5th Cell has achieved mega success by ditching licensed mobile titles for the potential gaming gold that is original IP. Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts showed a reinvigorated studio keen to make its mark by using new technologies (and the DS stylus) to broaden the appeal of gaming. It therefore came as surprise to find out that the studio was working on an XBLA exclusive multiplayer shooter, but after all, why not?
Hybrid wins initial praise because it is a downloadable title and therefore much cheaper than a full release like Brink. The question is, can it possibly compete with established heavy hitters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Halo: Reach? The key to the Hybrid experience is that it uses the trappings of these titles (upgradable levels, unlockable abilities etc) but has them be fast paced with only six players on a small map. Each session guarantees a blast of fun, with an emphasis on speed and special abilities.
Hybrid places all of these sessions within the context of mining the planet for dark matter. Variants (alien invaders) and Paladins (the humans) fight for the precious substance across multiple sessions. The more kills, strategic shots and bonuses your race earns, the closer it comes to claiming that region’s dark matter. On first impressions, it seems more important that it really is, but at least it gives you the feeling of belonging to a bigger group of gamers. Clever.
The game uses a simple cover mechanic and mixes it with limited movement. Rather than travelling freely around a map, you move directly between strategically placed cover areas, with each point being separate but clearly in view of other positions. You can walk around and jump over each cover point, but you’re only able to travel to other areas by way of a quick jetpack flight. Initially this seems awkward (rather like playing a shooter where you can’t jump), but 5th Cell has made sure that the movement mechanic is central to how you play.
All maps are compact and provide variations on the same cover points. Some prevent movement in certain directions, or have ceiling cover, but the central idea remains the same. A quick button press will see you fly to the next area, retreat swiftly or even bound over cover to avoid fire. Most of the time you’ll be aiming and keeping an eye out for other players. Never stay still for too long. Hybrid is all about moving fast and flanking the enemy before they can do the same to you. Goodbye camping.
You have access to the standard sci-fi arsenal, with assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, snipers etc, with improved versions unlockable as you gain experience and level up. Most interesting are the gains made from kills in each session, as you are rewarded with robotic assistants to improve your firepower. These block your enemies’ lines of sight and can actually make an offensive impact as well, but they are easy to destroy. Getting a good kill streak going allows you to supply instant death to an adversary by way of a robot samurai assassin.
Put in the hours and you’ll be rewarded with better weapons and more special abilities. Experienced players sometimes attack in close quarters with a shield, hack enemy robots or lob a grenade towards the cover that you’re fleeing towards. This does make it harder for beginners, but the game is easy to learn and continually fun to play. The rapid pace and close quarters mean you can’t hide or survive for very long. Not only that, it keeps you coming back for more.
Graphically, the game is quite unimaginative as most maps are set in a generic space/factory/industrial area and character models are virtually indistinguishable from each other (though oddly enough you can upgrade your appearance too). Most of the time, you’ll be shooting at the coloured text above your enemies and hoping that you hit them. On the plus side, the low graphical intensity allows for a very fast and smooth frame rate, which is ideal.
The only major gripe you’re likely to have is the inordinate amount of waiting in lobbies you will do as the game searches for online matches. There are actually plenty of players online and many sessions to choose from on the map, but the load times are atrocious. After playing for several hours, you’ll realise that you’ve spent most of that of the time waiting. It’s that bad. This probably isn’t a game breaker, but it is certainly a major point of frustration and it would be surprising if a patch can fix it.
Hopefully Hybrid maintains a sizable presence in the months to come and possibly even inspires more games like it. The latest effort from 5th Cell can join Monday Night Combat and Battlefield 1943 and hold its head high. Until it gets sniped, that is.