When it was first announced that 5th Cell, the developer behind Scribblenauts, was making a new game, the last thing I thought they were going to make was an online-only third-person shooter. I thought maybe there would be some kind of Xbox LIVE friendly game that used grammar or punctuation as a mainstay of the gameplay. Turns out life is unpredictable, and one facet of this truth is that 2012’s competitive-focused Summer of Arcade offering is the new game Hybrid, and it was developed by 5th Cell.
Players will take on other Xbox Live Gold Members in three-on-three matches with the backdrop of a grand new World War. In this game, sometime in the near future a Hadron Supercollider is constructed in Australia. As one might imagine in a video game, this does not merely create the second most expensive piece of lab equipment on Earth to further man’s understanding of the origins of the universe; instead things go sideways as they often do in works of fancy. The down-under atom smasher implodes, sending the world into chaos and somehow merges our world with that of the strange beings from a parallel reality called Variants who go about invading Lansing, Oslo and elsewhere. Their world thrown into disarray, the Paladins of humanity fight back to gain dark cores of dark matter to right the world. It’s a bit like the later episodes of Lexx, with fewer lecherous robot heads and more jetpacks. A more than fair exchange.
Unfortunately, none of this back story matters. There is a short voice-over intro before a prompt to select the side you will be shooting for, but that is about it. In other games all this setting might be a nice place for a single player campaign, or a way to justify dozens of online battles, but in Hybrid it is just window dressing. About the only clear impact the World War will have on your play will be whether you choose to play as the Variants, which have a vaguely futuristic/plastic look to their armor, or the Paladins, which look like SWAT dudes with jetpacks. When I started up the game it offered a level bonus for joining the human side, but I imagine that this will be a fluctuating mechanic to help balance the amount of new blood going to each faction. There are other minor perks associated with the World War concept present, but as it all looks like a dark version of Risk, it is difficult to get excited about anything. Since the maps all stay the same no matter what region or continent you select to fight in, the fighting does not feel global. Players’ contributions to the cause are the xp points they earn for getting headshots, kills, assists, etc, which are used to level up a character and are matched in a side’s pool. To win the War, one side basically has to accumulate more experience points faster than the other. With tens of thousands of players involved, all on the same server, it does not feel like your contributions to the cause ever matter.
What will matter is the unique way that you control your alien/human’s movement. This game is a distillation of Gear of War–it retains only the Stop and Pop gameplay that made Epic’s gritty shooter great, and removes all of the random movement. Each round begins with all of one side ducking for cover behind a waist-high wall. From there, like any member of Delta Squad, the shooters can blind fire out of cover or pull the left trigger to aim with precision (and leave themselves open to enemy fire). But since there usually is no one to shoot from the starting cover position, those guys might want to move out of cover. The only way to do that is to highlight a visible piece of cover, virtually always a low wall, and then hit a button to fly over to that piece of cover. If you watch a trailer for this game and see mostly people dashing all over the place with jetpacks and killing other flying men in the air or raining death from above, it is because that is the only way to move, flying directly from one platform to the next. Players can slightly adjust their position up and down or left and right while flying or can do a short boost to get there quicker, but largely are exposed targets on a set path while in the air. It is possible to shoot and kill opponents while aloft but it is not a common occurrence. More often than not, if someone is in the air and another is shielded by one of the dozens of little walls in a level, only the guy behind the wall will survive.
By taking out the ability to move freely, to move to someplace that is not a cover point, Hybrid forces players to think more tactically. It is possible in other cover-based shooters to run in circles or dash laterally to avoid fire or run up on people before they can get out of cover with a shotgun in your bloody hands, all of which defeats the point of having cover in the first place. Or at least defeats the attempt on the developer’s part to make cover a serious factor in the game. The ideal cover-based game is one where cover is largely a safe place and deciding to move out of it to either rush an opponent snug behind their own little wall or to another place to catch that enemy unaware is a very risky thing to do. 5th Cell has managed to make a cover-based shooter that is completely cover-based. They have achieved the ideal from a mechanics perspective. Forcing players to choose between “in cover” and “not” as the only two states of being is effective in making this game feel very different from other shooters on the market.
While the movement is different, the basic shooting is similar to scores of other games. There is not an Unreal or Ratchet & Clank level of weapon variety, just variants on shotguns, rifles, pistols and a very few sci-fi inspired guns. In addition to shooting and jetting, players will have a rechargeable ability that range from things as commonplace as grenades to the ability to instantly teleport to a piece of cover (deadly with a shotgun in hand) or even team abilities such as giving your two squad mates the ability to see where the enemies are. The game does a good job encouraging experimentation with optional missions that require the use of specifically unlocked abilities or weapons (“Kill 3 Players with Frag Grenades”) in addition to more traditional goals (“Get 5 Headshots”). Completing missions will reward additional experience and eventually an achievement.
Also different from other games is the reward for killstreaks. Killing multiple opponents in a row will net players the ability to summon drones. A player can have one of each type; both sides have the same basic units which look the same to anyone who is color blind and not focusing on the drones for the few slight differences in the designs (the abilities are exactly the same). The first two are little and big gun turrets that float towards the enemy, constantly shooting. The ultimate reward is a robot ninja that will seek the nearest opponent and perform a one-hit kill before teleporting off the map, a job well done. Anytime one of these is spawned a dreadful screech goes with them until they are either shot down or complete their murderous mission, so they are not as cheap as they sound as it is possible to stop them. It might have been nice to have an option to turn these drones off as they can clutter up the battlefield and other than the insta-kill-bot they are not fantastically useful. They are more akin to additional targets and occasionally floating shot blockers if you can time things right.
The environments are detailed and lush sci-fiscapes. Matches can take place nearby massive generators with fat conductive wires coming out of them, across buildings where neon signs are used as cover while squadrons of jets streak overhead. Sometimes cover points are even located on walls or ceilings where players will still be able to secure themselves and remain in the fight. As impressive as the levels are, the characters are equally unimpressive. No matter which side is picked or what cosmetic new helmet is put on him, they will all look more or less the same. Some more personalization options in this area might have helped, because as things stand everyone plays “dude with a jetpack”. A less cool proposition when every soldier is required to have one.
If it was not for the unique mobility constraints, Hybrid would be a forgettable third-person shooter. Those that bought the game when it first came out might remember not being able to get past the “Press Start” screen as the server apparently had some sort of bug preventing connections (5th Cell has stated that the problem is resolved and this particular, app-killing issue should not reappear). While this may no longer matter, it does serve as a reminder that this digital product will not work if there is something wrong on either side of the internet as there is no single player component. The software won’t even start without a verified connection. There is a gradual gear progression that encourages long play sessions, for those with a lot of patience. For those without patience, you can exchange real money for the same unlocks. Kinda cheesy if you’ve paid your fifteen bucks and someone with twenty can automatically be better than you.
While I did not experience a lot of lag when playing, I did notice how long I was spending in menus. To put it to the test, I pulled out the ol’ stopwatch app on my smart phone. Over the course of an hour of play, where I was just jamming the A button to get back into a new match as quickly as possible, I spent 23 minutes not playing the game. It was like watching an hour of primetime when all the advertisements were for LOADING. The problem likely lies in being kicked back to the World War menu after each match and no apparent rematch feature. So after every battle, the game will take its sweet time finding you more guys to fly around with. When another five players are found, the actual load times seem longer than they should for a downloadable game.
Despite its flaws, as I played more of it, I started to like Hybrid quite a bit. The combat is quick and different with enough variety of match types to maintain interest if you should ever want to try something other than Team Deathmatch (which few players online do). However, while it might stay installed on my hard drive as a game to play between more traditional retail game sessions or when I only have the fifteen minutes required to play a jetpack match, it is not going to be my primary go-to online shooter and probably won’t be for anyone else either. It is a well made, small-scale shooter that is difficult to recommend due to long load times and a lack of personality.
+ Unique movement system [which is…]
+ …conducive to more strategic shooting
– Gameplay is interrupted too much by matchmaking and loading
– Ability to buy upgrades feels like paying for cheat codes
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: 5TH Cell
Release Date: 8/8/2012
Genre: Multiplayer Third-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: Online 3-versus-3
Source: Review code provided by publisher