I’d included A WAY OUT on my list of games to look out for this year, having been intrigued by its unique concept, but I must admit that I hadn’t planned on getting around to playing it anytime soon. I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer – especially when the game requires a ton of immersion-ruining chit-chat. But then a friend mentioned that he had bought it and needed someone to join him on his play-through. So, it looked like I was about to do some hard time.
Is A WAY OUT worth your time and money? Let’s take a look!
Developer: Hazelight Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One (reviewed)
MSRP: $29.99 USD
Copy: A friend’s trial invite
Played: through the entire game; about 6 hours
A WAY OUT = MULTIPLAYER ONLY
The central conceit of A WAY OUT reveals both its biggest strength and major weakness: it’s multiplayer only. Players who find themselves without a partner willing to sit down with them for the full length of the game’s 6-hour runtime are S.O.L. There’s literally no way to play it solo – and that’s a high barrier to entry.
However, EA wisely added a free buddy “trial” option, which allows anyone who purchased the game to invite a friend to play with them (online or on the couch) for free. Think of it in the old-school sense, when you could post up in your friend’s living room and share your console co-op games all afternoon.
Given the weight placed on multiplayer, the game completely lives or dies based on its ability to do something interesting with the concept – and it succeeds, for the most part.
YOUR TYPICAL BUDDY HEIST / PRISON BREAK / REVENGE / ACTION / CINEMATIC / PUZZLE / RACING / SHOOTER GAME
You and your friend play as Leo and Vincent, a mismatched odd couple – the former is violent and impulsive, the latter more soft-spoken and thoughtful. The pair finds themselves unlikely allies that must work together to break out of prison. A WAY OUT presents the game via a split screen interface that sometimes grows, shrinks or otherwise rearranges itself in order to best focus on the action.
These transitions happen very smoothly and prove to be a simple yet effective method of drawing you into the story. The gameplay itself, at least in the early scenes, delivers somewhat lightly on the “gameplay.” I perceived it as more of a cinematic experience with light puzzle solving, akin to those old point-and-click adventure games (pick up this object to use on that locked window, etc).
The game does manage to mine some innovation from the split screen 2-player model, however, including a tense sequence where one player must watch out for patrolling guards while the other chips away at a loose grate in the back of his cell. Communication is key in these moments. I found my heart racing when my friend yelled that a guard was coming while I frantically tried to finish my task in time.
Getting caught, however, turns out to be an extremely forgiving mistake. A WAY OUT provides a very generous checkpoint system that encourages experimentation. But on the other hand, it eliminates a good deal of the drama from failure.
To the game’s credit, it tries to give you new things to do as the story progresses beyond the prison. Some of it feels vital to the criminals-on-the-run plot, like a really tense cat-and-mouse chase sequence through a hospital. However, other moments bring the drama to a screeching halt. Why would a pair of desperate fugitives waste their precious free time trying on hats, competing in rounds of Connect Four, or playing music rhythm mini-games?
Additionally, you’ll encounter a smattering of NPC’s who offer a side quest or two, but they usually boil down to “go grab that wrench over there on that table and hand it to me.” The mini-games and side quests present no challenge and, as far as I’m aware, serve no plot function other than to pad out the playtime.
SHOOT YOUR WAY OUT
By the final third, the game just completely switches gears out of nowhere and becomes a GTA-style cover-based shooter set in Mexico. (Has a “criminals-on-the-run” story ever not ended up in Mexico? Serious question). I’m not opposed to this gameplay switch-up in theory.
But as it stands, the abrupt jump from measured, story-driven decision-making to mowing down an endless horde of nameless grunts feels off. It certainly doesn’t help that the shooting and cover controls are finicky, with uneven hit detection. At one point, my friend cried, “Oh come on, MORE guys to shoot? How many of them are there?” and I shared his sentiment.
A BONDING EXPERIENCE
Gameplay issues and narrative clichés aside, the focus of A WAY OUT squarely rests on its protagonists. The writers did an excellent job of making them feel like real people through their dialogue, and the way they depend on each other more and more as the story progresses feels believable.
Every task emphasizes the need for cooperation. A sequence where you must climb a narrow, vertical passageway by positioning yourselves back-to-back and each moving your feet in perfect unison comes to mind immediately.
It felt unique, in a way that co-opping through a shooter can’t really match.
A GUT PUNCH ENDING (SPOILERS!)
…. which is why the ending hit me so, so hard.
(Seriously: spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned).
We’d successfully escaped from prison, killed the big bad Harvey, escaped from his henchman, and made our way home, TOGETHER. It felt too good to be true. And it was: Vincent reveals himself to be an undercover cop who got himself into prison and allied himself with Leo in order to track down Harvey. Every moment of bonding had been predicated on a lie. I felt as shocked, hurt and angry as Leo (and I was playing as Vincent!)
Suddenly, the game turned into a winner-take-all competitive shootout where the only option is to kill the other player. The silly back-and-forth banter my friend and I had been keeping up throughout the game stopped completely. I’m not even kidding – we played from this point on in complete silence, each feeling uneasy about having to kill the person with whom we’d just spent 6 hours cooperating, but without having a choice.
I’m sure the ending plays out differently depending on the outcome of the final battle. But in our playthrough, my friend won. Leo killed Harvey and escaped to be with his family, leaving Harvey’s wife and infant daughter alone. As the camera sadly faded on Harvey’s police funeral, my friend finally uttered one word: “damn.”
Now that’s effective storytelling.
THE FINAL SENTENCE
If you go into the game expecting a brain-bending puzzler or a tight shooter, you’re going to be disappointed. But, if you’re up for a unique co-op experience with some clever mechanics, well-drawn characters, a solid (if a little clichéd) story, and one hell of a twist ending that’ll make you forgive some earlier criticisms — and if you can find a partner in crime — you’ll definitely find a gratifying evening or two’s worth of entertainment within A WAY OUT.