No stranger to cooperative game dynamics, Hazelight, the studio that developed Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons, has released its first title under the Hazelight name, A Way Out; a game in the form of a two-player adventure for the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Published by Electronic Arts, the exclusively co-op game - imagine a hybrid experience between The Last of Us and Army of Two - was officially announced at E3 2017, and was one of the most highly anticipated games to come out of the convention. In developing A Way Out, writer and director Josef Fares, had one goal in mind: a strong story with characters that possessed unique and individual personalities and goals. Fares and the team at Hazelight have succeeded in this effort. While A Way Out features a revenge-driven story that, at times, feels fairly familiar, the depth and complexity of the characters allows players to fully comprehend what is at stake, with a final act that people are sure to talk about long after the credits roll.
Taking place in a late 1970s post-Vietnam War setting, A Way Out follows the story of two prisoners - Vincent and Leo - making a daring escape from prison, seeking revenge on the person who wronged them both. It does not take long for Vincent, a level-headed prisoner newly-arrived at the prison, to connect with Leo, a brash and fiery veteran prisoner who has served a few months of his sentence. The two hatch a plan to escape the prison which, like most prison-escape plans, ends up not going quite as smoothly as expected, leading the pair on an adventure that takes them through rugged mountains, a bustling city, and the dense jungles of Mexico.
The most unique element of A Way Out is its cooperative exclusivity; players cannot play the game without a second player. There could theoretically be workarounds for this depending on the level of dedication from a player desiring a single-player playthrough - such as controlling both characters at once - but A Way Out should ideally be played with two people, as it is intended. Co-op play is accomplished through connecting with friends online, as well as local play, adding a sense of nostalgia for the years spent sharing these types of split-screen gaming experiences with friends from a single couch. It is worth mentioning that the on-screen experience is the same whether playing locally from the same console or online. The game developers have indicated that split-screen view is the same for both modes - and is intentional to allow for “both players to experience the game’s story as it seamlessly shifts from a full-screen experience into cinematic split-screen formats. Basically, one player can be in a cutscene while the other player has full control.”
Cutscenes and cinematics are where A Way Out knocks it out of the park. The level of detail in the visuals is stunning. While the verbal exchanges during player-controlled gameplay may leave something to be desired, the dialogue and voice acting within the cinematics notably holds itself to a higher standard, especially as the plot progresses and players start gaining further insight into the individual motivations of Vincent and Leo. For the first two-thirds of the game, players will spend a considerable amount of time watching cutscenes related to the story versus actual gameplay. There are certain cutscenes that require button-pressing reactions - similar to Telltale games’ control schemes - so it is best to keep the controller close at hand.
Of course, quick-reaction button sequences do not dominate the player controlled movements. Much of the charm of A Way Out’s control scheme resides around the cooperative movements that are necessary to progress through each level, such as both players pushing the action button at the same time to burst through a heavy door, or holding the right trigger to grab onto each others’ hands before one of the players hurdles over a waterfall. When players are in levels allowing them to roam freely, the controller experience feels a bit more awkward, especially for vehicle and shoot-em-up levels. This, however, can be quickly overcome with some practice (and likely, learning from a few ill-timed movements resulting in death).
In terms of A Way Out’s level designs, veteran gamers will be familiar with the layouts and feel at home with the various environments surrounding them. Points of interests are easily identifiable, but by no means do players need to interact with every single one. Mini-games - such as baseball, arm wrestling, and simply tossing playing cards - can be found littered throughout the free-roam levels. Other levels are more linear; for instance, taking out guards as Leo and Vincent make their way down a dedicated path. Two of the more memorable and fun levels include a top-down view where Leo and Vincent attempt to corner a foe, as well as a level with a fighting sequence that occurs in the form of a pseudo 2D side-scroller, reminiscent of games like Streets of Rage and Golden Axe.
Clunky controls and predictable, all-too-convenient levels and puzzles may create a few lackluster moments throughout the roughly six hours of gameplay. That, however, is not what the game is about, nor should it be the point of players’ focus. A Way Out is centered around its story; one in which players navigate and dictate for themselves. There are multiple Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-type of moments throughout the game, making decisions to proceed using Vincent’s thoughtful approach - such as quietly crossing under a bridge, avoiding a heavy police presence - or utilizing Leo’s more aggressive and forceful approach - stealing a police car and driving straight over the bridge. Each decision has a potential for consequence, with some decisions resulting in significantly heavier consequences than others.
Ultimately, A Way Out succeeds in what it sets out to do. Although it may seem familiar at first, the story truly finds its stride as players progress though the game, alongside characters that provide considerable depth from a typical prison break or heist title. Underwhelming control schemes and convenient escapes can be overlooked thanks to fun co-op dynamics, which remain in sync with the overall story, including - depending on players’ decisions - a final act that all story-driven games should aspire to deliver.
A Way Out is available now for the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
4 out of 5