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5th Cell's Slaczka on the road from Scribblenauts to Hybrid

A gritty sci-fi shooter from the makers of... Scribblenauts? To quote one of today's greatest cultural luminaries: “all the ladies in the house say 'whaaat?'” But that's exactly where 5th Cell is headed, and lest you fear the developer's colorful creative streak has aged to a dull gray, know this: Hybrid was one of our favorite games at GDC.

For the uninitiated, some background: developer 5th Cell made a name for itself with cutesy, candy coated titles like Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life. However, Scribblenauts was especially notable for its extremely daring mechanic of giving you the power to create everything ever. Its sequel, Super Scribblenauts, perfected that formula, running rooster hat-clad hero Maxwell through first grade and teaching him the mighty power of adjectives. Oh, and to not strongly contemplate suicide at your every errant stylus tap, which we're really hoping was something he was forced to pick up outsidehis first grade classroom.

So then, where to next? When you've already given players the power to make God fight a spacesuit-wearing Cthulhu while dressed as Gordon Freeman, what's left to do? If you said, “make Scribblenauts 3,” then you clearly don't know 5th Cell. Or you're Bobby Kotick. Either way, 5th Cell creative director Jeremiah Slaczka thinks that only serves to pigeonhole developers. And in a creative industry, that's basically a death sentence.

“We went for it because we went for it,” he told VG247 after a behind-closed-doors play session at GDC. “Artistically, we wanted to be very different from our other titles. The problem is, people lump people in their boxes, so 5th Cell's box is quirky and cute and kiddy, right? But we can do other stuff too, and we wanted to show that. We can do gritty. Here's power armor and futuristic and all that stuff. Why not try it? And this is XBLA, so why not experiment?”

And make no mistake: despite outward appearances, Hybrid is definitely an experiment. Like many other shooters, the game depicts a war between two opposing, trigger-happy factions – in this case, the Paladins and the Variants – but that's where the similarities end. Beyond that, the game is an incredibly refreshing break from online shooting's sadly overstuffed legion of Call of Duty copycats, Gears of War wannabes, and Halo clones.

A change of pace

So, what's the big, game-changing gun in Hybrid's arsenal? Well, foremost, it's packing a movement system that you won't find anywhere else in the genre. See, instead of having direct control over your character with the typical dual analog setup, Hybrid only allows you to target pieces of cover and tap A to move to them, or double tap A for a burst from your jetpack. After that, your character does the rest, immediately booking it to wherever you command him - even if it's a headlong dive into Bullet In Brain City.

Of course, there's far more to it than that. While your character moves from cover-to-cover, you're able to aim and fire. Meanwhile, tapping Y changes which side of cover your character's thanking his lucky stars he's behind (hint: it's usually the one that's not being pelted by a literal bullet storm – as opposed to the kind that involves killing dicks), and the X button allows you to move to your far left or right. Also, in a brilliant twist, the ceiling's speckled with cover points as well, and that's where your jetpack comes into play. There's nothing quite like hanging upside-down like some sort of murderous stalagtite.

"If we fail, we fail. If we succeed, we succeed, right? At least we got to do what we wanted to do.”

It all sounds horrifically convoluted on paper, but in practice, it's incredibly intuitive and elegant. After spending a few minutes getting accustomed to the control scheme, we were gracefully hopping about like burly, armor-clad ballerinas. And we loved it. It completely changed the pace of battle, forcing players to move methodically and plan ahead. Slaczka explained the inspiration behind the almost RTS-like control scheme, saying that its aim is really to be the best of both worlds.

“We want kind of both [tactics and chaos]. We definitely want tactical, because the whole point is that when you're in cover, you're safe. But you can get flanked, and that's kind of the point. It's like, if I'm here and you're there, we're both safe – and the whole point is to try to get around me and flank me. There's definitely the tactical nature. But there's also a lot of frantic-ness to it. So we kind of wanted to merge the two. We wanted the traditional shooter, and we wanted to layer 5th Cell innovation on top of that. It was kind of always what we wanted to do with the game,” he said.

Devil's in the details

That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. You're also able to pick between a multitude of guns and special powers, which – in much the same spirit as blood relative and physical opposite Scribblenauts – can lead to some pretty wild combinations. For instance, we had quite a nice time with a combat shotgun and temporary infinite ammo, which was exactly as unnecessarily brutal as it sounds.

Another of our favorite powers, meanwhile, tied directly into Hybrid's second central system, which 5th Cell is calling “squads on demand.” It's an apt title, too, as a single press on the d-pad will warp a CPU-controlled ally straight to the frontlines. No muss, no fuss. You're given three different varieties of all-too-loyal follower to choose from: machine gunners that follow you around, sentries that are essentially stationary gun emplacements, and swordsmen that appear to have recently graduated from the Halo Elite's School for Anger Management. One of the player powers, then, allows you to instantly replinish your stock of squadmates, which can be a potential life-saver in tight spots. Alternatively, it can lead to unbridled hilarity – for instance when you (by which we may mean “we”) decide that it'd be smart to repeatedly spawn sentries in the same highly death-prone position, leading to a laughably tall pile of bodies for all to see.

Now, the more experienced multiplayer folks among you probably read that last paragraph, called your local law enforcement agency, and told them to call off the search, because balance is dead. Slaczka, however, reassured us that – despite its relative inexperience in the genre - 5th Cell's doing everything in its power to keep a level playing field.

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A video of Hybrid's biggest features
in action.

“We're still in alpha, so we're still trying to figure things out,” he explained. “It's just like with Scribblenauts. We have the shooter mechanics down: the controls and how the joystick feels. That's set. We know how to do that. Just how the gameplay itself plays, we have to do a lot of iteration and play-testing and seeing what people do.

“So one thing that's popular right now is the shield-shotgun [combo]. You fly in, put a shield up, and fire. So it's like 'do we like this? Do we not like this? Is it overpowered?' There are a lot of things we have to balance. But one of the reasons we made it so you can only have one weapon and one ability is to be able to balance it really easily.”

The big picture

Even at such an early stage, it was remarkable how well everything came together. The small scale of each match, the pacing, the powers, the CPU squads – it all felt so natural. Matches were lightning quick, too, which kept the action light and enjoyable regardless of which side of the gun barrel we were on. Based on what we played, Hybrid is shaping up to be a very different kind of shooter – but it's no less polished or intuitive for it. It's that rare sort of game that – after an all-too-brief demo session – had us clamoring for more. As far as Slaczka and co. are concerned, that's mission accomplished.

“We started 5th Cell from nothing, so I wasn't a game creator or anything before that,” he said. “So I don't know why people don't try new things. Maybe they're afraid of spending money. There's a lot of money involved, so it's risky if it doesn't work out. But, for us, we have this whole mentality where you're either first-to-market or best-in-breed. Our studio's much smaller and we've never done a shooter before, so we're not going to be best-in-breed, right? So let's be first-to-market. Let's be something new and different and unique. That's why people want to play our game. They're like 'hey, did you try this? It's really new and interesting and different.'”

“We relish in it. We love it. Dude, I wake up every day – and I think people working for the company wake up every day – and go 'I love working at 5th Cell. This is hella fun, because we're doing stuff that nobody else is trying.' Whatever. If we fail, we fail. If we succeed, we succeed, right? At least we got to do what we wanted to do.”

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