Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new.” A second definition is “novelty.” Within the gaming community, we typically refer to innovation when a game or mechanic exceeds the limits of traditional design. Yes, that is another way of saying “something new.” But while the dictionary allows for multiple interpretations of the word, some more positive than others, critics and gamers tend to associate innovation with progress.
Innovation is the next step. Innovation means design that allows for more satisfying gameplay; a subjective term to be sure. For instance, Gears of War revolutionized the shooter with the first great cover system within a video game. Since then, the feature has become a staple of the genre. Six years after the release of Gears of War, another developer has stepped up, also using Epic’s Unreal Engine, to show shooters a hint of the future.
Just over a week ago, Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell welcomed a group of players to join the beta for their upcoming third-person shooter, Hybrid. Since then, I’ve sunk more than five hours into the effort to take control of a chaotic globe and I’ve returned with some thoughts. While the game, by definition, features innovation, a term used liberally by 5th Cell Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka, my initial time with Hybrid struggles to engage me in the war for dark matter, instead offering an interesting but limited play experience.
If you’d really like to get an idea of Hybrid’s interesting premise, you’d be better off checking the game’s official synopsis. Hybrid’s fiction establishes the world as a persistent battlefield, in which players are constantly struggling for resources and control of land. It’s a unique setup for a multiplayer-only title that raises perceived stakes, but it’s mostly a frame for your endless skirmishes against players of the opposite faction.
Hybrid’s defining feature—one might say, innovation—is its cover-restricted combat. Rather than control a character that moves freely about the world, you navigate from cover to cover, using your jet pack to propel yourself forwards (or backwards). Players use their reticle to find new cover and press the A button to send their character hurtling towards their next destination. Characters move along predetermined paths, though you are given freedom to strafe and bob on your way to avoid fire or remain out-of-view. 5th Cell counters traversal’s loss of control with the ability to pick new routes mid-flight, allowing agile players to smoothly propel themselves throughout levels without sticking to cover at all. The flight frees up players to fire while between cover, though this slows you down considerably. Agility only goes so far; the majority of my deaths took place in all the spaces between cover.
The goal of Hybrid’s navigational restriction is to enhance other aspects of the game’s design, which includes a fair amount of strategy on the player’s part. By forcing vulnerability on airborne players, designers encourage fixed positions and tactical decisions. This is all good and well when it works, but Hybrid has yet to realize this potential.
I would never say that Hybrid’s shooting was anything less than competent. The game handles well enough, aiming is smooth and quick, and taking out enemies is fun. A variety of standard weapons fill out the game’s armory, but nothing truly out of the ordinary, or at least so far as I had unlocked in my playtime. My problem with the shooting mechanics is that they lack immediacy. Sure, zooming by an enemy mid-air incites a tense, panicked firefight, but most encounters play out with little excitement.
Firefights can feel rigid. At times, I felt like once I was caught in an enemy’s line of fire, it was difficult to break free and save myself. Another issue arises when an opposing player and you arrive at the same cover. Both have the option to retreat to your previous cover with the quick tap of the B button, but you’ll likely participate in a game of who-can-get-their-reticule-on-the-other-first before one of you dies. My experiences with close-quarters combat warned of the fruitlessness of intimate encounters. Hybrid functions better a range. Unfortunately, long-distance firefights, unless paired with a sniper rifle, feel equally futile. The aiming is simply not devised for that kind of precision since the game veers closer to being an arcade-style shooter, meaning its most effective at mid-range. It’s always fun under the right conditions, but achieving those conditions is not always manageable. It makes for an uneven experience.
The game takes place over ten different levels, three of which were available to beta testers. They are not particularly memorable, especially given that your focus is directed towards the parts of the level you can actually interact with—positions of cover. As such, my brain began to tune out the enjoyable but equally arbitrary surroundings. There are wrinkles to the design, like vertically-oriented and even upside down cover, but they add little to the dynamic. Limiting movement to cover leads to a sense of repetition. Though spawn points shift to different areas of the level to counter enemy positions, you’ll quickly learn the layout and pathways for levels. This may help in creating strategies, but over my playtime, I began to grow weary of traveling in the same designated lanes. I’ve mentioned that you can still move about while flying and change course, but I simply don’t enjoy being so leashed to an action. It’s a constant reminder that I only have a degree of agency within this world.
A thought rests at the bottom of my complaints: Hybrid is coming out on the wrong platform. Do not confuse my words; the game features nothing that ever signals amateur design. What I mean to say is that Hybrid’s innovation and gameplay would be groundbreaking on mobile devices and handhelds. For various reasons, such as scale, repetition, and even graphics, the game reminds me of Infinity Blade. Infinity Blade is superbly designed for its platform; it’s arguably the best action experience on a mobile device, but it can get tiresome and the scope never exceeds its small display. I feel as though the same criteria apply to Hybrid. Because Hybrid centers upon the many, smaller skirmishes taking place all over a warring globe, characterized further by brevity of matches and a six player capacity, it never grows beyond its narrow scale.
Before concluding, I feel it is important to mention one significant caveat. Throughout my five hour play time, I never had the chance to experience the game with a friend or even a communicative teammate. I only knew one other friend who had access to the beta and we were not able to link up. Games that require more thought and strategy typically work better with a cohesive unit of players rather than lone wolves roaming the map. I feel it would be unfair to critique the beta without mentioning that I may not have been playing under the intended conditions. Whether or not you think games have the luxury of requiring optimum conditions, the problem exists. Take the example of Left 4 Dead, a vastly different game when played alone or with seven others. I think Hybrid is ideal with two friends filling out your squad’s ranks, devising strategies and flanking enemies.
When programmers introduce new code into an existing infrastructure, a concern is that the addition may disrupt the previous stasis. In a similar vein, by introducing innovation to a genre or design philosophy, you open up the doors to other potential misfires. Game design is a constant battle of balancing features, especially in the multiplayer arena. I love the idea of a shooter that optimizes movement in favor of strategy; innovation is something I value as someone who spends a good majority of his gaming time firing bullets. That said, I didn’t feel any noticeable shift in Hybrid’s gameplay. There were moments where I was racking up kills, sending out various bots (a nice addition) to assist in the war effort, and smiling as I boosted around Hybrid’s world, but ultimately, its limitations were ever present in my mind, distracting me from the experience.
Let’s not forget that this entire discussion is based upon the beta build of 5th Cell’s upcoming release. A fair amount of balancing and tweaking will go a long way in the game’s favor. 5th Cell is an interesting developer and Jeremiah Slaczka is a strong voice for change within the gaming community. It would please this writer to see the team bring more great ideas to the table, but as of now, Hybrid has yet to grasp my attention beyond its potential. Hopefully the game’s release in summer will show a more refined game.