Does 5th Cell’s first foray into the wide world of shooters do justice to their pedigree?
5th Cell is known mostly for the fantastic and innovative Scribblenauts titles, so a third-person shooter on XBLA was not exactly expected from them. It’s so far out of the scope of their usual wheel house that individuals might be excused for wondering if they could pull it off. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I was one of those people, but I’m glad to say that any worries of 5th Cell’s competency outside of quirky and creative titles have handily been dispelled. Hybrid is a competent and fun shooter that manages to be different from the deluge of titles currently on the system.
The biggest surprise to me upon firing up Hybrid was just how unlike most shooters it really is. Sure you have a variety of guns and you aim said guns at your enemies in real time, that much is unchanged. However the way you go about fragging your enemies and the reasons you do so are mostly unexplored in the world of competitive shooters and certainly not what I expected from this title. I went into Hybrid expecting much of the running and gunning (and jet packing) one would usually see in these arenas, imagine my surprise when I found an engaging and strategic base to the game that doesn’t really rely on movement much, but out thinking and out positioning your opponents. Perhaps I should back up a step though.
Hybrid is a multiplayer only competitive shooter, so those of you looking for a single-player campaign, or that like to play solo, you can pretty much stop reading right now. Outside of a simple tutorial and training area the game holds absolutely no value to solo players. Upon firing up Hybrid you’ll be asked to pick a faction. Two are available here, Paladins and Variants, distinguished mostly by back-story and visual aesthetics (the first of these distinctions is mostly undetectable to people who haven’t read up on it in various interviews as it isn’t mentioned at all in the game really). Paladins are essentially the good guys in this situation, a group of rebel humans with a decidedly Spartan-ish look to them. Variants are an entirely new species uncovered by the event that precedes all of this World War and sport sleek looking white armor. Outside of visual impact your choice will determine what weapons you unlock at first, but do not fear Paladins can unlock Variants weapons so the only real distinction here is the way you look. Pick well, because outside of becoming a traitor this is the team you’ll be with the rest of the game.
The story here is an intriguing one, but largely unexplored which is possibly the most disappointing bit of the game to me. The basics of plot is that in the year 2032 a newly built Hadron Supercollider imploded, completely obliterating Australia. This somehow causes an alternate reality to merge with our own. A species, known as the Variant, go into all-out war with the human rebels, called Paladins, and fight over a resource called Dark Matter. While picking your faction it would have been nice to have a little back-story regarding each, but everything I’ve gathered from the story is mostly covered sparsely by different internet sites and is mostly unclear within the game itself. Even though I’m aware it’s a multiplayer shooter, I just would like a little better idea of WHY I’m fighting this war.
After choosing your faction, you’ll be dropped into a familiar map of different continents around the world. You’ll see where each continent is actually a theatre of war that the Paladins and Variants are fighting over. Certain areas within those continents are different fronts you can pick, some of which are currently hotly contested. Going to one of those, depending on where your faction is with capturing the area, will net you with bonuses from your armies success in capturing different buildings and locations within the front. Over the course of securing these locations each side earns Dark Matter and at the end of a season of multiplayer play the one with the most wins. The winning side will be granted with an awesome helmet that bestows various bonuses while the losing side will be granted with the Bag of Shame, which still grants smaller bonuses, but looks suitably lame. All of this gives an overall camaraderie with your chosen team and gives you a sort of meta game and constant conflict that you are always a part of. It’s a nice touch that, while has been done to some extent before, is still an impressive departure from just a straight death match.
After you choose the front you want to battle on you can pick a mission before searching for a match. The missions can vary from killing 5 enemy players in a row to ending two other player’s kill streaks and everything in between. These missions offer bonus xp if you should complete them, which enables you to unlock new abilities and specializations as the game progresses. After a match is found you’ll find yourself in a 3 vs. 3 battle against your opposing side, or maybe even some traitors that you are duty bound to strike down. It’s a nice little side touch that the ability to switch armies once per season will net you with this title of traitor, and any of your old army will be aware that you’re a backstabbing turncoat.
Once your opponents are determined you will pick a number of abilities and specializations to mix and match to fit your play style. Abilities are on a cool down timer and you can pick one for your character that you can change each time you die. This can be anything from a frag grenade to a teleport ability and will drastically change how you play usually. Instead of classes Hybrid has specializations that range from Assassin to Commander and offer different boosts such as a 10% boost to your weapon damage or the ability to have 15% more armor. Gameplay itself is much different than a standard run and gun as typically your avatar will be in cover. You can swap from one cover to another by pressing the A button which will activate your jetpack and send you in that direction. As your flying you can strafe all over the screen, fire, aim your weapon (causing slowdown), speed boost to your next location, or even retreat to previous cover in the middle of transit.
At first it was a little off-putting not really directly controlling the input of movement for my character, but instead these mechanics let you focus on strategy that can be as deep or shallow as you want it to be. Especially if you can get two other players that will actually work as a team, you can direct flanking or side attacks, ambushes and other such attacks. Adding in the abilities and specializations something that at first seems restrictive, will instead make you play a shooter in a whole other way than what your used to, in my opinion a better way. Obviously your kills/death ratio will still hinge largely on your ability to aim, but your ability to out-position your opponent becomes even more crucial.
Another unique turn to combat comes in the form of automated drones. As your kill streaks go up you’ll gain access to three different drones. The Stalker is a drone that follows you around providing fire support and is the first you unlock with just one kill streak point. Not exactly hardy, the little guy can still offer you an edge as well as a decent distraction against other players. After three kills in a row you’ll earn the Warbringer, a tank like drone that can soak up a lot of damage and return it also. Warbringer isn’t particularly fast, but can sense where the battle is and will attack at points it’s needed most. Getting your Warbringers out at the start of a match could mean the difference between victory and defeat, especially if you have the Commander specialization which adds 12% damage to your drones, even at the lowest level. If you can manage to get a 5 streak kill you’ll have access to the dreaded Preyon. Like terrible robot assassins these show up and streak toward your opponent with a shrieking sound that lets you know you are in big trouble. If the Preyon reaches you they will instantly kill you by ramming a sword through your neck. Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds.
At the end of the match you’ll be rewarded with xp for your success or failure and of course the bonus xp if you managed to complete your mission. At that point your success or failure feeds directly into how far your army pushes to continue conquering the area you are contesting. As you level up you can choose new abilities, specializations, armor, weapons and the like. Typically once you choose one of these the remainder are locked out and can only be unlocked with credits, what might be my other least favorite part of the game. That’s right folks, micro transactions aren’t just for Farmville anymore, as they’ve made their way to your local XBLA! Since you can unlock whatever skill you’d like once you unlock the ability to do so by leveling, it doesn’t mean victory or defeat, but something about being able to buy your way to better abilities or aesthetics just bothers me at my core. Either way it doesn’t really affect balance, but micro transactions are more of a pet peeve then an overall flaw so your individual mileage will vary here.
Overall I feel that 5th Cell has brought some of their innovation to what is, for the most part, a genre that is overwhelmed with generic gameplay. A persistent conflict with individual factions, season skirmishes with rewards, strategic and engaging firefights and customizable play styles through abilities and specializations leads to what is a clear winner. Graphics are serviceable and overall very clean and bright and sound is above average with just your occasional tinny firing sound. Honestly this XBLA title feels like it could have been a full-fledged retail release and still had been worth the money. Even with the missteps of micro transactions, a back story that I wish was more fleshed out rather than almost nonexistent, and occasional slowdown; Hybrid is still one of the better multiplayer experiences on the console if for no other reason than it does something different than most shooters on the market.
A copy of this title was provided to The Paranoid Gamer for reviewing purposes.