Hybrid (Xbox360)

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The definition of the word Hybrid is something that is made by combining two different elements (i.e. a mixture). The Xbox LIVE Arcade title, Hybrid, is an interesting game whose game design elements mimic its name. Hybrid is an online-only multiplayer cover-based shooter based on Valve’s Source game engine. Despite my misgivings with the game, it surely does break a lot of preconceived ideas of how a shooter can be played with its mixture (and also rethinking) of classic shooter elements from other successful titles.

Hybrid Screenshot 1

Dark versus Light – it matters not. What matters most is Dark Matter!

Hybrid takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth where two factions battle to extract precious Dark Matter from districts throughout the world. Players must choose to side with either the Variant or the Paladin, and battle for their faction to achieve victory for the season. Each season lasts as long as it takes for one of the two sides to reach the target amount of extracted Dark Matter, whereupon the season resets and all districts are once again open for pillaging. The progress in the world is persistent, meaning that as players battle for isolated districts their individual progress will have a direct impact on their faction’s overall progress across the world. If your faction wins the season you will receive a reward for your trouble too, so there’s more to play for than just pride.

Tactically, the game is broken down into selecting which continent and district to fight over, with each district offering boosts to certain character specialisations and additional XP rewards depending on the current state of affairs in that district and in that continent. For example, fighting in a hot zone (where both factions are close to victory) will earn more reward than fighting in a district that has already been captured. This strategic element encourages players to battle for the zones that really matter, rather than picking a random location with very little sense of importance, or contribution to a ‘bigger picture’ struggle and this design approach maintains the overall sense of a bigger conflict.

Hybrid Screenshot 2

Hybrid – where the hard-workers earn rewards while the wealthy just buy them

Hybrid also uses both in-game purchasing models and progress-related rewards systems, allowing players to unlock additional weapons or items either through spending Microsoft Points or achieving ranks inside the game. In other words, if you can’t bare to wait until rank 10 to unlock that shiny new helmet you can simply invest in some Microsoft Points and buy it! Of course, if you’re the frugal type then patience, performance, and perseverance will eventually make that shiny helmet yours anyway. The game is truly a hybrid of marketplace and reward.

Character customisation amounts to choosing your appearance (some combinations of which, curiously, will improve XP rewards), your weapons, specialisations, and power buffs. An interesting aspect with the specialisations is that these can be boosted throughout a season, but once the season has ended the specialisations reset for everyone and you have to start climbing the ladder of progress again from the bottom, while all other XP unlocks and your player level remain intact.

The actual combat in Hybrid is simple enough – as with standard cover-based shooters the emphasis is on covering fire and moving behind obstacles to keep yourself alive. The real difference with Hybrid is that there is no mode of movement available to players besides jumping from one cover to the next. Simply point your cursor at another mode of cover and jump there. In really hairy situations you may need to retreat, and this can be achieved either by turning around and looking for the previous cover point and hitting jump, or tapping “B” to retreat to the last piece of cover you used. A nice touch to this advance and retreat element is that you are only allowed to retreat once before you need to advance again, forcing players to engage their enemies and be very mindful of the benefits of advancing rather than retreating.

Hybrid Screenshot 3

Hybrid – streaks ahead or a monotonous drone?

Earning kill streaks will unlock drones that can be deployed at any time – these drones grow in potency as your kill streaks develop, ranging from the simple support fire drone to the heat-seeking Preyon that almost always guarantees a kill. In addition to the kill streak incentives, players can elect a mission challenge before each round to earn extra XP from challenges ranging from simply scoring five headshots to earning three buzz kills, and so on.

One unique aspect of Hybrid as an online multiplayer shooter is the size of the games; six players in two teams of three. For a game that is exclusively online it would seem somewhat counter-intuitive to limit the player mayhem to only three per side and even I was skeptical of this rationale when I first stepped into Hybrid. Having played several matches I can attest to the small teams not being a problem at all and in some ways, given the nature of the small maps and cover-hopping, it actually works out better than having larger teams. Besides, if there are any demands for more opponents amongst the players, the drones contribute to the numbers and provide excellent targets anyway!

There seem to be plenty of maps to choose from and almost as many game modes. The focus of the game is certainly the tactics and having a smaller team makes coordinating covering fire and flanking manoeuvres a breeze. When I first played Hybrid I found the experience to be a bit too tame when compared to other behemoth titles such as EA’s Battlefield 3, but after adjusting to the concept of smaller teams and the tactics involved, I found myself really enjoying Hybrid. I’d even venture a notion that in a few areas, Hybrid does a better job with its take on action and tactics than other shooters out there do with theirs.

Hybrid Screenshot 4

Hybrid – Hai Bo!

There is, unfortunately, a big ‘but’ to Hybrid. As much as Hybrid mixes many good gaming elements together into a fairly simple and addictive XBLA shooter, as an online-only game Hybrid also mixes a good deal of frustration with the pleasure it dishes out. Much like the game’s warring factions, the frustration comes from two sides: general lobby matchmaking and the South African lag factor.

Most rounds of Hybrid will last from four to eight minutes (and in some cases, the time limit is fixed to five minutes so you know you can’t stretch it to a hopeful eight minutes), and a big problem is the fact that lobby matchmaking can take almost as long. In one instance I started a matchmaking session while I went outside and watered my garden. When I came back, a game still hadn’t been found. I suspect a large part of the problem also has to do with the second issue I have with the game – the bad pings in South Africa, and the fact that Hybrid is probably trying to filter out bad pings from the available games which means we have to suffer the ignominy of being dropped from potential games in favour of our first-world counterparts.

Hybrid Screenshot 5

Even when I played with Oltman online with his 6Mbps line he had lag that was as bad as mine, and we were clearly being earmarked for low priority games which caused us to sit for several minutes before we could find a game. Another major setback with the way matchmaking is performed is in the team balancing – while Oltman and I had a combined level rating of fifteen, we were matched up against a team consisting of three level 48’s. You can imagine the carnage. We waited five minutes only to play an embarrassing two minutes of respawn button hammering. At least we did earn some XP for our masks.

Speaking of which, one final ‘feature’ of Hybrid is the lack of a timeout in each round. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that the rounds aren’t long enough to warrant a timeout for idle players, but this facilitates lazy players joining a game and sitting in the menu while they do something else, all the while earning XP at the end of the round just for being involved in the game. I know most people wouldn’t do this, but I had at least two instances where I had lost patience with the matchmaking and came back half an hour later to find I had earned XP for participating in a round that I hadn’t done anything in. In a team of only three if one player is idle that can make a huge difference to the outcome of the game (not to mention the enjoyment).

Hybrid Screenshot 6

Hybrid shows a lot of potential and it says a lot for the quality of the game that I still found the game to be enjoyable despite the hours lost in the lobby trying to find a match. Even having to contend with repeat rubber-banding and the burden of teleporting opponents (due to the lag, not their specialisation) could not convince me that this game – given the ideal conditions and sufficient patience – was beyond redemption. Hybrid certainly shows a lot of promise and one can only hope that in the future the Southern tip of Africa can be included in the fun, because Hybrid really has the potential to be a lot of fun. The disappointing delays and lag for this end of the world has cost Hybrid one, possibly two, stars and it is such a pity. It certainly is – at least for now – a game only to be purchased by the brave and the patient.

The Good: A fresh take on cover-based shooters; simple gameplay that just works; tactics and coordination can work a dream.

The Bad: Lag; rubber-banding; slow games; almost 1:1 ratio of time in the lobby and time in the game.