Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Hybrid is a cover shooter.
"So?" I hear you exclaim as you lazily skim this review out of the corner of your eye while watching the last days of the Olympics. "There are literally billions of those. That tells me nothing about the game. What a pointless thing to say."
You misunderstand me. Hybrid isn't a third person shooter that happens to feature cover mechanics, it's a multiplayer cover shooter. You'll spend the entirety of the game glued to a selection of barriers placed around the levels, with no ability to walk or even move away from them save a jetpack... which you can only use to fly to another piece of cover in what's essentially a short rail shooting section. Though Hybrid offers a number of 3v3 multiplayer gametypes set in the context of a epic battle for Earth, the entire thing boils down to huddling in cover, shooting over cover and choosing, well, which piece of cover to crouch behind.
This might sound like a profoundly horrible idea on paper, but the creators of Scribblenauts have actually managed to make it work - and make it fun.
Once you've chosen to join either the Human Paladin or Variant factions (more on why that matters later) and picked one of six fairly standard gametypes including deathmatch and king of the hill variations, you'll be thrown into a three-on-three battle against an opposing team. You'll start anchored to a piece of cover (with the option to strafe along its length, vault onto the other side, blindfire over the top or peek out for more accurate shots), and can fly between pre-set cover spots by simply pointing at a distant wall and pressing A. Doing so activates your jetpack and hurtles you towards your destination, during which you can exert a small degree of control over your flightpath, shoot at foes or select another cover location before you land. Pressing B retreats you back to your last safe haven, and that's basically your lot. While you'll occasionally find yourself loitering out of cover when multiple teammates share the same roost, it's a slick and intuitive concept that leads to some satisfying and pleasingly brief matches.
These mechanics, coupled with the small team size, forces players to really think about cover rather than taking it for granted. Each compact map offers a neat mix of cover locations, some of which are placed on walls or even ceilings, making choosing the right spot absolutely paramount. Flanking enemies and collaborating with teammates to set up overwatch is literally the entire point of the game, all while ensuring that your position never becomes compromised. Closing with enemies results in desperate bundles, while flying out of cover too early can result in disaster. The net effect is a dynamic and tense game of cat and mouse as you dart in and out of engagement range or relocate to new vantage points; not quite as engaging as a well-tooled FPS, but far more mobile than its static premise would suggest.
A perfectly-balanced arsenal of unlockable weapons and perks adds a surprising amount of depth to the proceedings. Your choice of firearm will drastically alter the way you play (snipers will skulk while shotgunners brazenly attempt to force the issue, using killstreak-activated robot drones to hide their advance), while perks can boost damage, defence, provide secondary weapons or even extend buffs to teammates.
It's worth noting that Hybrid would very much like you to spend Microsoft Points on premium currency to unlock weapons and perks, but it's less aggressive at monetizing than most. Advancement is relatively fast, the weapon selection is well-balanced and an experience-boosting perk is unlocked from the very start. Unless you really want a new helmet, there's little reason to splash out more than the 1200 MSP asking price.
So, Hybrid is fun and mechanically solid, but this wasn't really enough. 5th Cell clearly knew that Hybrid needed to offer more to elevate it above the enormous amount of shooters on the market, not to mention the slew of fantastic free to play options on PC, and thus attempted to integrate their vision into an overarching war for global domination. The Human and Variant factions are locked in a race to secure 100 samples of dark matter, which can be won by winning a certain number of games in dozens of territories around the world. Players can choose which zones and continents to deploy into, furthering their faction's cause and unlocking a few minor buffs in the process. Once either side wins 100 samples worldwide, they win, and the season will restart, thus attempting to inspire players to fight for more than just experience and win/loss statistics.
Sadly, it doesn't really work. Hybrid falls prey to a common issue with the genre: the premise isn't actually explored through gameplay.
It's the same criticism I levelled at Gotham City Impostors, amongst others. The epic battle for supremacy against two bitter rivals only really exists in the intro cutscene and menus, but the game itself is just another multiplayer shooter, with objectives that make no sense in context. If we're fighting a global war, why aren't we assaulting bases, raiding Dark Matter caches or sabotaging enemy emplacements instead of arbitrarily killing a certain number of players in a small arena or holding position in a barren empty facility? Why, even though we're playing on a different continents, are we running into exactly the same levels?
Tailoring the gameplay experience to fit your premise isn't impossible or even difficult to achieve, with titles like Monday Night Combat and Section 8 providing perfect downloadable examples. This constant suspension of disbelief makes the overarching battle difficult to care about or invest in, essentially relegating it to a way of getting a free hat (or paper bag if your side loses the season). Some updates about the status of the war and what it means for the citizens of the Earth would have helped the battle to carry more emotional weight, and it's unlikely to hook players much past the end of the first season.
My other major criticism lies with the art direction, which resembles a grab bag of Sci-Fi design elements randomly jumbled together into an incoherent mess. Incredibly generic character designs suffer worst of all, especially the drab Paladin grunts who tick off every space marine cliche on the list, and it's difficult to know why their designs weren't based around the jet pack. Since combat revolves around flying between cover, you'd expect soldiers to look radically different to ground-based troops (sporting battle dress designed to be streamlined and aerodynamic) but even the white-armoured Variants essentially look like repurposed synths from Mass Effect. Speaking of Mass Effect, 5th Cell merrily apes BioWare's franchise with breathtaking impertinence - to the point where several weapons might as well carry the N7 logo - but fails to tie it into a coherent aesthetic. Neither gritty nor fantastical, neither stylised nor realistic, neither colourful nor minimalist, Hybrid fails to impress from a visual standpoint despite its 60 FPS Source-powered graphics. To illustrate, I'd invite you to try and look at the above screenshot for more than ten seconds without getting confused or bored senseless.
Without an interesting world to fight in or a unique aesthetic to enjoy, Hybrid never quite states the case for its 1200 point RRP compared to any number of free to play games, cheaper alternatives or retail multiplayer suites. Its gameplay is solid enough to warrant a recommendation, but I fear that 5th Cell may need to look to the PC and a freemium pricing model to ensure that the player base survives beyond a few months.
- Surprisingly dynamic and exciting cover-based gameplay
- Well-balanced maps, weapons and perks
- Deceptively deep and addictive progression
- Fails to properly explain or capitalise on its world domination conceit
- Uninspiring, derivative and confused art direction
- Similar, even superior experiences abound, many of which are free to play
The Short Version: Against all odds, Hybrid refines cover shooting into a fun, dynamic and versatile gameplay experience. With so many worthwhile alternatives to consider, however, (many of which are more imaginative, addictive and free on PC) I'd urge you to use all of the trial 60 minutes before unlocking the full version.
As with all XBLA multiplayer shooters, we'd also advise you to get involved fast and hard if Hybrid grabs you. Downloadable multiplayer communities often wither very quickly on the service, so make the most of the honeymoon period.