One of the best things about E3 every year is that, inevitably, a few games you had no knowledge of or expectations from show up and completely knock your socks off.
For me this year, one of those games came during EA’s press conference in the form of A Way Out. As the follow-up project to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for creator Josef Fares and his new team, Hazelight Studios, the game builds on the idea of co-op experiences through Leo and Vincent. The two men are initially strangers when they meet in prison, but both have their own reasons for breaking out—and must rely on one another to secure their freedom and accomplish their personal goals.
One of A Way Out‘s most interesting qualities is also the one that’s the easiest to notice: how it handles two players at once on a single display. While we’ve long had titles that offered us split-screen multiplayer, here the screen dynamically adjusts itself depending on what’s needed at any given moment. If Leo and Vincent are both just exploring the environment, then their individual sides of the screen may be even in size. If one character is doing something important, then their portion can expand out to emphasize what that task means to the situation. Should one player find themselves engaged in a cutscene while the other is in a totally different location? No problem—the cinematic will play in the appropriate portion of the display, while the other player can keep actively playing. Sometimes, the screen will even come together as one big play area, should one character alone demand full attention, or the pair be at a point of teaming up to get past an obstacle.
If nothing else, it’s an interesting gimmick, but that system for tracking how the game splits the screen for each player helps enforce an entire experience that seems built upon both order and chaos. In the part of A Way out that I got to play, Leo and Vincent were preparing to rob a gas station. However, between the two of us, we only had one gun, so we both had to actively hit a button to choose what to do with it. In order to progress, we’d need to both agree, so Fares and I decided that he should be the one to take it.
From there, we could walk in together, or do so separately. Inside, there were a number of variables at play, as we had to decide what to do about the other customers that were milling around, the possible methods that could be used to contact the police, and how we’d finally approach the clerk. Even with a relatively simple control scheme—focus, action, cancel, and that was pretty much it at that point—it felt like we had a lot of options at our disposal. Once we decided to finally make our move, a few elements that we hadn’t planned on came into play—including a witness who ran off to contact the police. That action caused a third split in our screen, and we got to see what was going on with the cop that would soon be making our lives far more complicated if we didn’t hurry up and finish.
A Way Out gives players no other option but to play it co-op. While you can do so over the internet, in talking to Fares, he really wants people to sit down in the same room together to play, so that they not only directly communicate, but also come to feel like they really are in it together. I asked him about the worry over alienating those potential players out there who were turned off by there being no single-player options, and he remained adamant to the idea that he wanted to make something that would be a shared experience.
If the full experience of A Way Out stays true to the small piece I got my hands on for E3, then I think he’ll have plenty of reason to feel confident in his decision. The potential for what can unfold during Leo and Vincent’s journey could only happen this way if two human players are each controlling one of the men. And that’s the twist: imposing a strict limit on how the game can be played actually increases the freedom that Fares and his team have in the adventure they then put the players through.