One of the more suprising games at a rather rote EA Play press conference was A Way Out. In a presser focused on EA's mainstays, the game was like mana from heavens. A Way Out is the brainchild of Hazelight, a smaller Swedish studio that previously collaborated with Starbreeze Studios on Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It's an adventure game, similar in style to the Telltale Games titles or Life Is Strange. For a smaller studio, Hazelight has crafted a fairly high fidelity experience, with significant motion capture work forming the basis of A Way Out's good looks.
"We are a small team. We have a crazy amount of content and animation. I'm doing the mocap myself, mocapping every weekend," says A Way Out director Josef Fares.
"There are maybe 400 animations just for that," Fares says, pointing to an action cinematic. "And I did all of them. It's over in two minutes! That's all for [the player] to have a good experience."
A Way Out is Fares' passion project. In my demo with the game, you can tell that Fares is excited to finally show off his work. As he talks about A Way Out, he's fairly animated, speaking rapidly about everything that's gone into the game. He thumps his chest when he talks about "emotion", which he feels is what A Way Out is really about.
What folks readily noticed at the EA press event wasn't the emotion though, it was the presentation and execution. Where A Way Out leaves behind other adventure games is in the play. The game is entirely a cooperative experience, whether that's in local play or online. A Way Out tells the story of Leo and Vincent, two men in prison that have to work together for their freedom. One player controls the hot-headed and impulsive Leo, while the other occupies the older, wiser Vincent.
Fares walks me and a fellow journalist through one of the scenes in A Way Out: Leo and Vincent pulling off a small robbery on a gas station. I control Vincent, a fairly simple experience as A Way Out consists of movement via the analog stick and an interaction button. The co-op starts from the jump, with Leo and Vincent discussing who gets to use the only gun they have. Leo feels like a bad idea to me - dude seems unstable - so my gaming partner and I jointly decide to give the gun to Vincent.
"Normally, you're used to having you make your own choices, but we want players to talk on the couch. You have to talk to each other," says Fares.
As we walk into the gas station, A Way Out switches to a 50/50 split-screen. Each player can mill about the inside of the gas station, talking to patrons and picking up items off the shelf. My partner gets in an argument with one patron, while I convince another that the grocery store down the road has cheaper prices in an effort to minimize the folks involved in the robbery. It works. I also sabotage the phone on the wall, just in case someone decides to be brave.
Since I have the gun, I'm the one to kick off the robbery. Since my contribution to the story is stronger, the 50/50 splitscreen shifts to a 60/30 version. I lose control in a scripted cutscene, as Vincent yells at the gas station attendant. At the same time, Leo can still move around and interact. My partner chooses to yell at the remaining patron, telling them to stay down.
I break into the back room to take money from the gas station safe, but I'm attacked by the manager. Leo comes to my aid, punching the manager out. I head to the safe, but we don't have the combination. My partner is threatening the gas station attendant, but they say they don't know the combination. I'm about to come up front to help - I do have a gun - but finally the attendant breaks and gives us the combination. As I enter in the combo, I take over most of the splitscreen. Then we have the money and we're out. A grand heist.
There are a number of ways it could've gone. Another pair may not have sabotaged the phone. Leo threatening one of the additional patrons means that guy wasn't bold enough to rush out and yell for the cops. The second patron might've thrown another wrench in the situation. A Way Out is about talking over your decisions and working things out... together.
The important thing about the splitscreen system is that one player is always interacting with the game. One may be watching a scripted sequence, but the other is free to impact the scene or simply mess around. "It's super important to us to keep you interacting at all times," says Fares.
A Way Out is more than just heists like this. There's a significant portion of the game involving Leo and Vincent escaping from prison. There are huge action scenes and chases. There's sneaking. Sometimes there's just quiet discussion.
"The whole essence and design of the game - I can tell you that you have not ever played anything like it before. Play it from beginning to end, and you will love it," touts Fares. "Without saying anything, when you finish this, you will understand that this game will fuck with your minds."
A Way Out seems a departure from Brothers, but Fares insists that what lies at the heart of the experience is the same. "What is there is the heart and the emotional connection," he says. That same heart was behind the game's development."
"I do the game I want to play. At Hazelight, we never make a decision based on sales. It's the heart that decides. If it's not pumping, we don't give a fuck. It's the passion, that's what's important," says Fares.
We'll see if A Way Out makes a similar connection with players when it launches on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in early 2018.