When you're competing with the likes of Gears of War 3 and Max Payne 3, more of the same simply isn't going to cut it. Any developer that makes a third-person shooter needs to do something different if it wants to stand out from the pack. With Hybrid, 5th Cell has done just that. The game takes standard genre conventions and twists them into interesting new configurations. It's not perfect, but you'd be hard pressed to say it's not original.
Hybrid's big "hook" is that it eliminates free movement. You don't run around the map, hopping around like death on a pogo stick. Instead, movement is strictly cover based. Each map has a set amount of cover points, and you fly from one to the next by targeting one and pressing a button. While in flight, you can strafe a bit and use a short boost to increase speed, but you are more or less limited to a set path. You can't just duck into an interesting corner at will. It is possible to change direction while in mid-flight, though doing so requires that you target another cover point. A retreat button (AKA the "oh crap" button since you're most likely to use it when under fire) automatically flies you back to your last cover point.
At first blush, the limited movement is difficult to wrap your head around. It can even be a bit annoying for veterans of the genre. Once you power past the initial confusion, however, the limited movement becomes less of an issue, and the core thrust of the game comes into focus. By restricting movement, Hybrid forces players to think more strategically. There are only so many cover points on a given map, and your opponents have to be at one of them. As a result, smart players will cross the map in a flanking pattern. If you can get to the side of your opponent, they'll be exposed. Of course, they're likely trying to do the same to you.
Keeping the maps small and the cover points limited also has the effect of focusing combat. In Hybrid, you'll never find yourself running around wondering where everyone else is. Enemies and teammates are almost always in view. If not, they're right around the corner. This helps ensure that something is always happening. Players hoping for large, expansive maps to explore are going to be disappointed. Hybrid only supports six players per match (three vs. three), so the maps are small by necessity.
Weapons are varied, but in an odd design choice, most are locked from the start, along with perks. This has the net effect of hurting new players, as you're being dumped into combat with opponents who may have many more options at their disposal. This is exacerbated by a poor matchmaking algorithm that doesn't seem to match players by skill level. In the time we played, it always seemed like the levels of assembled players were completely random. This is in contrast to games like Halo: Reach, which attempts to pair up players of similar skill levels.
Adding to the frustration here (and cheapening the experience) is the fact that the game cheekily offers to SELL you early access to the other weapons. In short, if you don't want to wait and want a level playing field right away, you're welcome to pony up real money via Microsoft points. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if Hybrid were a free-to-play game, but it's not. When players have already spent 1,200 MSP ($15 USD) to buy a game, asking them to spend more or suffer at a disadvantage is a bit of an insult.
When you happen to get into a match with equally leveled players and a solid connection, the firefights can be quite impressive. Two teams of skilled players moving from cover to cover, skillfully dodging and countering makes for satisfying combat. In those moments, Hybrid is at its best, and you can really see what the developers were aiming to achieve when they first designed the game. Unfortunately, matches like these are the exception rather than the rule. Part of this is due to the matchmaking, but part of it is also due to lag.
Despite being a multiplayer-only game, Hybrid doesn't appear to use a central server for gameplay. It uses one for matchmaking, but if the host migration screens we ran into are any indication, the actual games are peer-to-peer. This means connection quality is reliant on the Internet speed of whoever is randomly selected as the host, and that has a direct impact on gameplay. Some games played out as expected, some seemed exceptionally responsive, and others had noticeable lag both in shooting and in movement. This sort of unpredictability in the host is not a good thing.
In addition to the core combat aspect of Hybrid, the title also uses a world war meta game to layer on strategic depth. Here, all of the combat zones are shown on a world map, and players are encouraged to help their side win the overall war by capturing individual zones before the opposing side. In theory, it sounds great. In practice, it's broken.
The problem with the meta game is that the bonuses it offers are often contradictory to the overall goal. For example, the hot zone bonus is awarded for fighting in a highly contested zone. Ideally, these would be zones where the tide of battle could go either way. That happened sometimes, but we also saw hot zone bonuses applied to zones where our faction had already lost. This makes no sense because as a faction, we would be better off fighting for a zone we could still win. Instead, the game was encouraging players to focus on areas of little strategic value. Similar issues arise with the ability bonuses. Since players are awarded increased abilities by fighting in areas with a corresponding base, the meta game encourages you to ignore the overall battle and simply focus on stat improvement.
Hybrid does some interesting things with gameplay, but it is ultimately tripped up by poor matchmaking, periodic lag and an unbalanced meta game. Genre fans will enjoy the change of pace, but most players should probably look for greener pastures.
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