As video games continue to become an increasingly lucrative industry, there have been efforts to make them more accessible and appealing to a wider audience in order to entice as many buyers as possible.  The former is generally a good thing - I welcome options that bring newer, less experienced, or even disabled gamers into the fold without adulterating the core experience.  Uncharted 4, with options like auto-aiming did a fantastic job at this.  The latter however, is quite concerning.  AAA games are generally focus tested so heavily to cater to as many gamers as possible, that the result is, in my opinion, a wealth of increasingly generic games that fail to stand out from one another.

For example, if you're not a fan of Call of Duty, the series' annual installments really fail to stand out from one another begin blending into each other.  Or more alarmingly, a lot of the same mechanics are bleeding into every video game, making them feel increasingly same-y.  Skill trees, experience points, towers to climb to unveil parts of the map, hours and hours of filler fetchquests... None of these things are inherently bad on their own, but so many games have adopted them that less titles stand out as unique and innovative on their own merits.  And this is to say nothing of predatory corporate practices like loot boxes and on-disc DLC becoming increasingly common.  It's enough to make the most passionate of gamers feel a bit jaded about their favorite hobby, especially if we're talking about the Western industry.

However, there still exist many passionate developers and game studios that want to push the envelope with what video games are capable of, while providing a consumer and gamer friendly experience along the way.  Enter A Way Out.

Initially unveiled during EA's otherwise lackluster E3 2017 press conference, A Way Out didn't really capture the attention of many until lead developer Josef Fares delivered a hilarious, "jetlagged" rant at 2017's Game Awards.  In between rambling about how awesome video games and the game awards were, Fares passionately shouted "f*ck the Oscars!" which has since been immortalized in meme form, even in the game itself.  While some criticized Fares for behaving inappropriately, I found his frankness and clear passion for the game he and his development team were working on infectious.  It's a passion that bleeds into every interview with him - Fares loves the game his team made, and he genuinely wants you to love it too.

Let's be honest, this was the best and most epic part of last year's Game Awards.

While I support any and all boycotting of EA products, it's important to note that despite the "EA" label on the final product, the game was developed exclusively by Fares' development team, Hazelight Studio, and avoids many of the greedy, predatory practices EA is now known for.  While A Way Out does have some flaws, which I will mention along the way in this blog, the ultimate product is unique, innovative, and passionately crafted.  It's a surprisingly consumer and gamer friendly package too, and I believe that all of these factors deserve some time in the spotlight.

It's Consumer Friendly

A Way Out isn't a particularly long game - the average playthrough will only last you about 5 to 8 hours depending on how much you take your time along the way.  However, the game has been budget priced accordingly at $30.  When you consider that companies like Konami have literally sold a prologue for their game for $40 in the form of Metal Gear Solid V:  Ground Zeroes, this price feels welcome and fair.  However, more important to bring attention to is the Friend Pass.  A Way Out is a co-op only game, it cannot be experienced in any way, shape, or form in single player (we'll return to this point a bit later).  However, whether you play with a friend locally or over the Internet, you will only ever need to purchase one copy of the game.

Naturally if you choose couch co-op, your buddy won't need to purchase a copy of the game, just bring his own controller.  However, if this isn't an option for you, or you prefer to play over the Internet, your friend doesn't need their own copy of the game.  They can download a demo code of the game through your console of choice's online store, and using your copy of the game, they can obtain a "Friend Pass" that allows them to enjoy the entire experience with you without having to purchase it for themselves.  Essentially, this means that only half of the people who play A Way Out will have purchased it themselves.  This is a surprisingly generous move on the developer's part; it eliminates the need to talk a friend into buying the game to play it with you, and ensures that people who can only experience the game through online multiplayer are not economically penalized for doing so.

The Friend Pass was supposed to be announced at 2017's Game Awards, but Fares was so busy putting the Oscars in their rightful place, he didn't have time to.

It's Devoid of Filler and Full of Variety

A longer video game is not necessarily a video game.  While it's true I'd rather not spend $60 on an experience I only get two hours out of, I would much rather play a game like Resident Evil VII, whose 9ish hour campaign is more memorable and concise than a 50 hour RPG that's full of filler, fetchquests and other menial tasks that feel like they're a waste of my time.  Fares, as outspoken as ever, has complained about such games multiple times in interviews, arguing that just because a video game has a long playtime, doesn't mean that the many hours you'll spend with that game are fulfilling.  Oftentimes you find yourself repeating the same task over and over again, and the experience grows repetitive and stale.

This is not the case with A Way Out.  As alluded to earlier, it is a short game, but it tells a concise story, and there aren't any points in the telling of this story that feel like needless filler.  Every scene has a purpose in the wider narrative.  What's more, from a gameplay perspective, A Way Out is always trying something different.  Fares wanted it to feel like "a different game in every scene."  The downside to this is that some of the game's mechanics feel a bit loose (the shooting controls in particular are subpar), and thus the game is a "jack of all trades, but master of none."  But considering the short run time, this is a pretty inoffensive flaw.  More importantly because you are constantly doing different things with your partner, the experience never gets dull.

There's a stealth section involving cover and sneak attacks in A Way Out, but it's the only one in the entire game.  There are two shooting sequences in the game, and that's it.  Over the course of your adventure, you'll do everything from coordinate to paddle a boat down a raging river, stage an impromptu bank robbery, devise a plan to smuggle an escape tool into your prison cell, escape an armed convoy on motorcycle or... play a rip-off of Connect 4 with your friends.

Yes, A Way Out is crammed to the brim with minigames, and while a critic might point out that this muddies the tone at times (I personally wouldn't stop to play a banjo while robbing a person's home), many of these are quite enjoyable and turn a cooperative multiplayer experience into a silly competitive one for a brief while.  Highlights include an arm wrestling contest that's a surprisingly difficult endurance test of button mashing, a gutiar hero esque rhythm minigame, and a mock Atari game that plays similar to Pong.

A Way Out might not last very long, but it's never a chore to play thanks to its tightly focused narrative and wide variety of things to do with your friend.

A critic might argue that A Way Out's many minigames detract from the game's tone, but I found their presence an enjoyable change of pace.

It Makes Very Creative Use of Its Co-Op

Up until now, I haven't addressed the actual story or gameplay very much, so I should probably rectify that.

Unlike most co-op games, where each player assumes the role of an interchangeable character and carries out certain objectives, A Way Out is a cinematic, story-driven video game where each player assumes the control of a character with a very different backstory and personality.  Leo is a cantankerous, hot-headed jokester whose "hit first, ask questions later" personality made my co-op partner and I chuckle more than once, while Vincent is a more calm and collected individual, albeit one with a wealth of dry wit to throw at Leo's general direction.

At the outset of the game, the two men don't know each other but share prison cells next to one another, and the game follows their journey as they find "a way out" of prison, reunite with their families, and hunt down a shared enemy.  Admittingly, the story is fairly cliche, but the clashing personalities of the two leads help it become an enjoyable one regardless.  More importantly though, A Way Out is a video game and not a movie, and its interactivity overcomes whatever flaws its standard fare narrative would otherwise cause.

It's interesting to note that A Way Out shares a design philosophy with Fares' previous game, Brothers:  A Tale of Two Sons.  In Brothers, one player would simultaneously assume control of both a big and little brother as they worked together to solve puzzles and outsmart enemies to find a way to save their father's life.  The control scheme used to control these two at the same time was certainly unorthodox, but players would adapt to it over the course of the game, just as the two brothers grew closer to one another.  It reflected the game's theme of brotherhood well, because just as the player adapted to making these two characters operate in unison mechanically, so too were the characters growing closer in the story as they overcame obstacles together.

By contrast, A Way Out is a co-op experience with each player controlling a different character, but the sentiment is the same.  As the game continues, players will need to cooperate more and more, and this reflects the story of Leo and Vincent growing closer as friends.  Initially, the two don't care for one another.  Similarly at the outset of the story, my co-op partner and I weren't talking very much, as our characters' stories started separately.  However, over the course of the narrative as Leo and Vincent are forced to work together, and ultimately grow to enjoy each others' company, similarly my friend and I were growing increasingly talkative and working together almost instinctively.

Communication is key in A Way Out.  You can't accomplish much if you don't talk to one another.  Whether this involves timing the bashing of a door so the two characters hit it simultaneously and break through, or shouting which direction to paddle the aforementioned boat in so it does not crash violently, if you aren't communicating and working together with your partner, you won't make progress in A Way Out.

What's more, A Way Out makes clever use of its split screens.  For example, there are instances where one character may be in a cutscene, while the other can walk around and interact with the world, possibly even showing up on the other's screen while the cutscene is still in progress.  More importantly though, there are plenty of times throughout the game where each player is engaging in a wildly different task for an asymmetrical multiplayer experience.

My personal favorite was one where my partner and I were escaping the police via pick-up truck; I drove to dodge incoming traffic and other obstacles, while my partner shot out the tires of the police cars in what felt like M-rated Mario Kart Double-Dash!!  The difference in what players experience even extends to the smallest of details - for example, the ways in which Vincent and Leo interact with NPCs and other objects is different, meaning each player will have a unique experience throughout the story. 

Ultimately, a story driven game that can only be played in co-op is unique enough without some of the other, assymetrical multiplayer ideas on display.  But what really makes A Way Out's vision unique is its unforgettable ending.  No discussion of the game's merits would be complete without it.

You're not scaling this wall unless you communicate and cooperate with your partner, and moments like these are what make A Way Out so unique and enjoyable.

The Ending

IT SHOULD GO WITHOUT SAYING, BUT SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF THE GAME ARE BELOW, SKIP TO THE END IF YOU HAVE NOT EXPERIENCED IT YET

I stated earlier that the experience of A Way Out will differ for the player depending on whether they play as Leo or Vincent, and this is most true about the game's final moments.  In a cruel twist, it turns out that Vincent was an undercover cop from the very beginning, who helped Leo escape from prison to seek his help in finding a criminal they both had an interest in finding and killing.  It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief to be fair, but it's heartbreaking all the same, as Vincent is forced to arrest Leo once more.  More importantly in the context of A Way Out though, is that the game shifts from a cooperative experience to a competitive one.

My partner, who was playing as Leo, felt betrayed.  We had spent hours working together, only for the character and player he had come to trust turning on him.  On the other hand, I personally felt ashamed.  It's silly to say, because I didn't personally betray my partner, my character did, and I was oblivious to it up until that point.  But all the same, I felt like I had let him down.

The tensions between the two characters flare, and ultimately a gunfight between the two breaks out.  It was at this point my heart sank in my chest, as health bars for both characters pop up.  I had assumed going into A Way Out that only one of the two characters would survive until the end; I had assumed that the final choice of the game, in the spirit of cooperation, would be for one player to decide to sacrifice himself for the other.  I had never expected that after spending so much time working together and forging a bond, we would be forced to tear that bond apart in a battle to the death.

My partner and I paused the game and agreed that neither of us would give in.  We had to do what was best for our respective character.  We fought in silence.  And eventually, my partner landed a killing blow.  And what happened next shook us both to the core.  As Vincent slowly bleeds out, he hands a letter to Leo, a letter addressed to his estranged wife.  A letter Leo, in an act of genuine friendship, had suggested he write so the two could reconcile.  As we both hold R2 to pass the letter, Leo and Vincent hold hands in a final act of respect as Vincent dies... and his screen fades to black.  For the entirety of the game, the screen had been split to accommodate both of us, but with only one survivor, there was no longer any need.

As the beautiful theme "Farewell" played as Vincent's life faded away, my partner and I sat in silence.  I looked over and he had tears in my eyes.  I did too.

In hindsight, I am satisfied things turned out this way because as much as I liked Vincent, it would've felt dirty to betray and kill Leo/my partner after earning their trust.  Regardless, this too ties into A Way Out's vision; Fares knew that having players turn on one another would not sit well with some people, but also knew it would register an emotional response, stating "apathy is just about the worst thing a creative can receive."  It goes without saying, but my partner and I were not apathetic towards this game, and Fares achieved his vision.

I doubt very many people will feel "apathy" after A Way Out's conclusion.

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The gaming industry needs more titles like A Way Out.  It undoubtedly has flaws, most namely its somewhat cliche story.  However, these flaws are completely overcome in the face of what a unique, consumer friendly experience it is.  Its budget pricing and Friend Pass make it easy and inexpensive for two players to enjoy.  The short run time tells a concise story devoid of filler and full of variety.  And it's a uniquely story driven co-op game chock full of creative uses of its split screen multiplayer, that culminates in an unforgettable, emotional ending.

Yes, EA's logo is on the box.  But you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't grab a buddy and play A Way Out for yourself.  We need more video games with a vision as unapologetic as this one's.