Winding up in prison once could be bad luck, but to embark on an international tour through the justice system takes some real criminal dedication. That’s the life you’re in for in The Escapists 2, which is taking the classic videogame sequel approach of refinement and expansion to its sandbox of slammers.
If you played The Escapists then you’ll recognise the basic structure. Each level in the game is a functioning prison with a scheduled routine that must be followed (unless you enjoy security lock-downs). It’s your task to work around what little freedom you have, using craft, contraband, and criminal confidence to bust out of the big house. Or Wild West fort. Or, apparently, space station.
This preview build had two penitentiaries from which to escape (plus a short tutorial); a revamped and multi-storied Center Perks 2.0 (returning from the first game), and the cowboy-themed Rattlesnake Fort. It also had co-op multiplayer functionality, which is one of the major new additions to The Escapists 2. But I tackled these challenges alone. No prison gang can hold me.
Turns out the prisons themselves can though, because I didn’t quite make it out of either of them. Repeated capture by pixel-art guards, however, taught me plenty about what this sequel changes about The Escapists formula.
Crafting is now a little less obscure. Perhaps realising that hiding the crafting recipes just encouraged everybody to look them up online, the majority are now displayed in-game from the start. The all-important element of figuring out what to actually do with the objects you’ve crafted remains, however, so this feels like a change that pushes the focus away from ‘how do I make wire cutters?’ and towards ‘when and where should I use these wire cutters I’ve just made?’
Some crafting recipes still remain a mystery (a few are blacked out in the UI, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some even more secret ones), but can be revealed by spending money at the prison pay-phone. I’m hoping that’s a call-back to ridiculously expensive 1990s videogame tip lines.
Fortunately, making money in The Escapists 2 is a bit easier as well. Doing tasks for other inmates seems less arduous in this sequel, both because a handy marker appears on the map (this may be a toggle in the final version, the options were a bit unfinished in this build) and because the nature of the tasks is often more straightforward. The daily jobs routine remains in place too, but even if you’re unemployed you’ll get a small stipend for showing up at the desk to be yelled at.
The themed prison levels now seem to each have a unique way to escape. In Center Perks 2.0, for example, there’s a camera crew (and a Louis Theroux-a-like host) wandering around recording for a documentary. It’s very strongly implied that one way out is to impersonate one of the crew, complete with crafted ‘sound equipment’, and stroll out of the front door. The prisons have a few unique objects too; in Rattlesnake Fort you’ll find spurs and sheriff stars.
Of course if you want to go the ‘classic’ route of chipping through a wall with a plastic fork, or digging your way out (and finding a way to dispense with several pockets full of dirt), or putting together a vast collection of fabricated keys swiped from guards, those options all remain in place as well.
A five star security system adds a clear visual indication of the current tension in the prison, and will tick upwards for each infraction. If you miss a bit of exercise in the yard, it’ll creep up by half a star (because nobody cares all that much), but if you miss Roll Call then everything goes into automatic lock-down. Dogs appear when the meter goes above three stars (I think, anyway), and are ruthless at bringing prisoners down.
As with The Escapists, in The Escapists 2 it’s not so much the punishment for being caught that’s a big problem (unlike real life, solitary confinement isn’t a huge issue here), but losing progress and materials. Any contraband found in your pockets when caught doing something wrong is automatically forfeited, which can set you back a long way if you were in the middle of an escape attempt. Autosave was automatically on for this preview build (again, it’s perhaps a toggle at release), which meant no save scumming.
Hiding things, at least, is simpler now. The cell desk has a hidden compartment which can hold six pieces of contraband, seemingly immune to searches. That’s a godsend.
It’s worth noting too that even though I didn’t indulge in any co-op, the maps have co-op specific spots on them. I saw a few doors that required two people to operate (one to hold it open, the other to go inside). These areas all had alternative routes for single player too, so no major worries there.
Based on the pair of levels I played, The Escapists 2 is refining the game’s mechanics in encouraging ways. Removing some of the guess-work from crafting (while retaining a little mystery) makes sense for a sequel, particularly as it was barely a barrier for anybody with access to Google. More ways to quickly make some cash are welcome too, as it shifts the difficulty away from having to scavenge that one piece of missing contraband, and towards utilising your crafted objects in an escape plan. It also means things aren’t completely hopeless if you botch a plot and lose all your stuff; you’ll have the financial means to build back up again.
Co-op multiplayer, though I didn’t partake, seems like a natural way to introduce both cunningly orchestrated plans and utter chaos to the sandbox levels. If The Escapists 2 keeps up the premise of smartly themed maps throughout the whole game, it’ll most likely find another captive audience.
(Not really sorry.)