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Fighting Mental Muscle Memory in ‘Hybrid’

I like Hybrid, the new downloadable shooter for Xbox LIVE, but from the very beginning, something about it bothered me. The shooting mechanics were fine, the equipment was interesting, the various modes were all fun and different, but there was something about it, something at its very core that just nagged at the back of my mind and made it hard to play for an extended period of time. It was only after trying to explain this feeling to a friend that I was able to finally latch onto the issue: Hybrid combines the controls of a cover-based shooter with the pacing of a first-person shooter — an awkward combination since the two genres encourage conflicting behavior.

I use cover extensively in Hybrid, but it demands I forget everything I’ve learned from playing other cover-based shooters. Most shooters like that are born from the Gears of War “stop and pop” school of thought — with emphasis on the “stop.” These shooters teach you that cover is safe. Battles are designed to encourage you to “dig in” behind some piece of land. You stay there, in safety, waiting for your opponent to expose himself. It’s a slow kind of shooter, relatively speaking. You’re not spending a lot of time running or jumping, and your avatar is not meant to be lithe or maneuverable. When you see an enemy, you stop, and you only engage in short bursts — the “pop.” In most cases, the more defensive soldier will be victorious.

Stopping is dangerous in Hybrid. It leaves you open to flanking. If you get in cover and no one is immediately shooting at you, you should push forward or turn around to cut off the person inevitably coming up behind you or go to the side. Just go somewhere — otherwise, someone is going to get the drop on you. Popping is also frowned upon since gunfire is coming from so many directions that you’ll almost always receive more damage than you can put out. Instead, Hybrid encourages you to create distractions. Spawn a big Warbringer droid to draw fire and then charge your enemy, for example, or have one teammate “pop” as a ploy while others flank. In most cases, the more aggressive soldier will be victorious.

And since movement between cover is automated, the action is sped up faster than Gears of War could ever dream of being. Rather than sitting and waiting for enemies to come to me, I find myself going out and hunting the enemy. Perhaps as a result, the average lifespan in Hybrid is less than thirty seconds. This by itself makes it more akin to Call of Duty than Gears of War. Unlike most cover-based shooters, Hybrid is not methodical. It doesn’t actively reward patience and careful teamwork, though those are certainly not frowned upon. Instead it more often rewards reaction speed, instinctual movement, pure thoughtless skill as opposed to deep tactics.

Intersections are particularly dangerous since you can be hit while still crouched into a ball. This is a unique problem in Hybrid. The battlefield in most cover-based shooters is very deliberately divided between you and the enemy. You’re on this side, they’re on that side, and we face each other like two armies from the 1700s. At least until one lone wolf on your team breaks off and then everyone scatters.

By contrast, Hybrid is more like guerilla warfare. You’re attacked from the front, then the side, then from behind. You have to watch every direction while simultaneously trying to attack from every direction yourself. It’s telling that there are multiple spawn point in Hybrid. While there are usually two distinct sides on a map, those are not the only place where you can respawn. You can appear anywhere on the map, which creates a very fluid battlefield.

To its credit, Hybrid makes this weird combination work; an extra impressive feat considering developer 5th Cell has never made a shooter before. It takes a while to get used to the change, to fight off the mental equivalent of muscle memory, but that’s part of the appeal. Hybrid is definitely something different, and not just with the obvious stuff like controls. It approaches the shooter genre completely devoid of baggage and expectation. It’s not a remake or a reboot. It’s not trying to evoke or mimic another game. It comes into this stale genre free to experiment, free to throw a wrench into the gears of my brain.

I didn’t realize how conditioned I was to cover until playing Hybrid. Now that I’ve broken free from the mental muscle memory, I wonder if it will be this awkward going back to Gears of War.