Nowadays leaning behind low walls is as ubiquitous a part of gaming as pushing start or selecting a difficulty, so it can be difficult to remember just how much Gears of War changed the way we move around a three-dimensional space. The effect has been lessened by its sequels and myriad homages, but Epic's mantle-happy man-quest acted like a platformer flipped, where you jumped between cover points like clouds and blocks in a Mario game.
Hybrid, the online-only shooter from Scribblenauts developers 5th Cell, takes that concept and extrapolates it further. Not only do you leap between cover, now that's all you can do. There is no walking, no running, no circle-strafing. You're stuck on a wall, and to move, you simply aim at another, hit A, and your shiny-suited man will fly over there and lock himself in place.
Of course, on the way between walls, you're not completely stuck on a singular path. You can alter your trajectory to avoid incoming fire and activate a speed boost, but make no mistake; this is a shooter like no other. But that's not enough to make Hybrid actually worth playing, though.
Still, the game's three-on-three scraps are certainly enjoyable; they're robust, fast and suitably explosive . But they're also incredibly limited. The most common game is team deathmatch, which is a race to thirty kills in maps that loop. This construction means there's no frontline, so you're constantly being shot from behind by enemies who've swooped around without you being able to see them, and there's no real way of cultivating tactics - even moment-to-moment entrenchments or pincer movements. You just keep shooting until you die.
When you do manage to get into a flow, though, Hybrid feels richer and more complete. Racking up killstreaks lets you unleash drones into the fray, ranging from a piddly sentry turret up to a robotic ninja that swoops down on enemies and eviscerates them with a shriek. Blasting fools down from the sky is tangibly satisfying, and sufficiently different enough from other online shooters to stand out. There's even an exhaustive set of upgrades and customisation unlocks as you rank up. This isn't a half-baked effort, either; there's even an overarching metagame that sees you battling for power across continents. A lot of sweat has gone into this production.
Which is probably why it's so frustrating, both in broad terms and in purely mechanical ones. It's so rare for a non-AAA shooter to work so well straight out of the gate (we waited a couple of weeks before pulling the trigger on the review to make sure everything's up and running), but the scope for sustained play is so small. Once you've had a few games, even throwing in the 'oddball' style Artefact matches and King of the Hill into the rotation, there's no real sense of actual skill progression - only numerical. Comparing it to Battlefield is unfair, but that's a game that changes so much as you improve.
Hybrid never feels like that, and that's probably because there is not enough physical scope within its hard-track rulesets. The movement controls make the game unique, but they stop the matches themselves from being that, and the neat idea of a meta-campaign around world domination does little to lift the repetitive nature of the in-game firefights.
In small maps that almost all feel the same, encounters can only play out a few set ways. Even if you change your style and start leaping towards the enemy with a shotgun, there's so few ways to play it can only become boring.
A frustrating game, then. Had Hybrid appeared years ago, when this genre was still in the experimental stage, it could have blossomed into something beautiful. Now, though, it's destined to be nothing more than a forgotten idea, stuck behind a wall, trying desperately to get noticed.
Version Tested: Xbox 360