This week’s Summer of Live Arcade title, Hybrid, is something of a strange beast. It’s a shooter in a market overflowing with them, but manages to stand out by being unique in a number of important ways. It’s also developed by 5th Cell, the creators of Scribblenauts – not exactly the first team that would come to mind when you imagine potential third person shooter developers. 5th Cell’s inexperience in the shooter genre turns out to be both a blessing and a curse depending on how you look at it, and as a result, Hybrid will likely prove to be a very divisive game.
Hybrid’s story involves the implosion of a massive hadron collider in Australia. The disaster not only wiped out the entire continent, but it spawned a new race of humans called The Variants who are invading the rest of the world. The Paladins, meanwhile, are normal humans tasked with fighting the Variants. Both sides of the conflict are after dark matter, which was created when the collider imploded, and serves as the driving force behind this global conflict.
The story provides an adequate backdrop for the game’s global war scenario. In order to enter matchmaking, you must first select a region of the world, or district, to fight for. Once a district has been claimed by one faction or the other, you can no longer fight there, and the winning faction is awarded that district’s allotment of dark matter. You can see how close each district is to being conquered before you select it, and some districts where the competition is fierce are labeled as Hotzones, which will grant bonus XP. Each district also has a particular specialization, but more on that later.
While the global war serves as an interesting backdrop for Hybrid, the gameplay is what really counts. At its very core, Hybrid is a third person, cover-based shooter with a heavy emphasis on flight, but don’t go thinking this is Gears of War with jetpacks. Where Hybrid really sets itself apart is in its controls and the way it handles cover-to-cover movement. I’ll do my best to explain it here, but Hybrid is one of those games you really just have to play for yourself to truly “get” it.
You have two states of existence in this game – in flight, or behind cover. There is no in between, no ground-based movement of any kind except for strafing back and forth while behind cover. Pointing your targeting reticule at nearby cover and tapping the A button will send you on a flight path toward that cover. While you’re flying, you can move around and aim down your sights, thereby slowing you down to allow for better aim. You can also press the B button to automatically retreat to the cover you just came from, or select another piece of cover mid-flight to redirect your flight path. Meanwhile, tapping the Y button during flight will dictate whether you land on the near or far side of cover. You’ve also got a short speed boost you can use once per flight to help get you out of harm’s way. Oh, and did I mention that sometimes cover is located on a ceiling or wall?
Hybrid’s definitely got a bit of a learning curve to it. After all, it’s not every day a game challenges you to forget most of what you know about an established genre. Once you get the hang of how it works, however, you’ll be zipping around at high speed and scoring jump-jet kills like a pro. It also helps that you’ve got a pretty decent selection of weapons and abilities – some more traditional than others – at your disposal.
You’ve got a standard assortment of assault rifles, SMGs, shotguns and the like, along with more unique and specialized weapons. The Swarmer is an example of one of these less conventional types – basically, it fires a large energy ball that sticks to cover, forcing your enemies to either relocate or face certain death. My weapon of choice, however, is the S10 Auto-Assault Shotgun. It’s the default shotgun, and boy does it haul ass. In fact, it may actually be too powerful. In the proper hands, that shotgun in particular can turn a player into a one man wrecking crew. I mean just look at that score!
In addition to your weapon selection, there are a number of abilities and specializations to choose from. Abilities must be activated manually and come in a number of flavors – offensive, defensive, team support, and enhancement. They range from fairly basic abilities like an overshield, grenades, or high-impact bullets, to more situational abilities like teleport, hacking, or team healing.
Along with your weapon and ability, you’ll choose a specialization before each match. These grant you additional bonuses, such as increased weapon damage, bonus XP, or increased armor, just to name a few. Each district on the map is tied to one of these specializations, and picking the specialization that corresponds with the district you’re fighting for will grant you further bonuses. Each specialization can also be leveled up over time as you stick with one district or another.
The final wrinkle to Hybrid’s gameplay are the attack drones, which serve as your kill streak rewards. First up is the Stalker, which stays by your side and ducks behind cover with you. The Warbringer, meanwhile, is a slow, hulking behemoth that roams around the map looking for victims. Finally, the Preyon is the stuff of nightmares. It’s basically a heat seaking, single use, insta-kill missile that shrieks like a banshee before pouncing on its hapless victim. You can fight them off if you’re quick, but chances are you aren’t quick enough.
If you’re thinking all of this is a lot to wrap your head around, you’re not alone. I wasn’t kidding when I said Hybrid’s got a bit of a learning curve to it, but the trial version’s time limit of one hour is really all the time it takes to become proficient at the game. The learning curve is by no means insurmountable, it’s just a bit steeper than the Call of Duties and the Battlefields of the world today.
As for game modes, Hybrid has six to choose from – Artifact, Team Deathmatch, Overlord, King of the Hill, Crazy Kings, and Tactics. Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill should be obvious enough, and Crazy Kings is just King of the Hill with a hill that relocates every 30 seconds. Artifact tasks you with capturing and holding an item, gaining one point per second while your team is in possession of it. Overlord mode designates one player as an Overlord, who then becomes the only person capable of increasing the team’s score. Finally, Tactics is a best 4 out of 7 competition in which teams take turns attempting to bomb or defend a particular objective. None of the game’s modes really stand out above the others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. They’re all pretty solid, if somewhat unremarkable.
As Hybrid is solely a multiplayer game, it’s necessary to point out the flaws in its online functionality. First and foremost, matchmaking is spotty at best and there are no options to dictate the sort of players with whom you’ll actually connect. You’ll frequently be thrown into games with players who are a higher or lower level than yourself, often resulting in lopsided match ups. Then there’s the fact that matchmaking just plain takes forever sometimes. Things aren’t as bad now as they were at launch, however. It was a full day before the game really worked at all, and things were so bad at one point that Microsoft pulled the game from Xbox Live entirely in order to fix the issue. If I had to guess, I’d say a combination of 5th Cell’s inexperience with multiplayer games combined with Microsoft’s decision to let the game pass certification in spite of its problems (because they’d already scheduled it as part of the Summer of Live Arcade) led to the server situation.
Hybrid is ultimately a game with a ton of potential, though not all of it is currently being realized. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how 5th Cell supports the game post-launch – whether they’ll add new modes, weapons, maps, and other fixes remains to be seen. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the game will live or die by its community, and it is every bit in 5th Cell’s best interest to maintain the community with frequent updates. With any luck, the game’s sheer fun factor will be enough to make people forget about the botched launch and keep them playing for the foreseeable future.
Hybrid was released on August 8th, 2012 for Xbox 360 at a price of 1200 Microsoft Points ($15).