The ultimate goal is to take down my foe, sure, but the real challenge of Hybrid – and the real joy – is in bridging the gap between us. Hybrid is a cover-based, third-person shooter, but what sets it apart from every other virtual war zone with chest-high walls is that there is no ground between said walls. The only way to move from point A to point B is to fly there with your jet pack, a feat easily accomplished with the tap of a button.
During flight, you can move up, down and to the sides to avoid gunfire or to make a stealthier approach. You can also redirect your flight path to a different piece of cover in midair. If things get too hot, you can instantly reverse course and retreat to your starting position. It's not a free-form implementation of flight, in that you're always moving directly from one piece of cover to another, but clever retreats and course corrections can enable some impressive aerial acrobatics.
Of course, such theatrics leave your soldier floating in the air and vulnerable, and so Hybrid quickly becomes a game of cat and mouse. Each three-person team moves from cover to cover, jockeying for position and baiting opponents to make a mistake.
Take the scenario I described earlier, with two players on opposite ends of a large gap in a stalemate. Sure, I could just take off, start spraying and hope for the best, but Hybrid offers many more attractive options. I could summon an A.I. controlled drone to provide cover fire as I take to the air. I could use a teleport ability to instantly cross the distance, hoping the element of surprise will let me drop my opponent with a quick, blind-fired shotgun blast. Or, I could sit tight, lay down suppressing fire and wait for a teammate to flank him.
That's only a handful of the available options. Hybrid includes a wide variety of unlockable weapons, abilities and perks, allowing for an equally wide variety of tactics. Equip an LMG and a shield that briefly reduces damage on demand and watch your soldier turn into a flying tank, capable of charging entrenched positions or distracting enemies while your teammates move in from behind. Or, you might equip some grenades and a powerful shotgun, then toss a pineapple and watch the enemy flee from the explosion and right into your line of fire. Loadouts can be swapped upon death, so there's no reason not to try something new if one particular tactic isn't working.
It's worth noting that, while you can unlock every weapon in the game through normal play, you can also buy them with Credits, an in-game currency purchased with real money. The system for unlocking weapons through play is fairly flexible though. Whenever you receive a "pistol unlock," for example, you can unlock any pistol, so paying to unlock one early doesn't offer any significant advantage. If, however, you unlock a pistol and realize you don't like it, there's no way of knowing when the next "pistol unlock" will come along – unless you buy it, of course. Just to be clear, purchasing credits is absolutely unnecessary, and it doesn't take long to unlock a sizable arsenal the old-fashioned way. Still, the mere fact that buying weapons is an option may irk some players.
Beyond the equipment, there are drones awarded for kill streaks. Once earned, these can be summoned at any time to give you an extra edge. There are three drones to earn, ranging from the relatively puny Stalker to the hefty Warbringer and, finally, the Preyon, a terrifying assassin droid that almost guarantees an instant kill.
On top of the combat lies a persistent war, which forces players to choose one of two factions (the Paladins or Variants) and fight over planet Earth itself. Before each match, players choose a continent and a district in which to fight. Winning a match nudges that faction closer to victory in the given district and thus, in the war overall. Experience earned in each district also helps to level up your in-game perks, so being choosy about where you fight pays off, even if you don't care about which faction is winning. Personally, I do care, and believe that the persistent war adds an addictive element to Hybrid.
As usual, playing with strangers on Xbox Live is a gamble. The intimate three-on-three matches do allow for effective solo tactics, but nothing compares to playing with a coordinated group of friends. Whether you play with friends or not, however, you may be in for some long matchmaking queues. Playing with fellow Joystiq staffer Dave Hinkle, it wasn't uncommon for us to have to watch the matchmaking screen tick away for a minute or longer before finally finding a match. In fairness, Hybrid just launched – and had a few day one issues – so maybe the kinks are still being worked out. Once we entered a match, however, Hybrid played smoothly with only the occasional fit of latency (there's also host migration, which is a plus).
Opposing teams taking potshots at one another from cover is nothing new, and Hybrid doesn't really turn the concept on its ear, but supplanting the usual ground game with an entirely aerial one is a delightful twist. It turns every movement into a serous commitment, a dedicated choice. When that choice is to glide into the air and gently lob a grenade behind a pair of unsuspecting adversaries, that's just gravy.
This review is based on the final Xbox version of Hybrid, provided by 5th Cell.
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