When I first heard about A Way Out, I think I was just in the middle of binging all five seasons of Prison Break, so the escape-caper aesthetic caught my attention straight away. Then I heard it was going to be co-op only, and… had mixed reactions. On the one hand, I really like playing co-op games with my other half, and it had the possibility to do some interesting things with new and creative mechanics. On the other, split-screen gaming is sometimes awkward, with scenarios that just don’t quite work for two; the LEGO games, actually, are perhaps my best example of games designed for co-operative play (although they can be played solo) because of how the levels are designed to get characters with different abilities to work together, without ever forcing situations where one player storms ahead or gets left behind.
As it turns out, A Way Out is pretty much delivering on its promise so far. We’ve played through about two hours, I think – so this is a sort of semi-Roughly an Hour Review – and things all seem to be going rather smoothly.
The basic premise of A Way Out is as follows: Leo and Vincent are two prisoners who want… to not be in prison any more. They’re two rather different personalities, with Leo being fiery and outspoken while Vincent is quieter, more contemplative; there are more similarities than you might think, though, which we’ll come to in a bit. When you start the game and choose which of them to play as, you get a little bit of a briefing which hints at their lives before, but leaves a fair bit left unsaid; Leo’s already served a few months of an eight-or-so-year sentence for various minor crimes, whereas the more reserved Vincent is just starting out on a forty-year sentence for crimes including embezzlement (makes sense, as he was in a financial career and got greedy) and… murder (not explained).
The first sequence of the game has one player (me, in this case) walking Vincent through his first entry into the prison, including a reasonably lengthy section where he’s forced to remove all his clothes and get sprayed with the ol’ fire hose. Meanwhile, the other player (my other half, Hannah), as Leo, watches Vincent’s entry from inside the yard, and gets to learn the layout of the area a little better. After a couple of segments spent exploring the prison separately, the two cross paths when Leo gets into a fight. Apparently someone on the outside called Harvey wants him dead, and Vincent also wants Harvey dead for reasons that seem to have something to do with a family member that Harvey killed. Leo and Vincent pretty quickly (I’d probably be a bit more cautious with someone I’d only just met, but there we have it) decide that it’s time to team up and escape, and thus begins the escapery-capery.
That is basically the extent of the plot so far; it’s not a lot but is enough to form the basis for the rest of the gameplay, which is of course doing the actual escaping via the eponymous ‘way out’. I don’t think the plot needs to be incredible, since the aim of the game is to deliver on its co-op innovations, but it seems to be telling a good enough story nonetheless.
So, the gameplay. This is the selling point, and so far I think it’s delivering: at no point has it felt like the mandatory two-playering has been a gimmick, or something that they decided they wanted to do for the arts and then shoehorned everything else around. It actually feels like this story couldn’t be told any other way, and that’s always the test for me of a game that really does well to express itself and its themes through gameplay. So far we’ve kept lookout while our partner makes a hole in their cell, we’ve distracted people so the other can steal something, we’ve shone light so our comrade can see what he’s doing, and we’ve even shimmied back-to-back up a lengthy climb. Part of it is about both pressing the right buttons at the right time in a sort of co-op QTE, but the bits I like best are the bits where you’re not expressly told which buttons to press; figuring out, for example, that one of you can talk to a fellow inmate so the other can nick a wrench from behind his back. It sounds simple, but there’s something really satisfying about realising you can use these basic actions (‘talk’ and ‘take item’) in combination to achieve something that you wouldn’t be able to do in a single-player game.
There’s one other small thing that I really like, actually, which is a cutscene in which Vincent talks to his pregnant wife/ girlfriend on the phone. It’s presented in splitscreen, with Vincent on one side and his wife on the other – in any other game, I’d be wondering why they weren’t just cutting from having one of them on screen to the other, but of course the entire game is presented in splitscreen, so it’s perfectly congruent. It’s a small example of A Way Out making some little design choices that pay off, keeping the experience feeling like a cohesive whole.
I should quickly touch on some of the things that perhaps don’t work quite as well – and let’s face it, there were bound to be some in a game like this, that’s trying to do something unique (or, at least, something that’s not been done to this extent). There aren’t many, but they’re noticeable, and they usually come off as being teething pains in the transition from a game design mindset that’s been, until now, primarily focused on single-player experiences. For example, the game does do its best to set up Leo and Vincent as being totally different people with different strengths and weaknesses, but the fact is that generally either of them can complete any necessary action to move forwards. There are a few sections where they’re forced into different areas, so they have to work together but separately, but in a lot of instances they’ll be together in a large area where either of them can complete the next task needed to progress. Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably better than the alternative, which would be for only one of them to be able to do particular actions, thus leaving the other unable to act, but it sometimes works to blur the lines between two otherwise distinct characters. In other words, Leo’s supposed to be brash and Vincent’s supposed to be reserved, but either of them can do the guard-strangling, or the sneaking, or the breaking things, or the talking.
With that said, the details are usually covered with care and precision, and most of the time Leo and Vincent feel like two different characters whose actions lead to two different outcomes. Getting them to talk to NPCs hanging around usually leads to completely different conversations, for example, even if both of them are capable of doing the talking while the other does whatever thing needs doing that the NPC needed distracting from.
I’d recommend picking up A Way Out, in short. From what I’ve heard, it’s about an eight-hour playtime, so not a particularly long campaign, but its price reflects that (it was something like £25 for me to pick up, so about half what you might expect to pay for a triple-A game with a lengthy single-player campaign). I’m really enjoying playing it as couch co-op, but you can also play online; in what I’m sort of tempted to say is another smart design choice, it’s been published so that you only need to pay for one copy of the game between the two of you, whether you’re co-op-ing locally or remotely. I’d certainly say you ought to play the whole thing with the same partner; you go through Leo and Vincent’s struggles together, and it does feel like overcoming them as a partnership. It’s a cool experience.