The first thing that strikes you about A Way Out is the split screen presentation. This is a game that’s been built from the ground up for couch co-op, and while you can play online with another person – you can share it for free thanks to the Friends Pass version of the game, and you will need someone to play with one way or another – you’re always seeing both sides of the action. It’s a key hook for the game, but does it have the story and gameplay to back it up?
What’s fascinating is the way this presentation shifts back and forth, drawing focus to certain plot beats in one part of the screen, but allowing the other player to carry on doing what they want on the other, potentially even messing around in the background. For most scenes there’s an even vertical split down the middle, but that can change to horizontal for certain action scenes, shrink one side and grow the other, sweep across so there’s just one viewpoint being shown, and so on. One excellent chase sequence seamlessly switches from one character to the next in a single flowing camera shot that passes through doorways, vents and corridors, effortlessly passing control from one player to the other.
It’s very well done, but it also leads to an interesting design problem. It’s easy to be distracted by what’s going on in the other side of the screen, but it’s equally easy to miss out on parts of the story and world because you’re focussing on what you’re doing and not the story at that point. Both players can strike up conversations with NPCs at the same time, and so the game ducks the audio of one conversations under the other, thankfully with subtitles on by default. Sometimes it chooses the less important conversation or doesn’t honour the conversation that started first, but either way, keeping track of two conversations at once is difficult. Ultimately, it’s the right design choice to let this happen, and it’s down to you and your co-op buddy to decide whether you want to barrel ahead and do your own thing or take it in turns and soak in the world.
The game’s two leads, Vincent and Leo, are strongly contrasting characters, with Leo all rash decisions and violence, but with a charming simplicity to his world view, while Vincent tends to approach a situation more cautiously to avoid conflict, but won’t hold back on throwing a few punches when he needs to. They find themselves almost forced together as Vincent is placed in the cell adjacent to Leo and happens to be in the right place at the right time to help him out of a few fights, and it’s from there that they hatch their escape plan piece by piece. It’s a pretty classic set up in that regard, and so too is the conveniently shared desire for revenge on someone that has done both men wrong. Escaping prison is just the first part of a story that sees the pair going on the run, reconnecting with their families and pulling favours from acquaintances on their trip.
There’s a great amount of variety to be found through the game’s seven to eight hours, with developers Hazelight always trying to find a new slant to put on a scenario, whether it’s in how it’s presented or what they ask you to do. There’s fairly regular area exploration scenes with very light puzzling, but they’re engaging in how you can talk to people in these areas and find little mini-games and fun things to do, from off-brand Connect Four to playing baseball. Where the game shines is in the action sequences, which keep changing things up, sometimes asking you to choose between Vincent’s and Leo’s different approaches. Stealth play early on makes way for chase sequences, escaping in cars, third person shooting, and much more besides. Again, a great part of that feeling of variety comes from the way the split screen presentation shifts around.
However, this variety does lead to A Way Out being a jack of all trades and a master of none. The game is not a particularly morose tale, with some bombastic set pieces with a love of slow motion climaxes and more than a few laugh out loud moments that you can put the pair in – if you find a set of swings, sit on them together, that’s all I’ll say. However, a lot of the levity that we found through the second half of the game came from seeing the rough edges that stem from Hazelight’s ambitious design. A lot of moments of gameplay have been designed as one offs, and it shows. Playing over the internet can’t have helped the shonkiness of the basketball mini-game, while there’s a quite lengthy car chase that features cop AI that rivals GTA V in their aggressiveness and lack of self-preservation, to a hilarious degree.
The levity found in some of the set piece moments and generally being able to find amusement with a friend does go some way to undercut the story’s last few twists and turns, as the game tries to make you feel for the characters and their situation. It’s nicely done, but while I liked both Leo and Vincent and while there is something genuine and heartfelt in their story, I just wasn’t terribly invested in their fates. The game’s climax certainly feels a bit forced, even if it does lead to great co-op gameplay moments.
After Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I came into A Way Out with expectations of a fraught and trying prison escape drama. That’s just the beginning though, and it soon transforms into a fun revenge flick. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of Brothers, and there’s some rough edges from the breadth of ideas that Hazelight include, but most importantly we just had a lot of fun.
Version tested: PlayStation 4