Hybrid Review: When Scribblenauts Attack!

Developer 5th Cell is best known for fun, family-friendly games like Drawn to Life, Lock’s Quest, and the truly innovative Scribblenauts. So it was quite the surprise when they announced their next project would be a violent third-person shooter, with Maxwell going postal after collecting one too many of those damn starites. Well, not quite (though that would be awesome); instead, they have created the sci-fi-themed Hybrid, featuring unique cover and mobility mechanics that differentiate it from the crowded shooter genre.

Platforms: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: 5th Cell
Genre: Third-Person Shooter… in Space… Literally
Release Date: August 8, 2012
ESRB Rating: Teen

Hybrid takes place in 2032 as the human Paladins battle against the invading alien Variants – and so goes one of the shortest stories in gaming history. But as with many shooters, the “story” is just a throwaway excuse for blasting other players in the face. What sets Hybrid apart is the interesting way in which you move about the battlefield.

Similar to Gears of War, you take cover behind barriers and can pop up to shoot down your sights, or spray and pray with blind fire. However, you can only move from one designated cover point to another via jetpacks – you don’t have full freedom of movement like in your typical shooter. In other words, you’re basically “stuck” to cover points, and can only move to another point if it is highlighted in your reticle; if it’s not, you can’t go there.

It sounds horribly restrictive, but it actually works quite well – you don’t feel boxed in even though you are severely limited in where you can go. You can move along your cover barrier, flip back and forth over each side, and select a new destination while in mid-air. You can also strafe while in flight and initiate a brief speed boost, which allows you to take evasive maneuvers when you’re most vulnerable. What’s really cool is you can stick to cover points on the walls and even the ceiling, which can be both disorienting (it takes a few seconds to get your bearings when you’re hanging like a bat) and rewarding (blasting opponents who are only paying attention to stuff on the ground).

Your first kill will unlock a helpful bot that stays with you and shoots where you shoot. Three kills unlocks a bot that will actively seek out enemies, and five unlocks a robotic ninja that can instakill an opponent. So not only do you have to watch out for human players, but their bots as well. This makes for some surprisingly frenetic action despite being limited to only 3v3 multiplayer.

You can also activate special abilities like grenades, extra damage or health, bot hacking, or temporary markers that highlight enemy positions. This last ability is extremely useful since the 10 maps are quite large (most could easily accommodate at least double the players) and it’s easy to lose awareness of your surroundings in the three-dimensional battle space.

With all of these features combined, it’s easy to see that 5th Cell has created a fun and interesting shooter. It can take a while to get used to the different cover and mobility mechanics, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be a jetpacking killing machine. Strategic use of the bots and your abilities can turn the tide of battle, and as in all shooters, teamwork is a must.

Gametypes include variations of the standard Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. You can select one of three randomly generated challenges before each match (for example, getting five kills with a specific weapon), which will reward you with bonus XP if you successfully complete it. Earning XP unlocks new weapons, abilities and helmets, but unlike most games where the rewards are unlocked in a predetermined order, you can choose your reward. This is should help reduce any advantages higher-level players may have, but there are still overpowered weapons and abilities that can only be unlocked at higher levels.

Each match takes place within a bigger, persistent world war. You can select your battle space on a Risk-like world map, with each “country” showing how well your selected faction is doing. Once a faction has conquered a particular country, that battle space is locked out to encourage players to move on to fresh new grounds.

The only downside is that Hybrid is online multiplayer only; there is no single player campaign, and no bots fill in empty player slots. This means the game will live and die on player participation, so hopefully it will enjoy strong community support.

Hybrid is fun and different – yet you can’t help but get a feeling of same ol’, same ol’. Yes, the unique cover mechanics work well; yes, fighting on the walls and ceiling is fun; and yes, battles can get pretty intense. But despite a commendable effort to make the gameplay different, the setting is still “generic sci-fi shooter,” making it look and feel no different from a hundred other space shooters out there. With 5th Cell’s strong history of creating interesting, cartoony worlds, it’s quite disappointing to see such a bland, unoriginal sci-fi setting.

This is too bad, because a more interesting setting would have really made Hybrid stand out from the crowd. Think about it: Team Fortress 2 is essentially a standard class-based shooter, but a unique visual style and interesting weapons have turned it into a modern-day classic. And would Borderlands be as popular if it maintained its original, realistic art style?

I think 5th Cell really missed a great opportunity by not creating a unique setting and crazy, outlandish weapons. Sure, the solid gameplay and cover mechanics are what really matter, but a cool, fun atmosphere would have really put it over the top. Still, Hybrid is an enjoyable and interesting twist on the cover shooter, and is definitely worth a look.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Hybrid was provided by Microsoft Studios for the purposes of this review.

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