Developer: 5th Cell Media / Publisher: 5th Cell Media / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00 / ESRB: Teen [Violence]
Most multiplayer games contain what I like to call the “Gears hump.” There’s the game you think it’ll be — in the case of Gears, a cover-based tactical shooter where you have to out-position your enemy to win. Instead, you have to learn all these weird quirks like wall bouncing just so you can avoid getting chain-killed by veterans with a sawed-off. There’s this weird hump you have to overcome before you can play the games that the mechanics imply. Hybrid is the first multiplayer game I’ve experienced that has no hump. By paring down gameplay complexity to a minimalist core, Hybrid is a pure tactical shooter that offers a unique and extremely fun experience.
GAMEPLAY AND MULTIPLAYER
Hybrid’s banner feature is that it removes free movement from the standard cover-based shooter setup. You start each match huddled behind the perennial waist-high wall and you can only move to other waist-high walls on the floor, walls, or ceiling. Simply point in the general direction of the cover you’d like to move to and hit “A” — your robot suit will automatically fly there on it’s own. There are a few other mobility options: you can flip on the other side of your current cover, control your position mid-flight to dodge fire, and return to your previous cover position by hitting “B.” That’s the extent of your mobility though, meaning that you have to maintain tactically superior positioning to get the leg up in battle.
Continuing the “standard but simplified” design trend, you can customize your weapon and ability loadout, but you only get three slots: one gun, one triggered ability that recharges over time, and one stat-boosting specialization. Guns come in typical shotgun / smg / rifle / sniper rifle variants and hold true to the typical tradeoffs between accuracy, damage, and clip size. Abilities add some unique flavor to the game. You start with the typical frag grenade but can exchange it for more exotic abilities like temporary infinite ammo or converting damage into life. Finally, your specialization will give you a buff like increased weapon damage, decreased cooldown time for abilities, etc. Finding a combo of three that works well together is enjoyable, and you can find some real depth in the game when you factor in that each member of the game’s three man teams can equip different abilities and use them in concert.
Just based on the combat alone, Hybrid is an enjoyable and inventive shooter, but the meta-game surrounding your matches is the real carrot on the stick that keeps you playing. The game revolves around a war between the invading alien Variant and the defending human Paladins as they compete for Dark Matter. Before playing a match, you must first pick a zone to fight in and a personal mission to accomplish during the match — something like “Get a kill streak of 3” or “Get 5 kills with the frag grenade.” Accomplish the mission and you get bonus XP, and all XP earned by both sides contributes to a tally to control the zone. First faction to control the zone gets a bonus of Dark Matter, and the first side to reach 100 Dark Matter wins the season and gets a reward, reminiscent of PlanetSide or Red Alert 2. Not only do the personal missions give you a short-term goal every match, but you also work towards global conquest.
However, Hybrid is multiplayer-only, which means there are a handful of nigh-unavoidable problems. Once you pick your mission and preferred game type, the game tries to find you a match. Depending on the zone you’re fighting in, this search can take a handful of minutes. Given that individual matches rarely last more than ten minutes each, these lengthy breaks measurably add up. I’ve also had some random lag issues, but aside from that the experience is remarkably smooth. It’s not without issue, but still far more stable and enjoyable than most multiplayer-focused experiences at launch.
Hybrid controls extremely well, mostly thanks to the super-simplification of the gameplay. Visual prompts make it easy to tell what’s going on — even little touches like turning the grenade ribbon a different color to indicate that it will fall behind a piece of cover or in front of it. I especially like that you can tap the “swap cover” button to change on what side of cover you’ll land on in mid-flight, making it very easy to land exactly where you want.
VISUALS AND SOUND
The in-game visuals in Hybrid are solid but not spectacular. The maps offer some good visual variety, taking place on half-finished skyscrapers and deep inside pulsing energy reactors. The Variant and Paladin are less unique, both visual permutations on the standard glossy metal power suits that we’ve seen since Metroid. Presentation is Hybrid’s real visual success. Every menu is easy to navigate, and it presents experience bars with such finesse that sometime watching numbers climb is reward enough.
The game’s soundtrack is so Tron: Legacy that I can’t think of another way to describe it. It’s the same dour orchestral music cut with glitchy electronica and thumping percussion. This is by no means a complaint; Tron: Legacy’s soundtrack is unimpeachable. Hybrid’s take on it is also good, but a few hours in the menu music started wearing thin and I’d end up streaming music from my collection.
By removing peripheral complexities, Hybrid focuses completely on what makes, or should make cover-based shooters fun. It reminds me a lot of NBA Jam — not in the sense that you’ll pull of crazy tomahawk dunks as a futuristic mech soldier, but in that it creates basic, tight, and rewarding experiences by focusing on a few core gameplay mechanics. All that, and it’s a hell of a deal by providing a tighter multiplayer experience than most retail games. If you want to give your tactics an exercise and leave the twitch gaming to the hyper-caffeinated, look no further than Hybrid.