By the Smouldering Ruins of Australia!
5th Cell has made a name on producing innovative titles combining traditional gameplay with player-driven creativity, with titles like Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life. With Hybrid, they enter the competitive market of online shooters but without sacrificing their trademark innovation.
On the face of it, Hybrid is an online, cover-based third-person shooter. Caleb Arseneaux, producer at 5th Cell, mentioned that when they first showed the game at GDC 2011, it had a more traditional cover-based mechanic, running from cover to cover. Here instead, a lot of the fun and innovation in the current build of Hybrid comes from the automated jetpack. And, boy, does that change the game.
Using the targeting reticule, you pick your next section of cover and launch towards it. While flying, you can fire your weapon, but you slow down when aiming down the sight or when hit, making it easier to be killed mid-air. Luckily, Hybrid has two panic buttons: One boosts you towards your next section of cover, and the other drops you back to your previous cover (but only once).
Mid-flight, you can also easily change to a new area of cover, which will change your flight direction. Additionally while in flight, you have limited control over position, so you can weave or dodge to a limited degree. The jetpack also allows for the player latch onto cover on the walls and ceilings, making for gameplay that isn’t tied to two dimensions. It reminds me of what Dark Void tried, with more limited success, in some of its shooting sections.
The maps are small and open and well-balanced for 3-on-3 combat. Since they are mostly built in large, open loops, it makes camping virtually impossible. Stay in one place too long, and someone will come around the bend and shoot you in the back. This makes fights quick, as you rarely have to go far to enter combat after respawning.
Killstreaks are huge in Hybrid. At different points after killing a certain number of enemies, you are granted the ability to call drones to the field. The longer the killstreak, the more powerful the drone, up to one that looked to me like a cyborg female ninja. The drones attack with you and provide cover fire, even continuing to function after the player is killed.
The story background provides a nice framework for the game. The failure of a Hadron Supercollider experiment opens a rift to an alternate dimension, setting up the conflict between the human Paladins and the alien Variants. The world is divided into zones of contention, and Arseneaux scrolls down from Southeast Asia to show me the smoldering burning ruins of Australia (Arseneaux is quick to point out that 5th Cell has nothing against gamers down under; I guess we can just blame the Australian physicists for bad calculations?).
Individual zones, in their continent or subcontinent regions, are decided by the outcome of each battle. However, it’s not just the winning or losing that matter, but the individual points scored by the players which move a sliding bar towards the goal, represented by a sphere of dark matter on the area screen. Each zone also has area specific goals that can net the player more points (like five kills in a row with an SMG, etc). This contributes to the overall world-score between the Paladin and Variant factions, a war that ends when all the zones have been won by a side. Arseneaux says they’re calling each World War an “epoch” and expects them to last two-to-four weeks.
Leveling up grants perks and special weapons or ammo types that will help with customization. Arseneaux showed me one on the loadout screen called “Hack”, a grenade that turns drones against their masters. He tells me this is especially useful when enemies are turtling to protect one specific location. Another perk allows you to re-up other player’s perks, which increases the level of strategy in the three-on-three battles.
Hybrid is shaping up into a fun, well-balanced third-person online shooter for Xbox Live Arcade with a well executed, innovative concept. It’s slated for release this summer and is currently in Beta.