‘A Way Out’ (Xbox One) review: Redefining teamwork

Surprisingly in-depth ‘A Way Out’ pushes boundaries of cooperation

I wasn’t particularly interested in “A Way Out,” the latest release from Hazelight Studios. With a plot seemingly ripped straight from an episode of “Prison Break” and a mandatory cooperative game play style that forces you to play with another person in order to complete the game, it just didn’t sound all too intriguing to me.

(Clearly that didn’t stop me from getting the game, but I digress.)

But as a good friend and I slowly, argumentatively and nearly friendship-destroying-ly made our way through the compact story, I began to fall in love with “A Way Out.” What I once considered forced co-op gradually turns into something more fulfilling. A story that felt derivative (I wasn’t joking about the “Prison Break” inspiration) begins to shift into something more worthwhile. In effect, “A Way Out” manages to break out from the cliches it wraps itself in.

“A Way Out,” a 1970s-era prison-break adventure, isn’t particularly lengthy, but it keeps your attention with cooperative game play design that more than likely will remind you of the studio’s “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” (a truly stunning game, if you haven’t played it) but much more intensive.

Throughout your adventure, you’re going to come across a variety of co-op mechanisms requiring a surprising amount of communication. That may seem intuitive, but as your characters dangle precariously over an open pit and you have to move in tandem, for instance, your ability to coherently plan and work together will be severely tested.

Before we get to the story (by far the most well-crafted aspect of “AWO”), it’s important to detail what this game is mechanically. Though, that can be a bit difficult: “A Way Out” centers around a lot of dialogue, and it basically starts off as a walking simulator. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.

In fact, you’re rarely going to run into the same type of puzzle, and the game does a stellar job of breaking up similar game-play elements. You may need to stealth your way through an environment (don’t get caught or you’ll have to start the sequence over), you may find yourself in a quick-time event fight either solo or with your partner or you may discover a dart board (or basketball hoop or musical instrument or … ). Let’s just say there are plenty of opportunities to one-up your gaming partner (not that I would brag about winning a certain board game, of course).

The point is, there’s plenty to do in “A Way Out” that doesn’t necessarily revolve around a prison break, and while these small mini-game-style events aren’t exactly groundbreaking technically, they serve a bigger purpose of adding further depth to this story.

But back to what matters in “A Way Out”: the oddly compelling revenge-heavy plot. The game kicks off in medias res, with Vincent Moretti (Eri Krogh) and Leo Caruso (Fares Fares) causally chitchatting aboard a very small plane. It’s not clear what’s going on, but it has a strange “Uncharted 4” vibe to it, which generally means nonsense with somewhat to highly illegal activity likely to follow.

But then “AWO” shifts to the past via flashbacks, a consistent method throughout. You learn how Vincent (a calmer, more rationale type) and Leo (basically the complete opposite) — I’ll let you figure out which character I demanded to play — landed in jail to begin with and how — and, more importantly, why — they intend to break out. The story jumps back and forth for a while until you’re back on the plane, and then proceeds forward.

To say too much more would ruin the about six-hour experience, but plenty of drama abounds, between Vincent and Leo, between them and common enemies and between them and the world. The characters are incredibly well-developed, with personalities and agendas and desires just like any other person. The tension that rises between our two “protagonists” is realistic (and becomes better versed as the game progresses; you’re going to see some incredibly stilted dialogue at the beginning).

A warning much like my Telltale game warnings: You will spend much of “A Way Out” watching cutscenes, though there’s time and freedom to explore environments as you wish. You’ll also notice how the world reacts to Leo and Vincent individually. Everything Leo touches becomes more violent but more straight-forward. For Vincent, the exact opposite happens. It’s an interesting dynamic, made all the more compelling because you don’t control both characters. You have to make a choice with your partner, one that might not be your preferred method of advancement.

Technically, “A Way Out” could use some more work, a bit more polish and finesse. For how great the game looks during the cutscenes, it’s a bit rough at times to see models and environments that didn’t get as much love. But those minute flaws hardly distract from the game’s near-seamless cinematic experience. Dynamic screens abound, clearly directing attention to the more important scene but still allowing the other character room to explore.

Of special note: If you buy the game, your friend doesn’t have to in order to play with you. For example, I bought the game for Xbox One, and my friend simply had to download the free trial version, which allowed him to play the entire game with me for me. Talk about something different, right?

In the end, “A Way Out” challenges the meaning of cooperative, two-player gaming. It starts off jittery, but you’ll quickly fall into the game’s strange rhythm. For me, I don’t see how else the game could have been done. From grand escape scenes to playing board games, the exotic to the mundane, Vincent and Leo’s journey of skeptical cooperation shows that taking risks with your game play can pay off. “A Way Out’s” cinematic nature and forced co-op play may not be for everyone, but I encourage you to give it a chance if you can. Who knows, you may just strengthen your real-life friendship in the process.

Four “I guess we’ll do it your way this time” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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