Launched as part of Xbox Live’s fifth annual Summer of Arcade, 5th Cell’s Hybrid offers an unusual twist on third-person sci-fi shooters.
Set in a barely-sketched future world where war against alien invaders has broken out on several fronts, rather than try diplomacy, the order of the day is a series of battles to fight where the goody-two-shoes among us can choose to represent humanity as Paladins, or those with a misanthropic side can indulge their fantasies as the alien Variants.
The dialogue during the introduction even points it out explicitly – none of this background really matters. It’s about the fighting now. Three-on-three deatchmatch action it seems, despite this perhaps appearing a rather sporting set-up for intergalactic war.
So far, so familiar. Another third-person cover shooter. You’d be forgiven for thinking of Gears of War or perhaps a slightly dumber Mass Effect. What can 5th Cell bring to bear against firepower like that?
The answer is simple: the unique way in which player’s movement is both expanded and limited at the same time adds the extra dimension to combat both figuratively and literally. Using your jetpack you can fly, which is a bonus over most similar games. However this freedom of flight is (initially frustratingly) limited to sheltering at prescribed cover spots.
This lends itself to a very strategic approach as you get to know your way around both the controls and the arenas of combat. Shooting mid-air slows you down, for example, so you must decide whether to boost and speed up or try to gun down your opponent as you approach the next cover spot. The horror as you realise just before you land that it’s packed with enemy drones is genuine, as battle takes on a considered yet still slightly frantic mood.
Battle arenas themselves are fairly bland and reflect little of their geographical location – for a game promising globe-trotting and worldwide conflict, there’s little to identify Europe apart from South America. Weaponry perhaps lacks a certain punch – while upgradable either by in-game credit earning or in-game purchasing with real money, there’s not perhaps the same level of innovation in the actual killing methods as there is in the gameplay mechanic itself.
Drones awarded for kill-streaks are a good idea, and they also seemed to be a way of introducing handicapping to proceedings – I certainly felt like my initial encounters were evened up by what seemed like a generous supply of drones despite the absence of my kill-streak, which took a few goes to really start becoming a reality.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned a single-player campaign – it’s a testament to Fifth Cell that they’ve managed to create an engaging title without one, and it shows confidence in their product to not bolt on a rushed 5 hour solo mission, or shoehorn a complex narrative into proceedings.
It’s online only, so you’ll need a Gold subscription to play, and hopefully a supportive community (read: willing cannon fodder) out there in the wires to keep the kill count ticking over. While perhaps not quite a total reinvention of the genre, it’s certainly proof that there’s room still for a bit of tinkering.
Format: Xbox 360 via XBLA
Price: £10.20 (1200 MS points)
Developer: 5th Cell