"Innovative" is a word marketers and developers try to sell us often, but it's rare to find a game—particularly within the shooter genre—which deserves the label. Hybrid is an exception, but it takes more than a novel idea to craft an engaging, worthwhile experience.
Hybrid is a third person cover-based shooter developed by 5th Cell, the folks behind Scribblenauts. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where two warring factions, the Paladins and the Variants, compete for the control of dark matter. As the name might suggest, the Variants are the part of the population that has been infected with an alien bacteria that was bundled inside of an asteroid. The Paladin, meanwhile, are those who are immune to the pathogen.
Dark matter is a resource is so precious that global war breaks out, but players have the ability to contest and win individual zones for their faction. Every battle and capture helps in the overall conflict, which I think is an interesting concept. If a faction does well enough in a zone, they are awarded dark matter. The first faction to reach 100 pieces of dark matter wins the season.
Naturally, though, the win is short-lived because war must go on, else there's no game! Still, the spoils of war are special items and an achievement, both of which acknowledge a faction's seasonal dominance.
When you first start Hybrid, it will ask you to choose between the two teams. There is no context given for which side might appeal to a player. However, one of the factions grants an XP and level bonus, and, after resetting a few times, it became obvious that the game picked which team would receive this bonus at random—which doesn't help with the feeling that your choice is meaningless and arbitrary.
There is not much of a reason to pass on the choice that rewards you for picking it, unless you have strong feelings on the innate superiority of colors. I went with red, the Variants. Red is a color that exudes the idea of power, right?
Players can outfit their characters with both cosmetic customization, like helmets, as well as gameplay-affecting loadouts. Loadouts dictate weapons, special abilities (like grenades or teleportation) as well as specializations (stat boosts, like extra XP gain or higher attack power). As you progress in levels, more loadout options are available for unlock...or you can buy them. Yep, Hybrid features microtransactions. Your faction might not matter, but your money definitely does.
Match-choice is not unlike other shooters: you've got your team deathmatch, and your king of the hill, for instance. Also available are challenges like those found in Halo Reach—say, having to kill a certain number of enemies in a match, or having to reach a certain number of headshots. Completing these challenges gives players an extra chunk of XP, but the challenges aren't particularly creative or difficult.
So far, Hybrid sounds like nothing special. What sets it apart, though, is how it embraces limitations to create an experience unlike any other cover-based shooter. Gone is the ability to move freely. Instead, Hybrid uses what 5th Cell calls "Combat Focused Movement." This design revolves entirely around cover: when a player is stationary, they are attached to cover as if a magnet. Players can use a jetpack to move from cover to cover, and during that transition, you have the opportunity to strafe, aim and shoot.
Gears of War might have popularized the cover-based shooter, but Hybrid feels like the first game I've played the entirely revolves around cover. Without it, players are pretty much dead—the design makes players so hesitant to move, that those brave enough to leave safety immediately get shot down by more patient players. Showdowns tend to consist of teams eying each other from across the map, waiting for someone to make a move. Smart players will wait and shoot down more brash players.
The intent was to make Hybrid a game that focused heavily on movement and positioning, hopefully creating a more tactical game. It's a design mandate that isn't realized. This is mostly due to the shoddy map design, which feels too stripped down for its own good. At any given time, players can reach up to two other positions of cover, sometimes three. Typically, this means you can either move toward your enemy—a choice I wouldn't recommend—or you can circle around the map and hope they haven't moved so that you can sneak up behind them. If they're smart, they'll have moved.
The design was meant to avoid ‘choice paralysis' for players, but I'd have rather have more choices and stumble in gathering my bearings at first than feel like I'm either playing a game of cat and mouse or worse, like I'm camping. The game doesn't feel tactical, it feels stilted.
Sometimes, I'll pick off an errant enemy flying around that wasn't paying attention. Mostly, it's long periods of wait time or chase punctuated with short bursts of action where I'm up close and personal. There isn't much room for tactics and strategizing movement when my movement is limited thanks to the gameplay and the map design.
Granted, there are a couple of maps that don't feel this way—they are the ones that take advantage of verticality to add a layer of complexity to positioning. It's harder to remain cognizant of enemy movement when they could be in front of you, behind you, above you or under you—not just a couple of these at once. And choice feels refreshing in that there's some degree maneuverability, too. But overall, there's only so much "tactics" that can be applied to something that strips as much away as Hybrid does. That's a shame, because at times it honestly feels like Hybrid had potential.
Another strike against Hybrid is the lack of balance. At current there doesn't seem to be a matchmaking system that pits players against others with similar skill. Some abilities can completely change the tide of battle, though you may gain them within a few hours of play. Even so, playing in a match where I've unlocked, say, the teleport ability and the rest of the field hasn't, I feel like I have a definite advantage.
(Clarification: An earlier version of this review stated that players can pay to unlock the best gear; while it's true that players can pay to buy more unlock tokens, they can also earn them by playing. Within a couple hours of playing, any unlock token can unlock any ability or weapon.)
Adding to this issue is the peculiar choice to make kill-streak abilities like personal drones available after a single kill. A single kill is a streak? ...uh. These killstreaks are available even after a player dies, meaning that there's almost no moment when you're not using a killstreak. It seems absurd.
These issues come together to make Hybrid one of those rare games where I would sometimes feel bad for winning, because it just didn't feel fair to everyone involved.
The only thing that felt like it might tether me to Hybrid for a while and keep me playing was its leveling system, but that has less to do with the game itself than it does the general compulsion that levelling systems prey on.
Still, Hybrid's movement is different enough that I'd say it's worth experiencing—just to see what else is possible within the shooting genre. It feels heartbreaking to see the game flounder; I genuinely want to support a game that is bold enough to try something different within a space that at times feels like it has stagnated. While overall I would say innovation is not enough to warrant my full, enthusiastic recommendation of the game, it is worth checking out.