With such an overloaded market, shooters seriously need to innovate to give players what they want. I am not going to pick on first person or third because both are oversaturated with Ghost Recon and Call of Duty knockoffs. Gears of War took a different approach by requiring players to focus on a cover mechanic while in battle, and as the fans will tell you, it worked. 5th Cell’s Hybrid borrows this principle, enhancing it by requiring the player to jump from cover to cover without free movement.

5th Cell is best known for the great Drawn to Life and innovative Scribblenauts titles. Months back a friend clued me into a site that was allowing players to register for a beta code. Luck rained on me and an invitation landed in my email box a few weeks later. Hybrid uses the almighty Source Engine, to create its setting. It is the year 2032 and an implosion over Australia has opened an alternate dimension. This strange new world’s inhabitants (Variants) are in battle with the Paladins over something called Dark Matter. The tutorial will do a great job explaining the rest of the story. You will choose one of these sides at the outset without the option to change your mind down the road. The choice did not seem to have any effect outside of what team you represent when playing.

One of the first things I noticed was how odd it felt to lack free movement. The tutorial did an excellent job of getting me somewhat comfortable with the new gravity free world, training me to jump from cover to cover. The purpose is to eliminate the enemy to gain the area’s Dark Matter, but with perspective and gravity skewed in this title, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. The unique feeling of weightlessness allows the player to jet pack from wall to ceiling as long as there is a glowing cover point. Most of these are pretty obvious, but each level could have used more points to take cover.

The beta carried three match options: Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Overlord. The first two are standard, but the third has players killing each other to gain their Overlord (an increased damage ability). Each time you are killed, your damage is halved and the first to 21 kills is the winner. Team Deathmatch seemed to be the most popular. Before going into a match players can select weapons, mods or perks and abilities. These ranged from shields to grenades and were limited in either amount given or time needed to recharge.

Stringing kills together unlocks droids to use in battle. The bigger the streak, the more deadly the droid. These felt cheap for the most part and the assassin droid never seemed to miss when aiming at human players. The droids are a cool idea, and I hope 5th Cell will balance them down the road.

You have the choice of three maps: Generator, Defense Array and Dry Dock. All have a general space station look with cover points strewn about. One level in particular had an upside down cover point that was approachable only from one side. This piece of shielding also provided an advantage due to its elevated location. This lead to a race, as the first team there could hold this point and almost always win the match.

Choosing a match begins with selecting a continent from the current world map. Within each continent there are battles to choose from, and each has a percentage on screen for available Dark Matter. Once an area has been drained, that area will not be a selectable option for battle. Over the hours I spent in game, the areas that were at 100% never reset or opened back up. Overall, the maps looked decent but were pretty standard when considering some of the levels found in top notch shooters like Gears of War or Modern Warfare.

The controls have a comfortable loose feel and the learning curve is pretty easy on newcomers. Firing, reloading and movement are all mapped similarly to other shooting titles, which makes the transition pretty smooth. The absence of free movement can be kind of a bummer when multiple players are on the same cover point. This lead me to situations where my character was jarred and jostled around until I was squarely behind a wall. I like the addition of the B button as a retreat to prior cover and the use of the Y button to flip over the cover in the event of being flanked.

There are a few things I hope 5th Cell will work on between now and release. Sniping seemed a little too easy and led to a lot of teams resorting to that tactic. Depending on the map, this could lead to lopsided match ups. I was not joined to a match of more than 3 players per team. Smaller battles worked well enough, but bigger maps could become a real headache with such a low player count per team. Weapons and sound effects seemed to be muted or muddy. I use a decent surround sound system, and even adjusting the levels did not help the sound effects. Thankfully, there is plenty of time for 5h Cell to take what they learn from beta feedback and improve the final version.

Hybrid is set for a summer 2012 release via Xbox Live Arcade and will be priced at 1,200 Microsoft Points.