"Why call it Hybrid?" When I asked Hybrid producer Caleb Arseneaux that question, his response was vague. The game has a lot of hybrid qualities, he said. It's a hybrid of familiar third-person shooter mechanics and new ideas, a hybrid of MMO-style map-conquest and instanced deathmatches…
That ambiguity could indicate a lack of focus at the heart of the game (maybe someone at developer 5th Cell drives a Hybrid car?). Fortunately Hybrid itself looks to be a confident game built around a couple of strong central ideas. In essence: It's a third-person shooter where you can't run around out of cover but you can fly around in a jetpack.
Also, there's a new world war every couple of weeks.
Hybrid is, fundamentally, an online 3rd person shooter. It'll be available exclusively on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live and will be released sometime this summer. The game operates on two levels — the macro "wrapping" layer, which concerns an ongoing, persistent world conflict, and the bullet-to-bullet deathmatches that make up the actual gameplay.
The macro-layer is the only place any story comes into play. Basically, there has been a catastrophic event in Australia which has left the entire continent a smouldering hole (sorry Luke!) and ripped a hole between our dimension and another.
A war has broken out between two teams — one is blue, and one is red. Don't you love it when apocalyptic wars for the future of the planet are colour-coded so easily? I do. The blue team is called "Paladin" and is made up of humans from Earth. The red team is called "Variant" and is functionally identical to Paladin, they just come from the evil Varient dimension. Both teams are vying for "Dark Matter", which they'll need to win the war.
In order to get Dark Matter, the two sides must duke it out in a large number of regions around the globe. Each region keeps a tracked percentage of how many experience points have been earned by each team — the first team to reach 100% gets two samples of dark matter, while the loser only gets one. After this, that region closes off.
Once the final region is closed, the score is tallied and the winning side gets a huge bonus and wins that world war. At that point, the entire war resets, and everyone does it all over again. The key is that while the war never ends, character levels carry over, so you won't lose your progress or anything. Arseneaux said that a world war will take somewhere between 2-4 weeks, which is fairly short for a World War but seems like a good amount of time for a multiplayer video game.
But that's all macro-level stuff. Down in its guts Hybrid is a third-person cover-shooter that puts a much larger focus on cover than any third-person cover-shooter before it.
That's because you actually can't really not be in cover — despite the fact that you control a soldier with legs, there is no way to move about on-foot. Instead, players launch themselves from cover to cover with jetpacks.
The game is therefore much more about strategic leaping and bounding from cover to cover, with players flying past one another in between raised islands lined with cover. It's possible to move around while ducked behind a chest-high wall, but not to actually break away from it, except to fly to new cover.
What's neat is that every level is designed to allow for maximum mobility — you can aim, fire, and redirect yourself as you hover from cover to cover, so there's more freedom of movement than the idea of a cover-only cover-shooter may inspire. Often, you'll be flying from one cover to another and will go zooming past an enemy character — blowing them out of the sky is good fun, and is referred to by members of the development team as "jousting."
Hybrid plays a significant bit differently than other 3rd person games, notably its main point of comparison, Gears of War. Where Gears of War's versus multiplayer is less of a cover-based thing and more about doing quick rolls and dives, Hybrid sticks players to the wall and makes them stay there.
Well… to a point. I played through a couple of two-on-two matches (the game goes up to three-on-three), and there was still enough going on in a given match to make the game feel about as fast-paced and hectic as Gears of War, while still remaining a good number of levels beneath Call of Duty or any other FPS. (That's at least in part because I wasn't used to the controls.)
The weapons and upgrades are about what you'd expect from this sort of game — you have a customisable loadout at the start, you can carry grenades or weapons upgrades, your guns can be improved and you can unlock new ones, etc, etc. All of those unlocks, of course, tie into the overarching XP system, which also informs how your side is doing in the grand meta-war.
Hybrid also has killstreak rewards in the form of armed mechs you can summon to fight at your side. I saw three mechs, each one better than the last — the first two were hovering, gun-armed robots that would follow you about and take on your enemies. The third mech is called a "Preyon", it's a killer robot ladyninja that seeks out and instakills one of your enemies. If a foe's Preyon gets you locked in, you'll hear a terrifying keening sound before you inevitably bite it.
You'll die a lot in Hybrid, but the game feels fast and forgiving; there are a max of three players on each side, so respawning happens quickly. I had a good time playing the game, and found it welcoming and fairly forgiving, which is at least in part because the more restricted nature of the gameplay means that you won't fall victim to the same sorts of unexpected freaky pro-playing that you'll find in other games.
Gunplay has a quick, arcade-y feel to it, which is a nice switch from the heavier feel of Unreal-based games like Gears or Mass Effect. In fact, the whole vibe calls Monday Night Combat to mind, and seeing as how the game is a fast-moving arcade shooter released on XBLA, the comparison feels more apt.
Another game that Hybrid calls to mind is the Platinum's supremely underrated Vanquish, but only in a few very specific ways. Don't get too excited — shooting and moving aren't anywhere near as punchy, fast, or gonzo as they were in Vanquish, but something about the constant motion from cover to cover feels reminiscent of Platinum's game.
Hybrid will be releasing a Beta this Friday, at which point players will have a chance to play three of the game's modes (there will eventually be 7), and 3 of the 10 maps that will be in the final game.
The beta should give 5th Cell a chance to stress-test their server, which will be housing the entire ongoing World War, and to test out the balancing tools they say that they've got ready to keep the teams even. Incentivising joining one team over another shouldn't be too difficult, Arseneaux said, saying if, for example, Variant had way more people than Paladin, they would offer new players a 5-level boost to start at Paladin, theoretically balancing the scales.
It all looks to be a tight, enjoyable concept, displaying just enough ambition to set it apart without becoming unfamiliar. The beta will be a good place for players to get a feel for Hybrid and determine if it's for them — outside of its tweaked gameplay, there may not be a whole lot here to get players to commit to the game long-term. I sense that the finished game game will give its players exactly one thing, and that one thing just may be fresh and well-executed enough to win Hybrid an audience.