Cooperative play is old hat for players. It’s been a staple of gaming for years, from old-school beat-em-ups all the way to MMOs today. A Way Out is the only title that takes the cooperative play option and makes it the lynchpin that the entire game is predicated on. With unique gameplay scenarios, interesting characters, a plethora of different mini-games and branching choices, A Way Out is the fresh new take on old tropes that hits more often than it misses.
Two Heads are Better Than One
A Way Out takes the cooperative play approach and makes every piece of gameplay revolve around working with a partner. Many games shoehorn a second player option into their campaigns and stories. But A Way Out makes every decision, level and puzzle only doable with two players working in tandem. One of the most interesting concepts is splitting the screen regardless of whether the players share a tv or not. Whether playing online or locally on one machine, players are always able to see what their comrade is doing with half the screen dedicated to the other player. While initially jarring, this made cooperating on puzzles and managing time-sensitive portions of the game fun rather than tedious. Because there is never any question of what each partner is doing it creates a fun dynamic and gameplay experiences.
Many cooperative shooters and action adventure titles allow for one player to do most of the heavy lifting. Even cooperative classics like Portal 2 can allow for one player to take on the most back-breaking bits of the gaming labor. Not so in A Way Out If one player finds a walkway that leads to the next story beat, the other player has to climb up to work their way towards while the player left at the bottom might need to create a new distraction as guards approach. I looked forward to the myriad of unique ways in which I had to tag team scenarios with my partner.
One of the issues the game runs into with the cooperative play is its moral choices. Main protagonists Leo and Vincent are very different men with very different approaches to solving problems. Leo is more reckless and short tempered while Vincent is the more methodical and intellectual. During the game, there are several opportunities to choose “Leo’s Way” or “Vincent’s Way” when handling an issue.
While it does create unique gameplay opportunities, either choice ultimately leads to the same outcome (at least in the scenarios that I completed in both ways). The illusion of choice affecting a game is always a touch and go situation and I thought it was worth mentioning that it’s less illusion and more thinly veiled gameplay mechanic.
One and Done Mini-Games
The repetitiveness of video games is one of the biggest arguments for those against the medium as an art form or even an entertaining choice for free time. Completing the same actions and combos hundreds of times throughout hours of gameplay is not ideal for everyone. Spielberg and Lucas even share this sentiment. But A Way Out does an excellent job at debunking this idea.
Mini-games dominate A Way Out. Players will play Connect Four, climb walls back to back, Emperor’s New Groove style, have arm wrestling competitions, work out in the yard, choke out guards, get into fist fights and more. Most of these will occur just one time in the game. The sheer amount of different gameplay mechanics in this game kept me alert and engaged all of the time. Every new puzzle and scenario created an opportunity to do something slightly different with my character. The lack of repetition of the same gameplay made me feel like I was actually accomplishing new tasks with each scenario rather than approaching them with the same bag of tricks.
This sort of attention to gaming mechanics created an engagement with the story and plot progression. Autopiloting a mini-game I’d seen a dozen times before was never an option. Players need to literally keep thumbs and fingers ready for any sort of quick time event or specific button press. Like an action movie or thriller, I had no idea what to expect next from the heroes and I was interested in seeing what the next new turn would bring.
The mini-games and varied mechanics do hit some snags now and again. A handful of times, a few minigames were just not generally well created or fun. A prison yard fight in the opening minutes of the game was an all around amazing experience. Meanwhile, walking up a wall with another player back to back was a slog that didn’t translate well. These issues are few and far between, but they can pull a player out of complete immersion.
Two Men, Two Lives One Story
While much of the story would border into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that A Way Out does a fair job of avoiding tropes. While parts of the storyline are ones that we’ve seen in other similar movies, shows, and games, A Way Out does well at establishing its main characters’ personalities. While both men have the same goal to escape prison and seek some form of retribution or revenge, the methods both choose to employ are very different. The progression of the bond between the two felt earned and real. Challenges and stressful situations bring people closer together and that is shown several times throughout the campaign. Lastly, what could have been a very cookie cutter ending ended up having some turns and upheavals that I didn’t fully expect and thoroughly enjoyed.
One of the more interesting things that I enjoyed was the role play that occurred between myself and my co-op partner. We both attempted to play the game more like our counterparts. Everyone wants to be the hero of their story and we both adopted our characters play style as the game went on, at times arguing what the best way to tackle a certain problem might be. Not everyone will play that way, but I found it fun that you do have a bit of agency in attempting to play the way you’d like. Reckless and quick to action or calculating and even-keeled. This is even in the dialogue that each character spouts during the game. The way that conversations with the same NPC could be very different while asking basically the same questions is a testament to the writers and their understanding of their two protagonists.
Goombas Would Be Embarrassed
As someone who enjoys a challenge, I expected A Way Out to test my puzzle solving and communication skills. The latter happens often enough, but the former is sadly lacking. A Way Out never truly presents any situations in which the mettle of the players is challenged.
While the complexity of the scenarios and puzzles increases, the challenge level doesn’t. More steps are added, but they’re as simple as pushing a few buttons. It creates additional trial and error, but no meaningful progression of individual skills for the players or cooperation opportunities. In large part, this is due to the lackluster enemy AI. Throughout the entire game, both my partner and I never had any problems sneaking past or choking out a single enemy. Blindspots for NPC’s were extremely generous and Leo and Vincent were adept at handling any enemy placed in front of them to a degree that was hard to justify. While this isn’t a deal breaker, it would have been a more rewarding experience to see the challenge the game presented ramp up alongside cohesion with my partner.
For a game that requires two players, Hazelight came up with a fair solution for what could have been a migraine of a problem. Playing locally is as easy as it always has been, but Hazelight had the good sense to add a way for owners of the game to play with anyone they choose without forcing them to purchase a copy. This idea is titled the Friend Pass. It allows anyone to download a free Friend Pass version of A Way Out and can be invited to play through the game with someone who has a retail version. Trophies and Achievements are not awarded but will be retroactively given if the Friend Pass holder, purchases the full version down the line. What could have been a very large negative was turned into a positive and very generous gesture from Hazelight and EA.
A Way Out is a great game that creates an amazing experience for two players to enjoy together. With varied gameplay and fun scenarios, players will find themselves easily immersed in the story. Driving themselves (and their buddy) into finishing the game much faster than expected. With strong gameplay and interesting moments, this game will go down as one of the most creative cooperative experiences this generation.