Cover shooters have become a staple among video games lately, ever since games like Gears of War and Ghost Recon Advanced War Fighter helped to solidify the third-person cover-based shooter by removing circle-strafing and jump-spamming as legitimate strategies. 5th Cell, best known for Scribblenauts, gives us Hybrid, their unique take on the cover shooter, which distills the genre to its very essence: removing all that pesky walking in between taking potshots from chest-high walls.
The story is the very definition of threadbare. The Variants have invaded Earth and have killed millions of people in pursuit of Dark Matter, and Earth’s only respite from the onslaught is the Paladin forces… or so I’m lead to believe. All you really get is a brief intro cutscene which really does nothing to explain the conflict between the Variants and the Paladin, other than bad things happened, stuff blew up, and now you fight for Dark Matter. Ultimately the story is there to provide a backdrop for endless matches of mayhem, and while it would have been nice to have the story fleshed out a bit more than it was, it’s not necessary to truly enjoy the game.
You start out by selecting one of two factions. The Variant are the (aliens? cyborg? humans in metal suits?) invading forces, and the Paladin are the defenders of Earth. The game randomly decides which faction will grant you an experience point bonus (most likely to help keep the teams balanced and fair) so I chose the Variant forces. After you select your faction, you are treated to a brief tutorial sequence, followed by an open training level which allows you to practice in several different AI controlled arenas, and is the only single player portion of the entire game; if you’re looking for some kind of story mode or something not involving logging on Xbox Live, you will be sorely disappointed.
The tutorial introduces the basic controls and concepts of the game. If you are familiar with games like Gears of War, the basic idea is the same: you can strafe behind cover with the left analog stick, aim out of cover with the left trigger, and fire with the right trigger (firing without aiming allows you to blindfire, helpful for when the enemy gets right in your face). You can choose to reload your weapon, or give a quick press of the left bumper to switch to your default pistol, in case reloading takes too long. The right bumper activates your abilities (which I’ll get to later). The Y button vaults you to the other side of cover, allowing you to avoid enemy fire if someone is shooting at you from that side.
The whole concept of the game is that, rather than running around the map, you jetpack around from cover to cover, and it’s handled (mostly) with ease. You aim your reticule at whatever cover you want to jet to, and tap the A button. You’ll zip on over, able to strafe back and forth to avoid enemy fire, or click the left stick in to boost faster. You can even aim while flying, which slows you down, giving you precision aiming, but also making you an easy target. A tap of the B button will send you back to the last cover you used, allowing a quick retreat if things get too hot in the cover you’re currently in or heading toward, and give you a moment to recharge your health. You can also switch cover mid-flight by tapping the A button on the next piece of cover. The controls work almost all of the time, with the occasional misfire due to an incorrect button press, but jetting around is a ton of fun, especially when boosting from point to point, taking people out along the way, and watching your killstreak get higher and higher.
Killstreaks allow you to summon drones to help you fight your enemies in combat. One kill grants you a Stalker drone, which helps to defend you personally from attack. It’s small, kinda weak, and easily taken out, but it’ll help you out of a jam. After three kills, you are given a Warbringer. This guy is much larger, a bit harder to take out, and flies around the map with heavier guns. A few of these on the map can spell trouble for a cornered enemy. Last, after five kills, you are granted a Preyon, which homes in on a single enemy and will take them out (if it’s not taken out first). Killstreak awards don’t go away when you die, so if you haven’t used them, they can help bring you back into the fray when you respawn. The drones help to fill up the typical three on three matches with more enemies, thus making maps that would normally feel sparse and empty frenzied and exciting.
Your character is also able to use different abilities to help level the playing field. You unlock abilities and other items by gaining levels or spending real cash dollars on credits. It may seem a bit unfair to spend your way to victory with real money, but you can only equip one item, ability, and specialty at a time, and leveling up grants the exact same abilities as those to purchase; there aren’t any credit-specific abilities. Further, you get to choose what you want to unlock in a given category each time you level up, rather than having level specific unlocks. Abilities have tons of different uses, like grenades to flush out enemies, the ability to heal your team or recharge their abilities, briefly grant you infinite ammo or increased damage, allow you to tell your team where enemies or located, poison enemies, or even teleport. My personal favorite ability allows you to throw a grenade that hacks all drones in the blast radius to attack your enemies. It’s incredibly satisfying to cause five different drones to all turn on your enemies and watch the XP awards rain down.
In addition to abilities, you can unlock helmets and weapons in the same way. Helmets are purely cosmetic, though there are some fun ones you can only unlock after fulfilling certain requirements. Weapons, on the other hand, run the gamut, from assault rifles, to pistols, to shotguns, to rocket launchers, with most having some unique ability or feature. The Gambler, for example, is a pistol that will either kill your enemy in one shot… or you. Each weapon has unique roles to fill (short range, long range, area effect, etc.) and can be switched mid-match after each death.
Specialties are unique abilities that grant passive bonuses to the player, and range from granting XP bonuses for every action, increased defense, increased firepower for either your guns or your drones, or decreasing cooldown times of your abilities. These specialties are leveled up within the metagame that ties each of the matches together.
Both factions are fighting over a supply of Dark Matter, and takes place in “seasons.” Each “season” lasts until one side attains 100 Dark Matter, who is then dubbed the winner, and the map resets. Each continent has a certain amount of Dark Matter, and the first to a certain amount on a continent gains a bonus amount of Dark Matter. Continents are broken down into regions, which each contain 3 Dark Matter. The first faction to reach the center (achieved by winning matches in that region) gets 2 Dark Matter. The other faction can still get 1 by reaching the center. Regions have different bases that can level up your specialties with the experience you earn during each match. Certain regions are labelled “Hot Zones” and grant bonus XP for fighting in them. Before each match starts, you get to choose a mission, which gives you different objectives to complete during each match. Missions range from getting killing a certain number of enemies, to getting a specific amount of headshots, or fly-by kills, or a myriad of other things, which when completed, grants even more XP. There are tons of ways to earn XP, and the metagame helps to drive that “one more match” mentality multiplayer games try so hard to achieve.
There are six different modes in Hybrid, each taking place on one of ten maps. Artifact mode has you fight to hold on to the flag for as long as you can; Tactics has you either bombing or protecting a specific cover point with no respawns; Overlord has you kill other enemies to gain levels, which makes you stronger, and the first to level 21 wins; King of the Hill has you be the first capture a zone; Crazy Kings changes the capture zone every 35 seconds; and Team Deathmatch has you fight to 30 kills. Most matches have you fighting the opposite faction, but occasionally the game will randomly throw you into a Treason match, which has you fight members of your own faction.
Maps are fairly interchangeable with one another; all of them are symmetrical, and none have any unique environmental effects that differentiate them from one another. They are, however, built well, and some do have interesting touches, like cover on ceilings or walls. Some are built to be close quarters matches, while others are wide open, allowing you to get to cover from several different vantage points.
Matches are swift and frenetic, with players launching from cover to cover, firing as they fly, throwing grenades, activating abilities and drones left and right. Any given match usually lasts no longer than five to ten minutes, which keeps them from getting too stale or boring, and coupled with the constant XP gains and unlocks, keeps you pressing that A button to find the next match.
I do have a few gripes with the game. Matches can take an awfully long time to load; first it finds players, then, syncs them. Then you vote on a map, then it actually starts loading the match. Since matches don’t take very long to complete, the loading can start to get a bit noticeable, though it’s not so bad as to be detrimental to the experience. Graphics, while completely serviceable with a stylized and colorful futuristic setting, are a bit rough around the edges. Textures are a bit flat, and jaggies are present. Sometimes matches can get a bit frustrating when the opposing team starts spamming Preyon drones and grenades, and you can’t seem to get a shot in edgewise; another match is always right around the corner, though, and the ability to improve is always present in new XP awards and loadouts. Some may gripe that there’s not a single player mode, not even against bots. I say that I’d rather have a solid multiplayer experience than a half-assed single player mode that adds nothing other than ticking a box on a checklist.
Hybrid is a unique experiment in multiplayer cover-based shooting, and it succeeds gloriously. The action is frantic and non-stop, and it never gets old launching from one point of cover to the next, taking out several enemies before you even touch the ground. By focusing strictly on cover mechanics and removing all the fat, 5th Cell has crafted one of the most interesting and hyperactive multiplayer games I’ve ever played. There is a constant sense of satisfaction in every single moment of Hybrid, from the near constant stream of XP and unlockables, to the deluge of summoned drone attacks, to the metagame that ties everything together. Multiplayer junkies, your drug has arrived.