Co-op is usually more rewarding as an addendum to a single-player game. When it's the only mode on offer, it seems unconventional and likely to alienate some players. An exception could be made for the director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. He emulated co-op gameplay in single-player by splitting the controls between the left and right analog sticks for each of the eponymous Brothers. It was a highly original mechanic, and Josef Fares made a name for himself because of it. With A Way Out, the debut title of his studio Hazelight, he went all out with a co-op only action-adventure that will likely find a very divisive reception.
The game begins with players choosing one of two main characters. There's the hothead career criminal Leo Caruso and the shrewd fraudster Vincent Moretti. Each has a rap sheet that informs players of their backstory. While there's no indication of setting at first, the game takes place sometime in the 1970s. The Italian-American names may initially give the impression of a playable Goodfellas, but that's unfortunately not the case. The splitscreen cinematics are very well-directed and the atmosphere is set with great graphics, effective voice acting, and decent animation. However, there's an overall lack of depth in character development from the very start, with the game opting for quick fixes and shortcuts to explain the characters' motivations.
The first act is focused on breaking out of prison. Leo and Vincent partner up and attempt to make their way out by crawling into the sewers and mucking about in the underground, turning valves and such along the way. These initial puzzles are more about timing than a challenge. Some of them are reminiscent of the uncomplicated puzzle design of Brothers. This style of puzzle isn't out of place in a fantasy game but becomes rather jarring in the type of cinematic game that A Way Out purports to be.
The specifics of the prison break can be very unconvincing, and the semblance of realism becomes questionable. At one point, Leo distracts a couple of guards by calling them aside with some flimsy excuse so that Vincent can go back to his cell without being frisked, as per protocol. It's all very convenient and there is hardly any real obstacle in the way of their escape.
One particular puzzle in the prison has two solutions, but I found that this was the exception that proves the rule. Most puzzles are one-size-fits-all, leaving no room for player agency or creativity. There's a certain indulgence towards cinematic games. Players can overlook their limited interactivity because these games tend to present a richer, more focused story with deeper character development. In theory, this allows for more emotional investment from players, but A Way Out never quite hits the mark. The story is too linear and simplistic to be rich, and the character development remains superficial throughout.
Between the main playable sequences, there are cutscenes where Leo and Vincent are both talking on a private plane. These sequences foreshadow their motivation to exact revenge on a crime boss named Harvey, with whom they both have a score to settle. Another cutscene in Mexico introduces us to Harvey as he tries to sell the Black Orlov diamond, which Leo had helped steal. This cutscene is the exact moment when the writing starts to really go downhill. Harvey is a caricature of a ruthless crime boss. There is no nuance, no character development. Harvey is a big bad guy, and Leo and Vincent are the good guys who have to take him out. It's unlikely that most players will feel strongly about taking out Harvey, it's just what the game tells you to do, so you just go through the motions.
After busting out of prison and evading the authorities via a plethora of stealth takedowns, our heroes go after one of Harvey’s henchmen in a construction site. A chase scene takes place, suddenly shifting to a top-down perspective. There’s also a 2D side-scrolling segment later on. These segments play like homages to classic games, but they’re not very good ones. They feel glaringly out of place in the overall ambiance and are too short to add anything substantial. It's as if the developers are trying to cram in as much gameplay variety as possible, yet it's of a superficial variety that doesn't accomplish anything to advance the plot, the ambiance, or the character development.
Somewhere in the middle, A Way Out stops focusing on co-op puzzles and becomes a string of action sequences. This includes the obvious car chase, a chase involving a motorcycle and one that combines a motorboat and a helicopter. Some of these action sequences involve a fair few slow-motion segments that are just comical. Some are so ridiculously bad that it’s tempting to say that Fares is parodying action movies. Still, it could also be a serious attempt to cater to the type of audience that genuinely enjoys these over-the-top antics.
However, even for this group of players, there must be limits in matters of plausibility. At one point, Leo and Vincent have to skydive their way down to Harvey's HQ in Mexico. Leo loses his parachute in midair as he tries to pull the cord, and his machine gun (which is attached to the parachute for some reason) is also gone. So, they have to grab each other in the air as they keep skydiving. When they finally reach the ground with Vincent's parachute, Leo’s machine gun is hanging from his back again, as if nothing happened. It's a ridiculous leap in logic that simply cannot happen in an immersive cinematic game. It's disrespectful of the player's intelligence and completely breaks suspension of disbelief.
To be fair, some of the action can be fun enough. Particularly when a player takes over a sniper’s nest and proceeds to clear the path for his partner. In these third-person shooter sequences, it’s not unlike a co-op Uncharted game. This would be great if the story at this point wasn’t so paper-thin. When they finally get to Harvey, he goes full Scarface on them. This isn’t Tarantino or Scorsese camp, or even Die Hard camp; this is more like The Expendables. It seems to revel in the action movie silliness, unapologetically and unabashedly.
One cannot produce Tarantino or Scorsese camp without great storytelling and character development. This caliber of writing would actually be very welcome in a cinematic game like this. My main issue is with misleading information about the player characters provided in the beginning. This completely derails the narrative and destroys whatever credibility remains as you reach the final act. The element of surprise is typically good as you approach your finale. However, if you take a proper look at these characters' motivations, you inevitably find nothing but ham-handed and unconvincing writing.
Ultimately, the game suffers heavily from the same on-rails linearity and boxed-in gameplay that most cinematic games tend to deal with. Some sequences go as far as locking the camera from certain angles so that players are forced to follow the script. Some players will be more annoyed by this than others, but whether anyone actually enjoys being put in this position as a player is dubious.
Some might enjoy a set of side interactions such as playing the banjo or a piano in a musical minigame. You can help fix a motorcycle or you can play darts, horseshoes, baseball. These are all just distractions from the fact that the game barely gives you any freedom. Even when both players have to make a unanimous decision, the ultimate lack of consequences is limiting.
A Way Out had unique potential as a co-op only game. The dynamic splitscreen cinematics seem to fully invest in telling a serious "tale of two cons" seeking redemption at the end of the vicious cycle of crime and punishment. Unfortunately, it falls apart into shameless camp halfway through, all while limiting gameplay, keeping players on a short leash and dropping any pretense of plausibility. It may serve a specific action movie audience, but “serious art” this is not.
If you don't mind silly and over-the-top action scenes that make most people roll their eyes, A Way Out will provide some decent mindless entertainment to you and a co-op buddy for a few hours. Otherwise, this is one to avoid.
- Decent Cinematics
- Fun Action Sequences
- Maybe So-Bad-It's-Good
- Boxed-in On-Rails Gameplay
- Camp Action Sequences
- Ridiculous Leaps in Logic
- Limited Replay Value
- Subpar Character Development