“Which character do you want to be?”
“I’ll be the stupid one.”
A Way Out is a game all about working together, helping each other and making compromises. That first decision comes right as you start the game: deciding who plays which character. There’s the reserved and meticulous Vincent, who prefers to think things through before acting, and the decidedly more block-headed Leo, who has no time to ponder his actions before throwing his weight around.
Vincent and Leo are an unlikely pair; their personalities clash right from the moment they meet, but I suppose when you’re in prison you can’t be too picky about who you form alliances with. Thankfully, as a player, you have a little more choice. A Way Out has been built with local co-op in mind — and if you want the best out of the game, that’s how it should be experienced.
These days split-screen co-op is usually shoehorned into the odd title as a little diversion, perhaps a marketing hook to please those with fond memories of the 90s golden age. It’s rare to see a game where the main event is entirely split-screen, let alone the only way to play. Developer Hazelight has made the brave decision to abandon singleplayer entirely, a gamble that I truly hope will pay off – because A Way Out is probably the best local co-op experience you’ll ever get from a video game.
Sure, the game tells the story of Leo and Vincent, but it’s not really about them. It’s about you and your co-op partner, and how well you work together. It’s about communicating, discussing your possible options, and deciding, together and often under pressure, how to proceed in any given situation. The game goes easy on you most of the time, but there are plenty of tough decisions to be made along the way, and success feels like it depends on both of you equally. There’s no bored player two simply tagging along for the ride; both parties play an equally important role, and it feels refreshing because you realise how many times that isn't the case.
It’s hard to imagine how well the co-operative aspects will work when playing online. Unless you’re playing with a friend who you know well and are voice chatting with, A Way Out might have a lot of frustrations. Half of the fun is talking through what to do and where to go next. Being able to quickly direct each other – “this way” or “come here and help me!” – is absolutely essential and, when it comes to making decisions, the game forces you to make them jointly. Should you both hover over different options, nothing will happen until one of you caves and joins the other. Attempting to play without voice chat defeats the entire object, and will make it a much less rewarding experience.
Take your Great Escape moment, for example. With guards constantly patrolling up and down the cell block's corridor, Vincent and Leo need to catch a break in order to dig out their respective escape tunnels. One player needs to keep watch while the other carefully and inconspicuously files away their cell wall. Sure, you can see what both characters are up to on your screen whether you're playing local or otherwise, but trying to keep an eye on two simultaneous scenes is much easier said than done. Without those audio cues from the player keeping watch of the guards, you're toast.
"Quick, stop what you're doing!"
Later, once the pair have Steve McQueen'ed their way out of there, there's a sequence that involves fixing up an old car. Both of you need to work in unison to find and fit the parts you need, helping each other get to out-of-reach ledges and piecing the car back together. When you and your partner are perfectly in sync, it feels like a well-choreographed ballet; anticipating each other's actions and making sure you're both exactly where you need to be. Without being able to talk to each other, though, it could easily become a bit of a nightmare; with someone wandering off in the wrong direction, or not offering the help the other person needs, a task that should take five minutes could easily take much longer.
There're lots of little ways the game forces you to communicate, too. You'll bash down your fair share of doors as you play, requiring both players to co-ordinate well-timed button pushes to bust your way through. As a concept it's nothing out of the ordinary; it's not the first game to require two players to push a button together to achieve a common goal. Whereas other games will make it obvious you both need to press together though, A Way Out expects you to figure it out yourselves. After a few random kicks of the door wield no results, you'll find yourselves counting together — "one, two, three!" — before landing a blow that sends the door flying wide open.
None of this is to say that Leo and Vincent’s tale is mere scenery. In fact, their five-or-so hour journey from start to finish is gripping, be it the snippets of cutscenes that allow you to piece together their respective backstories, or the epic action-packed sequences that feel ripped out of a Hollywood blockbuster. A Way Out is a game of two halves; first, there’s the pair’s break out from jail. This section is much more puzzle-oriented, with a slower, more cautious pace required, and plenty of stealth. It’s when you reach outside the prison’s perimeter that things start to heat up.
From shooting out the tyres of police cars from the back of a speeding van to parachuting from an aeroplane, the second half of A Way Out takes you from one exhilarating set piece to another. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Uncharted series at times — whether I was speeding along a bumpy desert track on a dirt bike or sneaking past enemies as my comrade sniped them from afar, it brought to mind the adventures of Nathan Drake — and for an indie release (albeit one funded by EA) that’s quite a feat.
It’s not all balls-to-the-wall, though. There’s plenty of downtime and quieter moments to enjoy. Even if they do occasionally feel at odds with the urgency of the game’s story — Vincent and Leo are supposed to be running from the police, after all — the times where the game lets you take in your surroundings, explore a little, and enjoy a diversion are some of the best. You and your buddy can challenge each other in a music minigame, rocking on piano or banjo, for instance, or shoot some hoops with a game of basketball. Maybe darts or target practice is more your thing? Connect 4? There’s even a retro arcade cabinet in here. These moments allow the co-operative aspects to take a back seat, even for a short time, and in the friendly competition that ensues you feel the game’s world coming to life.
A Way Out isn’t going to challenge you as a video game. It’s not meant to; it gives you a degree of leniency if you or your partner’s timing is a little off and, should you mess up, you’ll only lose a minute or two of progress at most. If it was too difficult, requiring too much precision and accuracy from both parties, it’d be too frustrating to enjoy. A Way Out is about the journey rather than the challenge. It’s about overcoming disagreements to settle on a solution, testing both players’ ability to work as a team. It’s about exploring together, travelling together, discussing your options, and having a little bit of fun along the way. More than anything it's a treat to be shared with a good friend, and a journey that teases many moments of humour and bonhomie from an otherwise bleak situation.