Last year Microsoft acquired the Cambridge-based developer Ninja Theory, best known recently for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but also the studio behind the ill-fated (if great) DmC reboot and games such as Enslaved. The acquisition made sense for both parties: Microsoft Game Studios gained a top-tier studio with proven chops; Ninja Theory got financial security, and could just focus on making games.
Bleeding Edge, the first fruits of this acquisition, comes as something of a surprise - or perhaps it was all-too-predictable. Ninja Theory excels at thirdperson combat games, and this is a thirdperson combat game. The new element this time around is a focus on competitive multiplayer, and nothing less than Overwatch. Bleeding Edge is heavily influenced by Blizzard’s class-based FPS to the extent that, while no characters are exactly identical, there’s huge crossover in abilities.
In the beta version I played the ‘dojo’ training setup allowed for two-on-two group fights against AI, before the matches set teams of four against one another: the map on show had three objective pads, which light up at different times, and the goal is to get your team’s score up through holding objectives rather than going around just KO-ing everyone.
Even if, in the end, that’s what it boils down to. Matches begin with each team at different ends, then cycle through the three objective pads, forcing teams to move around and ambush stragglers. The visual cues are clear in team fights: it’s obvious who the healer is, the tank’s huge, and the dude spinning around with two swords outstretched should probably be avoided.
And there is the opportunity to hand out some extremely satisfying beatings. In one match I played a dude with a guitar whose default ult is an AoE lightning attack (all characters have two to choose from). During a fight I caught the other team’s healer in the corner, combo-ed him into a launch, set him on fire in the air, stunned him when he hit the ground, and delivered the coup de grace right in the corner. His allies turned up, I slid out from that corner on my knees like Freddie Mercury, and dropped the ult. My mates may have helped with the final blows, but I’m chalking that up as a team kill.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Bleeding Edge as a combat experience is that, in order to make a loosely hack-and-slash thirdperson style work in multiplayer, it has changed some elements of how these games (usually) work. The pace is much slower than fans of the genre will be used to, while combos are limited to a basic four-hitter and chaining your abilities together. It has a loose lock-on that sometimes struggles to track fast-moving characters, and all the scenery-stroke-camera problems endemic in the genre. It doesn’t feel like a best-in-class experience.
I know, right: impossible to forget about Max Anarchy. Platinum’s multiplayer online brawler was enormous fun, but some dodgy netcode and a general lack of appetite saw the game sent out to die. It’s a fate that has discouraged others from trying: thirdperson brawlers have subsequently stayed to singleplayer thrills, with multiplayer bonuses (as in the recent DMC5) or some form of co-op (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2).
No word yet on whether Bleeding Edge has a campaign sitting alongside the multiplayer (as Max Anarchy did), though it seems unlikely. The current roster is divided into damage classes, support, and tanks. There are some nice ideas here, though you’ve seen almost everything before: I became fond of El Bastardo, a dual-wielding nutter whose blows boost his own shields, and whose ult can suddenly make him do AoE damage just as the enemy team piles on.
The aesthetic is a kind of grungy twist on various character archetypes, some of whom are clearly inspired by classic brawler weapons: with the guitar dude I couldn’t help but think of DMC3’s Dante. This character is a tank-killer: he can slide through and set ‘em on fire, he can breathe flame, and he can throw his ‘axe’ to stun.
The more straightforward-looking options include a samurai and a floaty healer with a peashooter, while the wilder-looking characters include a granny in a bionic suit and an avian assassin who specialises in finishing off opponents. Every character has their basic attack, three special moves, and a choice of ults.
There are a lot of small choices during a match of Bleeding Edge that feel great to get right. Certain specials, for example, are cast on your target with one button press and cast on yourself with two: so you can whack a shield on your mate if they’re taking a beating, or do it to yourself in a similar situation.
If you’re thinking of Overwatch, again, I can’t blame you. The similarities run through this game’s veins and unfortunately to its detriment, because the question is what does it do better?
After a few matches the only conclusion is: not much. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with Bleeding Edge. Hitting opponents feels fun. Matches do produce an element of that push-me-pull-you quality that good team games excel at. Hell, if your team stays on the objective you’ll probably win. Despite this the feeling is of a game that’s nice at best, but inferior to the obvious competition, and with nothing unique to keep players interested.
I wonder whether Bleeding Edge is a Ninja Theory side-project, or an augur of things to come under Microsoft. Hellblade and the studio’s past work was notable for its strong narrative focus and originality, which isn’t in evidence here, and the impression you’re left with is of a game that, frankly, a lot of studios could make.
We know Ninja Theory can do decent combat systems, and this is proof of that. But beyond that it’s clear this studio can, and should, be doing much more.