With a name like Hybrid, you might expect 5th Cell’s downloadable third-person shooter to merge different genres into a whole new beast. Considering that 5th Cell gained fame for their inspired Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts, which manifested in the game world almost any word the player wrote, often with surprising results, you’d hope for an equally fresh take on multiplayer pew-pews. Instead, Hybrid is a generic-feeling online experience with a few good ideas and questionable execution.
For a downloadable game, it doesn’t lack ambition. To start with, players choose to represent one of two factions warring over a precious, scarce resource buried deep beneath the surface of the earth. (How little does 5th Cell care about making this story interesting? You’re fighting over something called “Dark Matter.” Laziest sci-fi world-building since James Cameron gave us “Unobtainium” in Avatar.) While there’s no appreciable difference between the sides—one is red, and one is blue—you’re stuck with the one you choose for the remainder of the season, which ends when the earth has been sucked dry.
It’s cool to start a game and page through the different continents, looking for where the fighting is fiercest, and conceptually interesting to imagine that your individual battles are adding up to a larger whole. But the entire premise is poorly described and lacks context, and anyway, once you get down to it, you’re only fighting three-on-three battles in the same handful of arenas over and over. There’s no instinctual sense of connection to the larger tides of war—which, who knows, might be the point.
In action, Hybrid has a few decent tricks up its sleeve, first and foremost a movement system based around jetpacks. Don’t get too excited: This isn’t a game that will thrill you with a sense of flight. But movement is restricted to jumping between cover points, with minimal on-rails control in between. In other words, moving to a new cover point is a dangerous move that often holds more risk than reward, because you’re all but defenseless against anyone who has you in their sightlines. This tends to make games a bit more slow-paced and cerebral, with teams probing each other’s defenses in an attempt to draw one another out.
When it comes to the actual shooting, though, Hybrid is anything but innovative. Yep, you spend a lot of time crouching behind waist-high barriers, and it is some small consolation that these barriers are occasionally placed on ceilings and walls to keep it from feeling exactly like every other cover shooter out there. Even so, the point-and-shoot aspect of most long range battles is neither thrilling nor—I’m going to say it—visceral enough to stack up to shooters with more pedigree.
Even its take on kill streaks, whereby you can summon robot sidekicks even after scoring a single kill, don’t feel fresh or impactful. They’re just kind of there. Sure, you’re going to call in the bots every chance you get, and you may even score a few kills off of them, but it ends up feeling less like a reward for a job well done, and more like a concession to the limited number of players in the game.
Aesthetically, Hybrid couldn’t be less interesting. It’s all gleaming metal and masked combatants, with flashy menus full of upgrades, perks and unlocks. Some J. Jonah Jameson type growls at you between rounds about how you’ve either disappointed him or made him proud (usually the former, in my case). Considering that downloadable titles are usually a chance for developers to flex their artistic muscles, it’s frankly bewildering why 5th Cell chose to go this route. Was the world crying out for another sterile sci-fi shooter?
Hybrid’s not a bad game, but it’s not accomplished enough to compare to its big-budget brethren, nor unconventional enough to stand out among other indie titles. In the midst of an otherwise barren release schedule, it’s worth a look if you’re starved for something new. But if you’re looking for something different, keep looking.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq, Joystick Division and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata, or check out his blog, Insult Swordfighting.