Developer: Hazelight Studios
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One.
Version Reviewed: PC
It's been some time since I've seen a game with as exciting a concept as A Way Out. Developed by Hazelight Studios, who previously created the excellent Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out is a cooperative third-person adventure in which two prisoners break out from jail an embark upon a mission of vengeance. Think of it as like a split-screen Uncharted...
Actually, wait, don't think about it like that, because that might lead you to assume A Way Out is good. In fact, it's the most disappointing game I've played this year so far, in which an appallingly told story and an absence of mechanical depth combine to form a thoroughly wasted opportunity.
A Way Out is strictly a cooperative experience, and it's obviously designed to be played with someone you know well. I played it with my partner, who now loves me slightly less for subjecting her to its moronic storytelling and insipid play. It tells the twin stories of two convicts, Vincent and Leo, who are incarcerated in neighbouring cells in an American prison. The pair discover they have a mutual hatred of a gangster named Harvey, who has betrayed both men in some way. Together they hatch a plan to escape the prison, track down Harvey, and kill him.
Initially, A Way Out is carried by the novelty of its split-screen storytelling. For the most part, each character is controlled independently, and players can walk around and interact with the environment in various scenes. In the opening scene, Vincent arrives at the prison to be processed. He has his possessions taken, is stripped and blasted with water from a fire-hose, given a prison uniform and showed to his cell. Leo, meanwhile, can watch all of this unfold, following the group of new prisoners by walking through the exercise yard and along gantries that run through the cell-block.
It's a neat idea, and the game demonstrates a flair for the cinematic throughout. The line dividing the screen constantly shifts in response to where the action's emphasis lies, occasionally coalescing into a single screen that then switches between the two perspectives. An early sequence sees Leo and Vincent embroiled in a fight with a man sent by Harvey to kill Leo, and the camera alternates between the two characters as they each fight off the assassin.
Beyond this clever filmic gimmick, however, A Way Out struggles to do much novel or interesting with its cooperative play. The prison escape, for example, mainly involves completing a series of highly simplistic puzzles, most of which revolve around Leo and Vincent handing each other objects through bars or between other secure areas. There's no opportunity to experiment or be creative, while most of the objects you can interact with in the environment serve no purpose whatsoever.
In one example, you're trying to get a wrench away from another prisoner in a workshop. Elsewhere there's another prisoner who says he's lost a hammer. There's a hammer in the room, but you can't pick it up and give it to him as the game seems to imply. In the end, the solution to the puzzle has nothing to do with this other prisoner, or indeed anything else in the room whatsoever.
The entire prison escape sequence plays out in this dull and uninspired fashion. Once you bust out from the prison the action picks up slightly, offering more varied play scenarios such as sneaking through the bushes to avoid police searchlights, car chases, riding river-rapids in a rowboat, and a visually impressive sequence in a hospital that switches seamlessly between both characters as they evade the police.
Again, though, none of this is mechanically consistent. Rather than giving the players a specific set of tools and abilities and letting them approach each scenario how they wish, you're only able to perform the very limited number of actions that the game wants you to do in that specific situation. This makes you feel less like you're cooperating with your partner, and more like you're dancing to the game's particular tune.
This would be less of an issue if the story was interesting or well-told, but it is neither. The plot is cobbled together from tired crime-cinema tropes, while the script is appallingly written, with dialogue that has no ear for how people talk. Vincent and Leo develop little chemistry, any confrontations between them feel forced and artificial, and nearly all of their conversations seem to tail off with a stilted 'Yes', or 'I agree', or my personal favourite, 'It is what it is.'
Late in the game is a scene wherein Leo tries to help Vincent with his relationship problems. He suggests Vincent writes a letter to his pregnant (of course) wife, which is fair enough. But what follows is one of the most cringe-inducingly awful attempts at an emotive exchange I've ever heard. 'You gotta write her a letter. Just write her a letter. I wrote my girlfriend a letter. Why don't you write yours a letter?' Leo repeats over and over, never explaining why it worked or what Vincent should say.
I suspect the script only ever went through a single draft, as there are lines and phrases repeated in quick succession that a second read-through would have instantly highlighted, and what feels like placeholder text where a more interesting phrase or statement should be. Bad dialogue is hardly an uncommon issue in games, but here it's such a core focus of the game, and it is so interminably tin-eared and inept, that it derails the entire game's storytelling aspirations.
The final third of the game is probably the strongest, albeit also the least original. At this point A Way Out suddenly transforms into a rote cover shooter that feels like it was made in 2008, featuring a rudimentary cover system and rather spongy shooting. However derivative this may be, however, it is at least mechanically engaging, as it actually involves playing with your co-op partner, covering one-another's angles and communicating enemy locations. I wish this wasn't the case, but it is.
As with Hazelight's previous game, the story ends with a twist, which could have been fantastic had the game built effectively up to it. But with the script being as woefully unsubtle as it is, the reveal ends up being just a bit sad, a little cherry of misery on top of a shitty-tasting cake. I genuinely hoped A Way Out would be superb, as it's exactly the kind of game I'd like to see more of. Purpose-built local-coop games are few and far between, especially ones that aren't some obscure indie title designed to be played for five minutes at a party. I want to play proper, involved games with my partner without having to buy a second television and another console to do so. If I suggest another game as honkingly bad as A Way Out, however, I think she might just leave me.
September 18 2020 | 18:30