I appreciate that’s quite a bold statement to make, but it’s not mere hyperbole – nor is it an attempt to vindicate my choice of heading, either. Yes, last year’s show featured some undeniably fantastic games. I mean, I’ve never actually played any of the series’ various titles before, but like everyone else, I was struck by the visual splendor and immersive gameplay showcased during the Monster Hunter World reveal trailer. While, as someone who overlooked the original, our first proper glimpse at the Shadow of the Colossus remake reminded me, yet again, what a seminal gaming experience I’d missed out on all those years ago, leaving me eager to get my hands on Bluepoint Games’ immaculate recreation of what was, by all accounts, a true masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I found A Way Out’s unique take on cooperative storytelling utterly intriguing. And, following a couple of new trailers and a memorable, no-holds-barred interview with writer/director Josef Fares at The Game Awards 2017 – a spontaneous and impassioned tirade against the Oscars that left interviewer Geoff Keighley in a state of bewildered amusement and reminded everyone else there’s more to game design than simply making money – my curiosity has only grown.
A Way Out tells the story of jailbirds Leo and Vincent – the former a “brash, cocky” individual who’s “quick to use force”; the latter “calm, cool, and in control”, to quote Fares – as they attempt to break out of prison, evade the pursuing police once free, and try to pick up the pieces of their former lives. Which, in Vincent’s case, involves hunting down a man named Harvey who, it would appear, murdered someone dear to him.
Told in linear fashion without the sandbox-style gameplay favored by an ever-increasing number of titles, the game adopts the Uncharted approach to storytelling, i.e., punctuating expository scenes and inter-character exchanges with cinematic action set-pieces.
Yet, A Way Out still offers plenty of choice and variety. It’s entirely up to the players to decide how to handle events on screen; whether they should resort to violence or try to bluff their way through a potentially volatile situation, for instance. And, although narrative is very much at the heart of the experience – Fares describes it as “cinematic” which, based on current evidence, is hard to dispute – the game features a diverse array of mechanics, intended to provide players with a series of exciting, one-off experiences. Everything from “car chases and stealth passages” to “melee fights and shootouts” according to the man himself. All of which should keep us on our toes from start to finish.
But, as the game’s various trailers and my earlier use of ‘players’ plural will have made abundantly clear, A Way Out’s USP is without question its emphasis on split-screen, co-op play that, though facilitating both local and online collaboration, is completely absent any kind of single-player game mode. Meaning the only way to play it, is with another person.
It might sound restrictive – potentially omitting a significant portion of gamers who prefer to fly solo when they game – perhaps even gimmicky if taken out of context. But, I have to say, from where I’m standing, it looks like a stroke of genius.
Not only because A Way Out provides a cooperative experience that actively encourages communication; sharing their personal opinions/interpretations of the characters, story, and setting as a natural consequence of the discussion that’s provoked by each new on-screen event. But, more specifically, because of the way split-screen itself is implemented.
With both Leo and Vincent’s perspectives displayed concurrently, players are always aware of what’s happening around them and can react to situations accordingly. If Leo is engaged in a tricky stealth section, say, the player controlling Vincent can look out for any potential obstacles and neutralize them on their partner’s behalf. Similarly, if Leo’s preparing to assault an NPC while Vincent’s in the middle of a cut-scene, the player controlling him can wait to see if Vincent’s exchange will provide any useful information that might improve the odds of a successful outcome, or even delay their attack to make sure they don’t miss anything interesting or crucial to the wider plot.
It’s a really interesting concept that ensures neither player ever finds themselves taking a back seat, twiddling their thumbs whilst the designated protagonist wades through a tediously long expository scene; relegated to the role of nameless NPC bystander. There isn’t a main character-sidekick dynamic, in other words, instead, each player is fully committed to, and immersed in, both their character’s personal journey and the overarching narrative.
For this reason, the development team intentionally omitted any kind of drop-in, drop-out-style capability, encouraging a pair of individuals to experience the entire game together instead. Asking them to work in tandem to reach a consensus before the story can progress, which in turn helps to create a sense of cooperation that works specifically because both players are fully invested in the narrative. I’m really looking forward to the moments of contention and discussion this kind of communal storytelling is sure to bring; when one player’s interpretation of a particular scene differs so wildly from their partner’s, they’re forced to talk things through and thus engage with the narrative to a depth that’s not always necessary in other multiplayer games.
Of course, the main reason why developer Hazelight can afford to double down on these concepts – arguably the game’s single biggest selling point – is that, whether played online or on the couch, only a single copy of A Way Out is required between two people.
Considering the game is only £20 to begin with, it’s an extremely generous and inclusive move on the part of Hazelight and publisher Electronic Arts (under its EA Originals Program), contrasting starkly, it’s only fair to point out, with some of EA’s most recent IP’s; Star Wars Battlefront II, for example, or even the much-lauded Battlefield 1. A move that’s sure to earn the goodwill of gamers everywhere, encourage those who might not otherwise have bought the game to give it a go, and perhaps even inspire other developers (or rather publishers) to spend more time thinking about the people who actually play their games.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize the chances of A Way Out precipitating a large-scale shift in how AAA developers release and support multiplayer titles in the future is about as likely as me winning the EuroMillions without buying a ticket.
But that doesn’t detract from Fares’s original vision of a game that transcends genre and treats players like human beings, not cash cows to be milked. And that, coupled with A Way Out’s unique take on cooperative, narrative-driven adventure leaves me eagerly looking forward to March 23, when I (and a willing partner, of course) can experience it for myself.