Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Long live couch gaming.
It’s a phrase that kept popping into my head as my wife and I worked our way through A Way Out, a game that feels like Hazelight Studio’s love song for long hours spent elbow to elbow playing games with your best friend. It was a time before online multiplayer, when snacks, smack talk, and jokes were best enjoyed side by side rather than through a mic and headset
Except A Way Out plays with cooperative gameplay in ways that no one ever has, pitting two players against puzzles and challenges that feel natural and satisfying to solve while constantly playing with camera angles and cinematic shots to change the way you play, while also feeding you a feast for the senses.
It’s well executed, and although the story is only worth playing through once or twice at the most, it’s the kind of game that’s absolutely worth running through with a friend just for the experience.
A Way Out’s homerun swing is the way it handles cooperative play. You and a friend can play through the title either locally or online, but the split screen is there regardless, which is a good thing, because many of the puzzles are based on your ability to communicate and see what your friend is seeing so that you can pull off feats of teamwork that would normally be incredibly difficult with only a single perspective.
These feats can be as simple as knocking on a window to distract a guard with the right timing, or as complex as holding up a gas station while your buddy cracks a safe in the back room. If you’re both looking in the wrong direction things can go horribly wrong, but the better you get at managing both perspectives at once the smoother the puzzles and challenges start to click into place.
Of course, the game itself is careful to guide your eyes as different events occur throughout the world. The camera is constantly redefining the borders of the splitscreen window, widening one character’s perspective as they reach an important moment, while simultaneously narrowing the others. As a result, the game is constantly shifting your screens to focus the narrative, and give you a chance to see key details like guards around corners or crucial tools around a barricade. It’s a cool effect that gets even cooler during certain scenarios where fight scenes and foot chases lead from one continuous shot to another like something out of a John Woo flick or the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil.
It’s an interesting touch that adds a lot to the game, even more so when Hazelight uses it to change up gameplay in a charming way that blurs the line between gaming genres. Most of the time you’ll be moving around the map from a very standard third person over the shoulder perspective, but during a key chase scene at one point the game shifts smoothly to a top down perspective so that you and your partner can corner a suspect. A few levels later the game transitions to a 2D side-scrolling action game while one of the main characters busts his way through a bunch of police that are trying to hunt him down and cuff him.
It’s a fine line between tacky and well-implemented when it comes to these camera angles and the occasional gameplay switcharoo, but A Way Out puts such a focus on character perspective that it feels intentional and endearing rather than like a gimmicky feature.
Story for Two
Gameplay aside, A Way Out’s story is interesting, but isn’t breaking any narrative boundaries. The use of camera aside, it plays like a classic revenge tale with a prison escape twist. The characters Vince and Leo are both well developed through dialogue, the occasional somewhat clichéd flashback, and via the objectives themselves. Both are likeable in their own way, and you can be either as dickish or friendly as you feel is necessary to complete your objectives, which gives you some layer of control over “your” Leo or Vince. Both characters feel very real, and their emotions and motives are often clearly laid out, which is nice because it helps move around a lot of the smaller plot holes you might normally find in this type of game.
The narrative itself is primarily a linear story, which cuts into the replay value in the long run, but there are a few moments where you can actively choose whether to do something based on the advice and personality of either character. Leo is the more impulsive, somewhat forceful alternative, while Vincent prefers to talk his way out of situation before throwing punches or pulling the trigger.
These moments create a small branch over the course of the chapter, but don’t be confused, this isn’t a Telltale game by any stretch of the imagination. Your choices are short lived, and the developers obviously have a specific story in mind they want to tell. That story isn’t anything groundbreaking, but its likeable the way a 90’s action flick is likeable, with a few twists and turns and characters that are relatable enough to get emotionally invested.
The real accomplishment in terms of narrative development is the way the cooperative experience affects gameplay. The way you work together greatly affects how easy the game progresses. Fortunately, the split screen style of play makes the puzzles and objectives flow smoothly, and I rarely found myself frustrated by any single task for more than one or two attempts. The game naturally rewards clever choices and going with the flow of opportunity when it comes knocking.
A Cinematic Ride
Of course, if A Way Out was marketed at the standard $60 price point an 8-10 campaign starts to sound like an extremely expensive movie ticket, but at the game’s actual price of $30 it’s much more manageable. Especially when you factor in the fact that once you purchase the game it gives you access to a “guest pass” that you can send to a friend, so they can join you on your adventure without purchasing the title for themselves. Of course, you can also just invite a buddy over for a round of good ol’ fashioned couch gaming if you don’t feel like dealing with the guest pass. Even on the PC local coop works flawlessly, so no matter your platform all you need is an extra controller and you’re good to dive in.
All in all, A Way Out plays like an artistic blend between movie and video game, and although the 8-10 hour story isn’t something that you would want to play through more than once or twice, it still creates a thrilling experience that’s extremely satisfying to play with a friend.