Note to self: if I ever do land myself in prison, I'd best pray I don't end up stuck in there with my partner (and co-editor on the site), Sarah. Not because I'm afraid of what she'd do to me were I to land us both in prison - but because, seemingly, we'd never actually manage to break our way out. And not just because we both suck at stealth. No, according to A Way Out (a game we can only assume is a 100% accurate simulation of the prison break out experience), no sooner would we escape the four walls of confinement than we'd suddenly forget about being on the run from the law altogether, as we instead get distracted by the wonderful world of mini-games. So many mini-games.
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We'd find a pond and splash each other while helicopters circle overhead; we'd break into an old couple's house, not to borrow their clothes, but to have a fiddle with their banjo and piano, and graffiti their long lost relatives' portraits; we'd fiddle around with a lathe, a hammer, and a band saw, despite not really being able to do anything with them; we'd pop in and out of porta-potties, timing our exit to be in-sync like it's something from a boy-band video; before stopping to give a cow some fuss. Finally, we'd take a breather from our busy day by stopping for a game of Connect 4 in a crowded hospital waiting room - which of course, is the perfect place for two most wanted fugitives to sit, with their portraits plastered all over the local papers. After all, where's the last place the police would think of looking for you? The stupidest place you could possibly be, that's where.
This, is A Way Out, a co-op adventure game that mixes puzzles, a strong story, and more than a hint of narrative adventures like Beyond: Two Souls, creating a bizarre juxtaposition of a mega serious, gritty escape drama where everyone's a bit of a b*stard, yet one which has enough light hearted weirdness that it still manages to be fun. Telling the tale of Vincent and Leo, the former a white-collar worker framed for a murder he didn't commit, the latter a career criminal with a nose that means business, who ended up being screwed over on his one big job, the two find themselves banged up as cell neighbours in a typically unforgiving prison. Soon realising they both want to escape - and both want vengeance on the same guy - the pair decide to team up together as partners, and work together to escape. And as it turns out, you'll need to find yourself a partner in real life too, as A Way Out is actually a co-op only game.
That's right, co-op only. While co-op modes are ten a penny at the moment, a game that can only be played in co-op is a bit of a different beast to say the least, and one about which we're not entirely sure how we feel. On the one hand, we should give credit where it's due to developers Hazelight Studios and publisher EA. as this is a long way from a forced decision designed purely to help them cash in and sell more copies. In fact, thanks to a feature called Friend Pass, two people can play through the game online in its entirety, even if only one of them owns the game. When a friend accepts your invite, they'll get a prompt asking them to download the game - and while they won't be able to earn any trophies, they will be able to play through the whole thing with you. For people like us, though, it's the fact the entire thing is playable in split-screen co-op that appeals the most, as it lets you and a friend pull up a chair, and play through the whole thing together from the same sofa, sharing the story as you go. Suck on that one, Halo 5.
Taking your pair of ne'er-do-wells through from prison break, to hunting down the man that did them wrong isn't quite as puzzle driven as you may imagine, though - A Way Out is a long way from being an escape room. In fact, nor is it all that stealthy (not that that's a bad thing). Instead, this is a fairly linear adventure game that's heavily story driven, as you and your friend work together to complete tasks, solve some basic puzzles, and overcome one heck of a lot of button mashing quick time events.
What really makes A Way Out stand out from the rest is how almost everything you do requires you to work together. Built from the ground up for co-op play, whether you're pressing yourself up against your cell's bars, so you can keep an eye out for guards, and warn your friend to stop digging their tunnel when there's a screw on the way; having to time a distraction to cover your friend's attempted break out of the prison's hospital; or even doing your best to steer a dilapidated boat down some rapids, you'll get nowhere in A Way Out if you try to go Rambo on your own - here, you really do need to work together. Even if sometimes, your partner ends up working against you more than they're helping.
And it's these action heavy, co-op themed set pieces that are easily the highlight of the game, as they reliably give you just enough freedom that you can fail, while making you feel like a gaming God if you actually manage to pull it off. Regularly putting the pressure on, you'll find yourself on the run from an assassin, having to scramble to blockade the door, and find a way out before he manages to get through to you; or chasing after someone across a building site, relying on your timing to leap over chasms that are hundreds of stories high, before working together to head the chasee off at the corner. And there's more than just boats to get to grips with, too. Tearing away from the police in a run down van you've nicked, with your brother from another mother poking their head up out of the boot, taking pot shots at the cop cars that are chasing you is a lot of fun - especially as it's entirely possible for either one of you to cock up, meaning you'll both need to be on form if you want to survive.
In between the heavily co-op themed set pieces, the game gives you chance to take a breather, slowing down a bit to become almost like a role playing game, as you wander around a trailer park, or through the aforementioned hospital waiting room, chatting to the folk that you find. Though you're meant to be on the run from police, there's no law against having a bit of downtime, and there's actually a fair few side quests to solve here too. One of the more memorable ones sees you finding an agitated woman clutching a baseball bat in said trailer park. Having found that her husband's been cheating on her, she's waiting to give him a bruising, but she just can't find him. Strolling round the park, though, you'll soon come across a trailer that's rocking - and, should you so choose, you can let the poor wife know about her unfaithful husband's whereabouts... In a really nice touch, most of the game's trophies are actually for doing things like this, and going off the beaten track, or finding things that other players may miss, giving the game some much needed replay value.
Speaking of replay value - from time to time, the game will give you a choice of how you want to proceed, splitting off into two separate paths that affect the story, but not the gameplay - usually asking whether you want to follow the calm and collected Vincent's plan, or take the route with more fireworks by doing whatever Leo says. Again adding some extra replay value, the paths you can choose from are often really, really different. It's a question of whether you want to sneak round the back of a police blockade by climbing under a bridge, or fancy nicking a police car and pretending to be a copper, to bluff your way through it. Would you rather parachute into the middle of the action, or land a plane in a jungle and trek there on foot? If you need to pinch some money from a petrol station, would you rather go in waving your gun around, or try a slightly calmer approach? When the store worker reaches for her shotgun while you're half way through half-inching the safe, though, you'll need to keep your wits about you, and again, work as a team if you want to survive.
While A Way Out may have its problems, with the story taking a while to get going, the voice acting and writing too often crossing into laughably bad, and a few technical issues getting in the way (the game lets you both engage a different character in conversation at the same time, making everyone just talk over the top of each other) - it's the gameplay where A Way Out really shines, because there's just nothing else quite like it. Letting you turn Vincent and Leo from hard nut criminals into a soft touch odd-couple (or maybe that's just us projecting), there's plenty to keep you busy during the seven-to-eight hour adventure, and more than enough replay value too, with the co-op sections, the trophies, and the branching choices giving you plenty of reason to play through the game at least twice, if not three or four times. While we'd have appreciated a bit more comedy (to be honest, we kind of had our fingers crossed for a gaming version of Porridge), the genuinely unique co-op gameplay is so much fun that this is definitely well worth a look, especially when taking into account the budget price tag.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4