It's easy for game developers to get stuck in a genre rut. We expect that a shooter developer will make more shooters, an RPG studio will make more RPGs, and so on. The experiential knowledge that comes from having built a game before gives us faith that the team has the basics down. That's why stepping outside a comfort zone is such an exciting risk. It can infuse a genre with some fresh ideas, but it can also miss some of the basics. Both that advantage and downfall are present in the case of 5th Cell's Hybrid.
Hybrid is ostensibly a multiplayer third-person shooter, but carries odd little hints of 5th Cell's legacy. Most of these are for the better. The most striking quality of Hybrid is its cover-based gameplay, which nixes free movement entirely. Rather than running between cover points, you'll pick a destination point and automatically rocket there. You can swerve a bit while in flight or change directions on the fly, but it's mostly automatic. Of course, that also leaves you vulnerable.
This is where the first piece of 5th Cell's roots shine through. The focus on spacial relations is very much like a combat puzzle, and one unique enough that it feels very different from anything else on the market. Most cover points are exposed on all sides, and weapons kill fairly quickly. Since fire can come from almost anywhere, the game carries itself a wild, frenetic pace. This gives the shooter some serious strategic elements--picking the wrong cover point, or moving at the wrong time, will result in death rather quickly. A well-coordinated team can wipe the floor with one that isn't, and that's a good sign for a team shooter. Kill streaks are rewarded with automated robots that can wreak their own destruction.
As I rose through the ranks of Hybrid's "Paladin" faction--one of two factions available at the start of each season--I gained unlocks for various weapons and load-outs. Almost of them are available to unlock in any order, or they can be purchased with a currency that can be bought with real money a la a free-to-play game.
The Paladins and their opposition, the Variant, are waging a worldwide war over territory for dark matter. The story isn't all that important, but provides a meta-game to chase. Once a faction has captured a continent's worth of dark matter, the fighting there is closed. The first season hasn't ended yet, but the unlock options already show some gear that will reward (or shame) players based on the outcome. Each round also gives a handful of "Mission" options, special objectives that will grant an experience bonus akin to quick mobile titles.
It's too bad that the game's creativity is somewhat bogged down by a few minor issues that a veteran shooter studio probably would have avoided. The load times between matches are pretty horrendous, especially since the game kicked me back out of the lobby each and every time. Every single new match I found involved waiting for a new lobby to populate, then waiting for the game type selection, and then waiting for the stage to load before the match started. For particularly short matches, I probably spent as much time waiting as I did playing.
BOOM video 13432
Since the maps are so defined by their cover points, the rest of the scenery becomes largely set dressing. They're visually distinct, but simplifying the gameplay itself means their core parts are mostly indistinguishable. I barely paid attention to the votes on which map to play, simply because it barely made a difference. The maps that stick out do so because they have secluded areas that can be used for turtling--which has proven problematic in one game mode, Artifact, which involves playing keep-away from opponents to win the match.
Finally, while automatic flight usually works fine, the jerky landing sometimes jarred my aiming reticule in some unpredictable way that I couldn't compensate for. I've missed crucial shots and died because my aim went off-track at the last moment.
The shooter genre needs new blood, and I'm glad 5th Cell took such a daring step into unknown territory. The risk largely paid off, with a fun and fast-paced shooter that stands apart from the overcrowded "me too" shooter marketplace. But it is a freshman effort, and that shows in some key areas. It's an interesting and creative diversion, warts and all, and that makes it worth a try.
This Hybrid review was based on downloadable Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher. The game is now available on Xbox Live Marketplace.