Yahtzee reviews A Way Out.
A Way Out is a new game by the dude who made Brothers, billed as an "EA Original", which is a classic oxymoron, and is, equally oxymoronically, a linear narrative-focused multiplayer-only game. Let me talk you through my thought process when it was first pitched at me; it went something like this: "Uh, um, um, eeh, um, er, uh, um, hm..." Now, maybe I'm just a hideous man-child who clings stubbornly to his views because he lacks the imagination to envision an alternative, but I still didn't think you could have a story focus in a multiplayer-only game. Story calls for immersion, and you can't get immersed when there's another person there acting as a constant reminder of the real world; this is why one does not go into the cinema to socialize, and talking to the person sitting next to you through the whole film is a good way to get decked on the way to the toilet.
But now, having played through A Way Out, I have to admit that I've been proved wrong; I'm actually a very attractive man-child who clings stubbornly to his views. I was right about all that other shit, although A Way Out does cunningly avoid the immersion issue by making its story incredibly bland and poorly written, so immersion was kind of a lost cause, anyway. The story focuses on two men in prison: Leo, a career criminal with a frivolous attitude who probably got into the lifestyle because his distractingly-big nose is large enough to smuggle the Hope Diamond, and new fish Vincent, a middle-aged banker led astray with a terminal case of Kane & Lynch dad bod; that becomes clear in an early scene when he's getting hosed down, pimply bum out for all to see.
"You mean like that bit in The Shawshank Redemption, Yahtz?" You know what, viewer? I'm fucking glad you brought that up! A Way Out, if you want to get away with ripping something off, maybe rip off something that isn't a universally-renowned cultural touchstone and the favorite movie of basically everyone. A Way Out bold-facedly lifts the entire "new prison induction" scene from The Shawshank Redemption; the warden character looks the same; there's a bit where people are tarring a roof. It's so blatant that one might expect the designer to claim that it's an intentional homage, but trust me, A Way Out, you are doing yourself no favors by constantly reminding me of something infinitely better; I might decide I'd rather just watch The Shawshank Redemption while arm-wrestling the person sitting next to me and get basically the same effect.
So A Way Out is strictly two-player co-op, but gratifyingly, there's a split-screen local mode, so you don't have to play online and overlay the game's cinematic soundtrack with some dickhead's nasally voice honking through a poor-quality headset mic. Although, the split-screen has its own issues; there's a bit where one player has to tunnel out of their cell while the other keeps watch for guards, which would've been an effective bit of cooperative gameplay calling upon our communication skills were we not free to just look at the other person's screen whenever we want like it's a fucking rearview mirror. So A Way Out posits itself as a game where the two of you must work together to solve its challenges, and you know what that means: lots of really heavy doors! Get ready to stand next to them a whole bunch, waiting for your partner to stop fucking about and come help you open it!
At other times throughout the first section of the game, when Leo and Vincent are piecing together their escape plan, there are puzzles to solve, usually based around stealing the tools they need, but pretty much all of them are "I will do naughty thing, you distract guard so they do not see me do naughty thing". And if it's not that or heavy doors, the massive eye-gouging finger quotes, "gameplay" consists only of David Cage-style slow-time events where we are given precisely zero option but to follow one contextual button prompt after another. But the "distract the guard" puzzles all but vanish the moment you do escape from the prison, which is barely halfway through the game, so God knows what the title is referring to after that; possibly Leo's massive nostrils and the "way out" they offer his bogeys.
Gameplay instead begins to focus on slow-time events, slightly ridiculous action sequences, and bumming around environments randomly fiddling with stuff: the "David Cage Triple Threat". After the escape, you break into a farmhouse to change clothes and steal a car, all of which is fairly straightforward, but for some reason, you can also bum around the house, messing with the ornaments, play a banjo, do the washing-up, compete with each other in horseshoes. It's all completely useless, disconnected, toddler's activity center game design, and yet, there was something about it that made me reluctant to move on; maybe 'cos I knew that more button-prompt action sequences were waiting in the trees ahead to drop onto our heads and smother us with their botty flab.
But this was also the point where we started actually role-playing; as I dutifully searched the house for fresh clothing and car keys, I passed my partner in the hall trying on hats or bumming the dog, and I'd roll my eyes like their passive-aggressive spouse. Also, Leo can draw a little mustache on a painting which Vincent can then wipe off, and this sticks out in my mind because it's pretty much the only moment when the main characters - or indeed, any character - display an ounce of personality; all the dialogue is completely bland and functional, and when it comes to action, it seems either character will do most of the time, the weird insistence on always lifting the same side of a very heavy door notwithstanding.
It makes me think of F.E.A.R. 3 - or "F.3.A.R.", as I passively-aggressively insist on saying it - which was mostly lame, but the co-op was kind of interesting just because the two player characters had vastly different roles in the gameplay. It also didn't hurt that the characters were, if not likable, at least somewhat engaging; Leo and Vincent are neither. The Kane & Lynch comparison rises again, because they're just a pair of growly, boring dads, selfishly pursuing personal revenge at the expense of their families, busloads of innocent citizens, and whoever's job it is to resurface the tarmac after you're done high-speed car-chasing over it. One thing you can do to make a criminal bumblecunt sympathetic, of course, is to give them a spouse and young child to think about, a tactic A Way Out apparently thought was worth using twice, for both its principal bumblecunts.
So in the final act, Leo and Vincent are seeking revenge on a crime lord and torture one of his lackeys for information - a scene which could have been harrowing, but they go about the torture like a pair of substitute woodwork teachers - and are informed that the crime lord is in Mexico. Apparently, that's enough to go on. All of Mexico? He must be very fat. And once they get to all of Mexico, the gameplay switches again into a bog-standard co-op shooter. You can't accuse A Way Out of being static, but I wish it would figure out what the fuck it's doing; you going to turn into Cooking Mama next and end the game on a climactic soufflé bake-off?
Sadly not. I guess this is spoiler time, so everyone stick your head into a bucket of old lemons: the game ends with a plot twist that made me jump up and yell, "Watery bullshit spewing from an old metal fountain, game!" This twist punches so many holes in the plot that the plot is now a cheese grater. The co-op game then turns competitive, and the players fight each other to decide the ending. Interesting idea, but again, the characters are so unengaging that the only drama came from the fact that I was playing with my girlfriend and had to balance my thirst for victory against making her all huffy for the rest of the evening. Here's a quote for your blurb, A Way Out: "All the death-defying excitement of failing to acknowledge a new haircut!"
- Only has one friend: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And if you're going to rip off The Shawshank Redemption at least let us crawl down a pipe full of turds for an hour
- Check out my new band "Yahtzee and the Principal Bumblecunts"
Extra: Differently Morphous Edit
My latest book, Differently Morphous, is out now on audible.com as an Audible Original, meaning audiobook first with print version further down the line, so get those ears unstuffed. It's a contemporary paranormal fantasy about the difficulties of adapting to modern life when you're a formless Lovecraftian horror from beyond the veil of time and space.