No one paints an optimistic picture of the near future, do they? Script writers across any given medium would have you believe that a few years from now we’ll all have been boiled down into future-goo, fuelling the hosepipe-veins of our new sentient overlords. Hybrid paints a similarly bleak portrait of events to come. You choose one of two warring factions: The Paladins, a gaggle of renegade Master Chief wannabes; or The Variants, a cybernetic race who look like what might happen if those cute dancing robots, that Japanese companies keep making, decide to overrun humanity.
Having picked a side, you must aid their respective cause by wiping the other off the face of the earth, while gaining control of different parts of the planet and acquiring Dark Matter – a substance that both forces desire for some reason. Presumably, it’s a kind of methylated spirit – the Variants want it for fuel, or something, and the Paladins want it so they can get really drunk in an alleyway behind a Tesco Express, somewhere. Whatever the motive, it’s really, really important that you bash the piss out of each other, until all this precious Dark Matter is yours.
To begin gathering Earth’s most valuable resource, you choose a continent and district to fight over – each one part of the wider global conflict, contributing to the balance of power across the planet. The skirmishes themselves are relatively small-scale, contested via a three vs three, player vs player format, across a variety of industrial backdrops. Like most cover shooters, Hybrid relies on a balance of keeping glued to the nearest wall, while popping up at timely intervals to dispose of any would-be assailant. Unlike its peers, however, Hybrid uses this typical dynamic to create a less common experience.
Rather than allowing free movement from point to point, Hybrid restricts you to remaining in cover at all times, other than surfacing to fire your weapon. To transition from place to place, you must target an available spot before tapping the ‘a’ button to fire up your jet pack and move forward. While in the air, you are still able to aim and fire freely, but movement is restricted to strafing from side to side with a flick of the analogue stick. In addition, returning to your previous cover can be accomplished by simply holding down the ‘b’ button. It’s an unusual mechanic – and one that takes some getting used to at first – after a few matches, however, the unusual control set-up becomes part of the ebb and flow of some frenetic and fun battles.
There are a variety of ways to play out each map; Team Death Match makes up Hybrid’s meat and drink, with the first team to thirty kills bringing home the ‘w’. Likewise, most of the other available modes are your typical run-of-the-mill shooter fare. Two variants of King of the Hill – with constantly moving capture points, are typically frantic. Artefact – another fairly standard game of grab the thing, keep the thing, win, ticks the same kinds of boxes. Overlord has you working as a team to reach twenty-one points, racked up by killing and becoming the over-powered top dog on the field of battle and retaining the honour for as long as possible; it’s all enjoyable stuff – if common amongst its class. By far the most involving mode is Tactics – each match is played over seven rounds, with each player holding only one life per round (the plant bomb, diffuse bomb dynamic perhaps a nod to Hybrid’s use of Valve’s Source engine). It’s far from an exception in the shooter genre to have a ‘no re-spawns’ format, but Tactics provides a noticeable slowing of pace to Hybrid’s hyperactive norm, which often proves a welcome change.
It’s a shame that the reasonable variety and enjoyable maps are punctuated so heavily by a restrictive matchmaking system. Queuing for combat is based on a choice of brackets designed to suit your preferred match type. For example, you might opt to go for TDM only, or pick a filter that centres your match experience around other, more objective-based game modes. Oftentimes, the result of this is that, in spite of explicitly opting out of Team Death Match, you’re forced to choose from a selection of Team Death Match maps – TDM indeed. Each time you land in the pre-game lobby, you’re presented with a choice of three or more options for how to proceed – the boys and girls over at developer 5th Cell have tried to make it work, but as is customary, the waiting players get to vote on the map and mode to be played. This is fine in itself, but it appears as though the different preference brackets all get lumped into one, thus defeating the point of providing the choice in the first place. That said, there is no match type that is noticeably less fun than the others – one or two less well designed maps aside – at the end of each queue, there’s still a bunch of fun to be had.
Hybrid’s problem is its userbase – it isn’t Modern Warfare 3 after all – and there’re only so many players to go around. Placing huge emphasis on an epic, worldwide clash and the microscopic nature of each victory, when faced with the greater goal is an atypical idea and a welcome ideal – befitting of 5th Cell’s imaginative recent pedigree (see also Scribblenauts, Drawn to Life), but an evident lack of players to make up both sides leads to a conundrum or two. At semi-regular intervals, you’re faced with trying to mow down a team of players representing the same faction as yours. The game gets around this by telling you that they’re accused of treason, but it makes the maths all the harder to figure out when evaluating the balance of power across the game as a whole. Again, any kind of match is better than no match, but a low player population and an imbalance between available foot soldiers per side is an obvious problem that will need to be addressed at some point.
Matchmaking gripes aside, when you’re in-game, Hybrid is loaded up with all the tools to make for a fun evening. There’re lots of weapons to unlock – shotguns, SMGs, assault and sniper rifles – all well balanced and with varying damage, accuracy and range stats. Specialisations and abilities finalise your load-out – you might choose to equip a boost to your xp, or amp up your weapon damage slightly. Crucially, any type of grenade you might like is classed as an ability – this means that you have unlimited amounts that operate on a cooldown basis. This makes for measured use – having to wait thirty seconds to toss your next frag doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes a huge difference to the back and forth. Spamming grenades into any of Hybrid’s many choke-points would be game-breaking – not to mention total carnage. It’s a small but clear indicator that 5th Cell have put some serious thought into what does and doesn’t work.
Similar balance can be found across most (not all) of Hybrid’s environments. For the most part, each level is a mesh of tiny hubs with limited fields of vision all melded together to make one big futuristic space-waltz. Cover is spattered around levels intelligently, never enough cover to camp out for long, but never so much that the action reaches an impasse. The better set pieces are carved in a kind of figure-of-eight design, leaving ample room to bomb around and surprise your opponents from all directions. The curio is that the few levels that let the side down are so far south of what is a generally high standard. You can move from cover to cover quickly and smoothly – selecting a new cover point in mid-air will reconfigure your trajectory and can result in some nifty movement. Oddly, Hybrid’s constrictive build – flight paths carved out on invisible zip lines, encourages players to exploit the given tools. Neat tricks aplenty – such as dropping a grenade at your feet before spamming the retreat button, are commonplace.
Lulls in the action are rare – more often than not the sky around you is stuffed, viscous with a brightly coloured rainbow of space-discharge (plus some functional space-opera audio) – ephemeral up-time is something you’ll have to get used to. Most of the time, your gnat-like lifespan is a forgivable by-product of battle – at times though, the scattered spawn points lead to a thorough and immediate gunning down at the point of your conception, which does annoy.
Should you keep on your toes long enough to build up a kill streak, or even if you don’t, the rewards are tangible – ninety percent of your time will be with some kind of floating mechanoid in tow. One kill will bag you a basic Stalker drone – little more than cannon fodder; three will yield a rather sturdier Warbringer, and should you get to five you’ll get the Preyon. The Preyon is a ghostly cyborg ninja that automatically heads in the direction of your nearest enemy and promptly shanks the pants out of them. It’s a great reward for your endeavours as it’s nearly impossible to stop a Preyon, unless you get the jump on them and they aren’t headed directly at you. It’s far less fun, however, to become the victim of repeated stabbings at the hands of Preyon after Preyon. Imagine if your life was a daily ritual of waking up in prison and getting knifed on the way to the showers again and again, and again – not great.
There’s a hatful of reasons to keep coming back, in spite of the frustrations – fifty experience levels await, plus elite level status to be earned (a la MW3). Wherever you turn, there’s a bevy of neon-blue bars, ever filling with numbers and codes. Hybrid even offers an option before each match to choose a challenge from a list that, if completed, will yield yet further xp – numerals run through the game’s very veins. The numbers game aside, the main reward for levelling-up your stats is really that you won’t have to keep playing against people who are a lot, lot higher level than you. As an extension of the aforementioned player-base issues, there’s no kind of level-banding, to accommodate the less experienced among us. More than any other shooter, this can turn some duels into a one-sided bloodbath.
The cynics amongst us might point out that all this snuggles up with Hybrid’s freemium model quite nicely. Should you feel the need to turn your hard-earned cash into Microsoft points, turn those points into Hybrid in-game credits, and turn those credits into virtual firearms – not only will you have no idea how much that slightly improved shotgun actually cost you, but you’ll give yourself a better chance of catching up with those level 50s. The quick option is overly prevalent. Items are unlockable through the usual graft and grind, but every visit to the armoury to grab your new item leaves you dazzled by shiny gold credit icons begging to be clicked. It’s virtual crack – and should be just as illegal.
Therein lays Hybrid for all to see – some great maps and game modes, but an awkward negotiation to arrive at your preferred destination. Numerous upgradable shooty-things, but the sinister spectre of freemium content looms. The game encourages you to take in the importance of a greater conflict, but the match-making can make for some nebulous logic. But here’s the thing. In spite of the occasional glitch, the odd dodgy map, the sometimes game-ruining power-ups, the teeth-grinding loading times and the blatant plagiarism of several other major shooters – 5TH Cell have done the rarest of the rare – while drawing on numerous influences, they’ve made something that isn’t too much like anything else. In the end, their own take on the near future might not be as bleak as it seems.
Audio/Visual – 2.5/5: Basic textures but bags full of pretty explosions and space tunes from the well.
Gameplay – 4/5: Constant, frenetic combat let down by the occasional glitch, some dodgy spawning and power-up overpowering issues.
Innovation – 3.5/5: Draws on all the tropes of the genre but creates some bright, new ideas.
Value – 3/5: Bang for your buck – lots of stuff to unlock – just stay away from the freemiums!
Final Score: 3.5/5