good as games dedicated to those ideas.Dynamic split-screens work cleverly to give players an opportunity to witness one another’s big moments, or to focus on especially crucial beats. The pleasure of these sequences is intensified by the story’s setting in the early 1970s, when cinematic split-screens were all the rage.This isn’t a game built for two players, it’s built for two players sharing one narrative experience, one story, one goal. And that’s only created when the two characters work together. Every waypoint, every checkpoint, every little sidegame feels complete because you’re doing it together. Whether it’s splashing the water to usher fish to each other; going back to back to shimmy up a wall gap.
As a wounded Vincent you’ll occupy a nurse in the medical wing while Leo sneaks out to grab a chisel. Later, as he unscrews his toilet and chips away at the wall behind, you’ll play lookout, shifting the camera left and right to spot incoming guards, before engaging them in conversation to briefly delay their patrols. In a mechanical sense, it’s basic stuff—there’s usually a single solution to any given problem—but the context keeps things fresh. Sitting on the edges of her huge white sectional, we grabbed our controllers tentatively, not sure what to expect. Soon enough, as we both settled into the mindset of the characters we controlled, we played for three hours straight without pausing, our sushi half-eaten.Sometimes they come together into a single cinematic or gameplay scene. There were plenty of moments when that was satisifying, as if we achieved a goal and kicked back to collect our reward.
The Verdict –
The ability to spend time with them, and with my player partner, is A Way Out’s biggest strength, even if the details sometimes lack pizzazz.But I think the only genuine problem A Way Out has is getting people playing. Co-op can put a lot of players off, but not experiencing A Way Out is denying yourself of one of gaming’s greatest adventures to date. And there’s plenty to admire in its mad-eyed ambition, if not in how it plays, then at least in the way it strains to compete with blockbuster games with a fraction of the budget—and in splitscreen to boot. Accept that this is the work of a team whose reach has exceeded its grasp, and with a forgiving partner in tow, and you’ll probably have fun as this unlikely pair on the lam—even when you’re laughing at it rather than with it.