The smartest thing about Hazelight Studio’s otherwise dopey prison-break thriller A Way Out is something its director really didn’t want anybody talking about in the lead-up to its release. In fact, lead designer Josef Fares—he of the infamous “Fuck the Oscars” rant at last year’s Game Awards—even sent reviewers a special video before the game came out, practically begging us not to give away its biggest twist. I acceded to his request in my review back in March, both because I don’t like my Twitter mentions getting destroyed any more than the next guy, but also because Fares was right: A Way Out’s ambitious ending would completely fall apart if you knew it was coming.
Designed exclusively for co-op play, A Way Out puts you and a friend in the roles of would-be fugitives Leo and Vincent, as they scheme to break out of prison, get revenge on the crime boss what done them wrong, and, occasionally, take a break to screw around with a quick round of Connect Four or horseshoes. Most of the action—and the vast majority of the game’s pre-release hype—focuses on the growing cooperation between the two men, as they boost each other over walls, bicker their way past obstacles, and slowly develop a bond.
Leo—a career criminal gifted with a set of criminally fabulous sideburns and voiced by Fares’ brother, Fares Fares—has the clearer motivations for going through with all this violent nonsense: In the game’s backstory, crime boss Harvey ripped him off and is now threatening his wife and child, so obviously he has to go. Former white-collar banker Vincent’s past is more nebulous. There’s something about an estranged wife and a dead brother, but his grudge against the distinctly non-intimidatingly named Harvey is a lot less clear, even as the game moves past its initial jailbreak conceit and into its big action finale.
The reasons for that ambiguity finally come into focus in A Way Out’s tortuous denouement. Landing back in America after an explosive confrontation at Harvey’s Mexican compound—complete with Scarface references, dozens of dead mooks, and a flashy dirt bike escape—the duo is greeted by an army of waiting police. Faced with no other choice, they both surrender, only for Vincent to stand back up and reveal that he’s been an undercover cop this entire time. Furthermore, now that Leo’s helped him find and take down his former boss, he’s placing him back under arrest.
Maybe I’m just a dumbo, but this twist caught me legitimately off-guard. Doubly so when—instead of some “honor among thieves” ending playing out, with Vincent “accidentally” letting his buddy escape—Leo grabs his former friend, puts a gun to his head, and manages to flee with his hostage in tow. A Way Out then dumps control back into the players’ hands, except now, instead of working together, as you have been for the last eight or so hours, you and your co-op partner are suddenly at odds. (In a way, it’s an inverse of the big twist from Fares’ last game, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons: Rather than finding a way to merge two characters’ spirits into one with a clever controller conceit, it forces a single cohesive unit into two competing parts.) The subsequent game of cat-and-mouse culminates in a one-on-one gun battle in an abandoned factory, with the ultimate outcome to the story resting on which player can successfully get the drop on their “friend” and blow them away.
It’s a clever idea, if not necessarily a novel one. Double Dragon had its heroes face off against each other post-final boss 31 years ago, and Streets Of Rage even added a narrative element to its inter-team squabbles, allowing players to individually decide whether to sign on for the villain’s “Join me and we’ll rule together” offer, beating down their more scrupulous teammates in the process. Still, those old-school beat-’em-ups were a lot more interested in guzzling down quarters and continues than in exploring bonds of trust—and they definitely weren’t trying to tell gritty, cinematic crime stories with fleshed-out characters.
But those characters are also where A Way Out’s ambition is betrayed by its myriad flaws, especially those in its writing. By pitting Vincent and Leo against each other, the game assumes that each player actually cares about fighting for their particular convict’s happy ending. But Leo is such a dope and Vincent such a dull cipher—admittedly, in part to help preserve his big secret—that it’s hard to actually care who wins this final fight. In the perfect version of how this ending played out, I’d be so invested in Vincent’s personal story—he’s a new father! His brother’s dead! He has a mustache!—that I’d throw out all the stops to selfishly try to beat my friend. In practice, my attachment was loose enough that I was just as happy to see Leo, who’s a more charming character anyway, be the one who gets to walk off into the sunset. It doesn’t help that the game offers not even a whiff of mercy in this whole scenario, down to forcing the victor to put a final bullet in their buddy’s chest in a pronounced, infallible quick time event.
That shift from cooperation to competition is still the biggest selling point in the game’s arsenal, though, ironic since it could never actually be sold with it. (Those old “The final 15 minutes change everything!” sales pitches have never really worked in the gaming sphere, huh?) At its best, A Way Out is a cooperative game that acknowledges the sacrifices, costs, and breaking points that most games about this subject, those that usually conceive “the team” as an unbreakable unit where success and failure are shared, never bother to discuss. But it’s also a reminder that not even the most clever twists mean much without strong characters working to lure the players in close enough to care.