The next great innovation in shooting video game bad guys is focused not on our virtual guns, but on our virtual feet.
The remarkable and unusual new twist replaces walking and running with something harder to describe, something that is just as surprising as the fact that the game in which it debuts, is a competitive multiplayer Xbox Live Arcade shooter from the makers of Scribblenauts.
Scribblenauts is the Nintendo DS blockbuster that lets players conjure into virtual existence almost any noun they can write. That wild idea's got nothing on the oddness of Hybrid.
The character you control in Hybrid is heavily armed. He's one of three characters on a side in the game's core three-on-three deathmatch. He's got armor, a gun and can effectively shoot from cover. Nothing odd there.
He can only ever stand in cover.
He can only ever move...to another cover point.
You can't make him walk to just any spot on the game's multiplayer maps. You can't make him run there.
That's a little odd, no?
This is the Hyrbid system, which its creators call Combat Focused Movement:
Your Hybrid character squats behind cover, let's say a waist-high wall that's about as wide as a pair of park benches. He's in a firefight, a three-on-three match pitting futuristic armored soldiers against each other. He, his allies and his enemies are all bound by the same movement rules. Everyone's tucking to cover or moving to cover.
Pressing the X button moves your crouched character to another cover point behind that wall; the choice is binary, since the only cover points are at the two far ends of the low wall. A press of the Y button vaults the character to the other side of the wall, still snapped to cover.
The game is shown in third-person, and you can swivel the camera with the right control-stick to see what's around your soldier.
By flicking the left control stick you can produce an arrow that will appear at any nearby cover points. Those points are the only places to which you can move. The cover spots can exist behind low walls and crates that may be resting on the ground. They can also be on walls or even attached to the ceiling. (Don't worry about gravity.) Flicking the stick makes the arrow appear at the closest viable destination, tapping A makes your character run to that cover point — double-tapping A makes him use his jetpack to get there. When he gets there, he — you guessed it — snaps to cover.
You can always shoot your gun, of course. This is still a shooter, no matter how weird its movement is. Whether your fighter is behind cover, leaning out from cover, or moving to the next cover point, you can fire a gun. Pulling a trigger for a zoomed-in aiming mode even slows you down while you move, increasing the chance you'll be able to spot a target while your guy is running to cover and shoot it down.
The effect is to make character movement in a shooter an act of linear intentionality. You see the discrete spots to which you can move and then you commit to moving there.
While this kind of system may initially sound like it limits your options in a competitive shooter to a spider-web of lanes connecting cover points, you can deviate from the obvious paths. You can change your mind about where you're moving. Once you commit to a point, your character starts traveling there, but during transit, you can flick the left stick, spot a new arrow and commit to that point instead. Your character will change course. You can also retreat, tapping B and having your character move back successively to each of the last three points to which you'd moved.
Jeremiah Slaczka, creative director of 5th Cell, told me and other reporters at GDC that the Hybrid movement system was inspired by the idea that real soldiers don't circle-strafe around their enemies. They often stick to cover and move from one cover point to the next.
The implication of that claim is that Hybrid is in some way more realistic than other shooters. Of course, it's not and I doubt anyone from 5th Cell would say that a game in which you can hide behind cover while standing on the ceiling is an authentic depiction of modern combat techniques.
I tried a seven-minute, three-on-three Hybrid deathmatch, worried I'd be stumbling with the game's controls. That stumble was brief. I learned first-hand what this game feels like.
Hybrid doesn't feel realistic; it feels like a video game, emphasis on the word game. It feels like a shooter with a new set of rules, which I found immediately encouraging, since I'm one of those people who gets annihilated in shooters that run under all the conventional rules.
Initially, I tried to play Hybrid slowly and steadily like Full Spectrum Warrior or Splinter Cell Conviction, other games that let players pick a cover point and advance to it. I was playing too rigidly. There are a finite amount of cover points in each room of the game's map, sometimes as few as one or two available from a given cover point. Those narrowed options helped me rapidly learn the level, and that speedy learning enabled me to stop slogging and start zipping. I began to more rapidly pick cover points and started flying to them and diverting from them. I started using the walls and ceiling cover spots instead of sticking to the floor and was getting myself into some successful zigzags from room to room.
I would see an enemy player hiding behind cover and I'd dart to a wall-mounted cover point and fire over, then spot a cover point in the room beyond and jet there while continuing to shoot my enemy down. I'd find the room I went into empty and start tapping B to retreat and hunt enemies elsewhere.
I'm far from the world's best shot in shooter games, but I was able to feel competent and increasingly confident. I was aided by one of the game's other main features, the ability to summon computer-controlled ally fighters. There are three levels of quality to those troopers, ranging from generic soldier buddy to an assassin with the drive of a heat-seeking missile. I had picked a special power in my load-out for the match, one that allowed me to immediately replenish the store of points needed to summon these characters. I was using them for a lot of the dirty work as I darted around.
I must have helped to do something right. My side of the three-on-three match won.
If there's any common trait of Hybrid and its hit 5th Cell predecessors Scribblenauts and Drawn To Life, it is the fact that all of these games enable the player to be definitive. They have you drawing or writing something into virtual existence. They require the player to feel in command and allow them to feel that any consequence in the game was of their deliberate making. In that sense, Hybrid is like those games. Movement is doubtless. It is focused. You spot an available destination and charge to it. You are operating in a world of recognizably finite options, which adds the kind of clarity to the battlefield that you're more likely to feel from playing a rule-constrained game like chess than you are a frantic match of Call of Duty. The restriction of the number of spots where you can hide or from where a hiding enemy can shoot at you feels strangely empowering.
The scarcity and specificity of options makes the conflict in a Hybrid match feel more comprehensible. Everyone is moving with digital intent, and there are just enough cover points, weapon types, squad assists and other factors to turn this streamlined system into something complex enough to keep combat interesting.
The system in Hybrid is indeed new. We don't just have another Gears of War here or another Call of Duty. We've got a new playing field, new rules and a newly ambitious effort. We don't have a release date, but do watch the videos here and try to wrap your head around Hybrid's system. The 5th Cell people promise we'll be able to download this game and play it on Xbox 360 some time this year.