There are many games where you get to play as the bad guy. You can fulfil any latent desire to steal, maim, murder and explode in a variety of games that focus on those things, but few of them manage to also achieve a thoughtful character study in the same stroke. That is precisely what Hazelight Studios’ A Way Out accomplishes in one of my favourite games of 2018 so far.
You play as convicts Leo and Vincent as they escape from prison and seek vengeance on the man who put them there. You play as both, because A Way Out can only be played in co-op, either online or local - there is no single player. To help with this, you only need to purchase one copy of the game to play it, as there is a restricted “demo” version which allows a second player who does not own the full game to play with someone who does.
A Way Out is played almost entirely in split-screen, even if you’re playing online. You can always see what the other player is doing and this allows you to cover more ground in the chapters. One player can be in the middle of a cutscene, with the other player watching that play out from across the room as they do something else. The only real downside to this is both players can engage in two different conversations at the same time, and the two will play out over the top of each other. Subtitles help here, but it can still be jarring to have two conversations play out at the same time.
The game plays out as a third person adventure game for the most part, but there are elements of stealth, driving and cover-shooting scattered throughout the game. The levels are fantastically well designed, with multiple paths though each level that stop the game feeling like it’s pushing you down a corridor. There’s a lot of variety in the chapters and each has a deep level of detail that makes the world feel alive. Particularly in the chapters where you can interact with normal people, it’s very clear that the writers have created a world that lives around the game’s story.
Where A Way Out truly shines is in its setpieces. Throughout the game, you will have to work together to pull off seemingly impossible tasks in such a clever and cinematic way. This isn’t especially surprising since the game’s director is Josef Fares, the noted indie film director and creative director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. There are several sections of the game where the two protagonists wind themselves around the same level but on completely different paths, and you can see each other across the paths in real time. The whole game is so stylish and designed in a way to maximise on the split screen view.
The story of A Way Out comes straight from the tree of tropes and hits every branch on the way down - but it’s earnest and focuses more on the interactions between the two characters. The characters themselves are extremely likeable and on some levels relatable. They may be hardened criminals who don’t blink when they slaughter police officers, but they have such strong familial motivations that you end up really feeling for the characters. You also become attached to your character, despite them being no different in terms of gameplay. This is shown best with the little minigames scattered throughout the levels.
These minigames are small bouts of competition between the two characters, and inevitably end up as competition between the two players. A personal favourite was the arm wrestling minigame from the construction zone, which was probably the most competitive we got throughout the whole stream. There’s a variety of different ones, including - but not limited to - darts, horseshoes and Connect Four. A Way Out uses these games to invest in your characters, and that helps the stories final beats feel so satisfying.
Over the six hour play time, we didn’t experience any major technical challenges aside from some stuttering. A quick restart solved that, and I’m relatively sure that it was caused by the internet connection between our two clients. This was something I was concerned about in my preview, but we really only experienced one issue in the entire playthrough so I would say that they nailed the online functionality. I’m still somewhat concerned about the game requiring two players, despite all that Hazelight have done. For such an amazing game, I wonder how many players will find the requirement for a second player too high of a barrier for entry and be unable to play.
A Way Out is already a strong contender for Game of the Year, and it has expanded what can be done with narrative co-op in videogames. It’s a creative masterpiece from a team who have put care and attention into telling this story, every little detail tells you something new about this world. Personally, I think the game is probably better in local co-op due to how the story progresses, but we had great fun on the stream playing in the online mode. Anyone who enjoys strong story-based games will enjoy this, even if it does become slightly ridiculous by the end.
A Way Out (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
A game that takes what came before and redefines what is possible in co-operative storytelling, with a level of detail and polish far beyond what could be expected of a small team.