Those who played the fantastic 2013 indie game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are no doubt familiar with film-turned-game director Josef Fares' emotionally charged storytelling and interesting take on unorthodox control mechanics. But in Fares' newest, A Way Out, everything is taken to a new level.
Co-op is the name of the game, but in a way unlike anything else most gamers have ever played. You and a friend take on either Leo or Vincent, a pair of incarcerated felons who must break out, find the man who put them there and extract vengeance. It's a fairly run-of-the-mill story made special by the game's defining element: Play together or die alone.
A Way Out plays out in split-screen, both for local-play couch pals or in online sessions. This means you get to see everything that's happening to your buddy in real time, as does said buddy, and knowing what's happening on their screen is often vital to your own success. For example, in one early section, Leo and Vincent attempt to smuggle a tool out of a prison workshop, which requires one player to distract a fellow inmate while the other absconds with the tool. From there, during one particular session, the tool can be handed off through an obscured vent in the corner of the room, but this is only way way of doing things.
During my play-through with a buddy, we also discovered a breaker connected to a metal detector, leading us to believe we could've walked right out with the tool. In another section, my buddy distracted a nurse while I stealthily made my way through a prison infirmary; in yet another, my pal held up a gas station worker while i frantically tried to unlock a safe in a back room. You'd think it would get old, and there certainly are a few moments that seem stuffed-in to remind of the co-op nature—but, for the most part, the mechanism is exciting and unique, especially in action-heavy segments like a mad dash through a hospital that puts the emphasis on one player or another rather than sticking to split-screen. There are also branching paths when it comes to dialogue, meaning that statement you gave to one NPC might not work out how you'd like or the reaction you got from some other NPC could play out differently next time. Between these things and the differing characters, A Way Out practically begs for multiple plays-through.
And beneath it all lies an intriguing story about the interplay between loved ones, the concept of trust and the elusive idea of redemption. Leo and Vincent are absolutely flawed, but the world that's stacked up against them often reminds us of their humanity and causes us to actually begin to like them; maybe they're victims of circumstance, even if they've done bad things. Fares has crafted characters who are different enough to be interesting but who share a goal that's almost noble yet still dark and imperfect. These aren't good guys in the traditional sense, but the means by which they wound up in prison and the slowly evolving relationship that grow with every cooperatively accomplished goal—the ties between the characters and you and your playing partner become riveting.
Throw in stellar graphics that straddle a place between realism and exaggerated character design (the lighting alone is so incredible it's nuts), and you've got one hell of an experience. Sure, moments can lag and the silly mini-games littered throughout each chapter feel unnecessary, but between the aforementioned visuals and some of the most satisfying shooting since the Uncharted series (from which the third-person gunplay is obviously lifted), A Way Out becomes one of the coolest games of the year and a must-play for anyone with even a passing enjoyment of co-op games.
+Unlike whatever else you've played co-op
-Mini games feel shoehorned, as does that one dumpster that keeps popping up having to be moved
A Way Out
Xbox One, PS4, PC (we played the Xbox version)