Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion used to be regarded as one of the most anticipated release windows of the year, and some of the finest downloadable titles this generation were part of it. 2012, however, hasn’t really been its strongest year. Tony Hawk HD and Deadlight have been met with universal “bleh” and Wreckateer’s Kinect exclusivity severely handicaps its appeal. It’s now up to long awaited one-man project Dust and, first and foremost, Hybrid to rescue the promotion’s reputation.
Hybrid is a third-person, futuristic, cover based online shooter by... The Scribblenauts guys? Okay… But wait! Don’t start snoring yet! There’s a hook – taking cover is literally all you can do. There’s no free movement in Hybrid, just the ability to jetpack from one chest-high wall to the next. The gimmick manages to give the game some life, and a bit of unique strategy, but the meat of the experience doesn’t quite do enough to hold your attention for any extended period of time.
The whole concept of Hybrid revolves around this central gimmick of being constantly stuck to cover. To move, you look at a nearby wall and press A to make your dude float towards it. You can still shoot whilst flying, or press the B button to cancel if you change your mind, but getting a hang of moving around the levels is the key to doing well. Luckily enough, 5th Cell have done a great job of making it painless. Moving from cover to cover is easy and fluid, but also different enough in feel that it takes a few matches for your old shooter brain to readjust. Everyone having magic jetpacks also allows the game to expand vertically more than most modern shooters, and you’ll often find yourself sitting behind cover that juts out from a roof, upside-down. When you master the system, you can flit effortlessly around maps, selecting new cover points on the fly before you even touch down. It would have been easy to mess this up and make the game feel horribly clunky, but they completely nail the unique movement and Hybrid feels immediately solid as a result.
The gunplay is similarly well-built. There’s the range of futuristic normal and energy weapons you’d expect from a game like this, and they all feel meaty and satisfying. Even the early weapons have a decent heavy kickback behind them, and using accessory items like grenades is made easy by a no-nonsense cursor that shows the precise arc of your throw. It’s a small touch but it’s crucial when you’re trying to throw a grenade at a guy on the floor whilst you’re sticking to the wall. Fixed killstreak rewards come in the form of drones, with the lowest being simple floating handguns and the highest being some sort of robot ghost ninja assassin-thing. They’re fairly well balanced – the robot ninja kills in one hit, but disappears after one kill – and although killstreaks stack, resulting in drones being absolutely everywhere during matches, they aren’t powerful enough to get annoying.
The shooting and gameplay mechanics are solid, but many of Hybrid’s flaws come from presentation. Map variety is very slim, with every map looking like the same beige space station. I’ve played my fair share of each level, but put me in a match in progress and I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether I was playing on Dry Dock or Financial. Matches would be a lot more exciting if the levels were somewhat more organic, and some greenery would have done a lot of good.
This criticism becomes even worse when it starts to affect the gameplay. Your guys and the enemy guys are the same colour and texture as nearly every surface in the game, and many a time I’ve been killed solely because an enemy was right on the other side of the cover completely blended in. Considering Hybrid is at its heart a red vs blue shooter, actually making players stand out would have stopped a lot of cheap deaths (and kills on my part). Apart from the lack of variety, what there is to see is actually pretty nice. Hybrid packs some decent animations and graphical fidelity into a meagre 1.5gb download. Unfortunately this only serves to make the places where they had to rein it in, such as fire effects, even more self-evident.
For as much as I enjoyed Hybrid in half-hour bursts, it really doesn’t do a great job of enticing me to play for any extended length of time. Compared to your Halos and Gears Of Wars, it takes an age to actually start shooting dudes. Load the game, open the world map, find a province that still has fighting going on it, load, load… Considering games often last less than five minutes, it’s a real drain having to wait nearly as long as you’ve been playing just to find another match. Presumably to force you to have something to do the game doesn’t save your loadouts, which is absolutely infuriating once you begin to unlock a couple dozen weapons and lose track of which ones are your favourites.
There’s a lot of unlocks to be had, from new weapons to perks and helmets, and there’s a good variety to them. Because of the 3v3, small-mapped nature of Hybrid every teammate’s perk counts, and with solid teamwork a squad can dominate. I do sternly furrow my brow, however, at the ability of players to purchase perks they otherwise wouldn’t be able to unlock at their level by spending Microsoft Points to buy them. Tut tut.
Hybrid is decent, but not essential. The well-executed mechanics that make up the core gameplay are interesting for a little while, but how long it holds your interest for depends on how willing you are to look past the game’s niggling problems. Frustrating menu systems and poor level variety are massive problems in a game which is trying to compete in the multiplayer shooter genre. If you’re going to challenge the big boys, you’ve got to make sure you’re totally on point. If you have nothing else to play this summer then Hybrid will do a fine job of tiding you over to shooter season 2012, but if you’re looking for something long-term Hybrid just has too little to draw you back in to be it.