XBLA shooter Hybrid innovates by subtracting

The first non-portable game from the Scribblenauts team takes on mainstream shooters by eliminating one key feature: walking.

As Hybrid's tutorial begins, you kind of feel like a prisoner. That's true with many games, as tutorials love pausing combat to give you the next prompt, teach you the next mechanic, etc. But in Hybrid, you see your character on the screen – modeled in 3D, standing in a 3D world – yet the game doesn't let you walk.

You soon learn that's intentional. As a way to "make cover matter" in a third-person shooter, says 5th Cell producer Caleb Arseneaux, the developers eliminated on-foot movement in favor of letting you fly between cover points. You can't walk, run, or crawl. At any given moment, you're either in cover, or in the air on your way to your next cover spot.

While Hybrid has many impressive qualities – the high-budget look, the smooth controls, the metagame that pits two factions against each other with a clever design to keep things balanced – this restriction is its primary innovation, which on the surface makes the game seem simpler than other shooters.

"We don't actually view it as a restriction," says Arseneaux. "We actually enable players to fly around, go to the ceiling, go to the wall, use the drone system, use all the different weapon/ability combos. What we really like about this game is its accessibility ... it may seem a little bit complicated to watch, but going to cover and flying around is actually really easy to do, and it allows you to focus on just shooting guys."

Part of me agrees with him. The accessibility, without question, is there. Playing the game at a recent press event, it look less than a minute to understand everything and feel comfortable with the mechanics. And there are enough weapon and gadget options to keep things from becoming overly simple. With small environments and three-on-three battles, though, it does feel a bit less nuanced than other online shooters.

"We just changed the focus of what players can gain mastery in."

Arseneux's take? "Well I think that we just changed the focus of what players can gain mastery in," he says. "In other third-person shooters, and in other FPSes as well, the mastery is moving and shooting, being able to strafe, being able to find the different areas of the map. Our mastery is about using the weapons, using the abilities, using the drones, and knowing where people are."

While it sounds like spin, I think that's a great way to describe the game. In some ways, Hybrid seems like the game we should have gotten 20 years ago before modern shooters came along, instead of the game aiming to stir up the genre now. But forced limitations can lead to focused designs – there's a reason developers still make 2D games – and that approach seems like it's paying off pretty well here.

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