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Bleeding Edge

Ninja Theory on the Bleeding Edge

We visited Ninja Theory in Cambridge for a close-up look at the studio's eye-catching online brawler.

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Bleeding Edge has been on a journey. It's an online arena brawler that leans into the trademark combat-focused style of its creators, Ninja Theory, with an emphasis on close-quarters carnage. Yet on the face of it, it could be just another hero shooter, the latest in the long line of pretenders that have been iterating on the cartoon stylings of Team Fortress 2. But Bleeding Edge is not Overwatch with fisticuffs, and it's not a Borderlands brawler either, despite the cel-shaded similarities and its irreverent attitude.

After playing the recent closed beta, we had a good feel for the game before we sat down to play it again during a rare trip to a studio that seldom opens its doors to the press. We got there nice and early, long enough to scan the displays in the foyer and reflect on the breadth of the studio's past output. With games as diverse as Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice and DMC Devil May Cry in their collective back catalogue, a multiplayer brawler doesn't necessarily feel like a logical next step for the now Microsoft-owned developer, but when we were told more about the influences that have informed this new endeavour, it starts to make more sense.

Bleeding Edge actually started life as a MOBA, a favourite genre of creative director Rahni Tucker, but the moment-to-moment experience was already intense enough on its own without having towers to tackle and minions to massacre. Despite this Dota-inspired heritage, the influence that we felt most keenly was that of those fighting games that ride the line between technicality and arcade accessibility, games like Street Fighter and Tekken. Each of the characters on the roster in Bleeding Edge has two stances that the player must choose between, focusing the combatant via a specific ultimate ability that they'll be able to call upon once or twice during the course of a match. This combat-first approach is, of course, synonymous with Ninja Theory and its trademark style, and it was the plan right from the very start.

"That was the only thing about the game that we knew at the start: it was going to be third-person action-combat, it was going to be team multiplayer, and we were going to put them together. Everything else was up for grabs, but that was the core of the idea," Tucker told us during our chat at the studio's Cambridge office last month. Senior designer Gerald Poon then chimed in, adding that "the game modes, the map size, how many players per team; that was almost secondary."

Bleeding Edge

The roster of characters really impressed us, especially in terms of its diversity. While it wasn't necessarily intended to be inclusive, it's nice to see such an eclectic blend of characters thrown together, with men and women of all ages and shapes and sizes. Hell, there's even a new species represented, with mecha-dolphin Mekko the latest addition to the line-up.

"We made a conscious effort to try and balance the number of male and female characters, but that was really the only thing that we were consciously making an effort to do," Tucker said when we asked about the roster. "The team comes from everywhere, we have all different backgrounds and tastes and cultural experiences, and we're all from different countries, I think it just naturally came through as a part of our creative process."

"A lot of the characters started off as white box characters," Poon added. "We designed a skill set and didn't know what they looked like. Then, when it came time to design them, we really just asked: 'who would do this sort of stuff and what kind of character in the real world might have these abilities?'"

The design journey of this eccentric band of oddball warriors seems storied, but also an intimate process of discovery. During our time at the studio, we talked to sound designers, artists and animators, as well as development leads, discovering more about how the creative process came together. The game has a strong artistic streak, with cel-shaded visuals that while vaguely reminiscent of Borderlands have their own retro sci-fi style inspired by '90s pop culture (apparently it was the formative decade for much of the team). Tucker and her team also pointed to manga such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, although they have lightened the tone a little since those early days, and we were enthusiastically told about the influence that Tekkonkinkreet has had on the project.

Bleeding Edge

There's a swagger to the whole thing, which is important when you consider that a key factor of the success of games like this is the quality of the character design. In this regard, there's one character who stands out in Bleeding Edge, and that's Buttercup; a curvy lady who rolls with a rockabilly style and a motorbike that can be used to devastating effect. She was the first fully-realised character and a reference point, not only for the art team but also for future characters.

"The way we test the characters is more like, in Guardians of the Galaxy when they're all in prison, you've got these weird characters all standing next to each other," lead artist Aaron McElligott explained. "We would have Buttercup and we would bring in the character that we had made, at various levels of development, say Daemon, keep bringing him in and seeing whether they feel comparative. Are these people that can talk to each other?"

"I feel like she's the complete package," principle animator Warwick Mellow added later when the conversation returned to Buttercup. "For me personally, I love characters that have transformative abilities or that aren't exactly as they seem at first glance. So the fact that she can transform into a motorcycle, I'm sure that first time someone experiences that they'll think 'I didn't expect that', and for me, that's high art in character design."

Art comes before audio, but the soundscape is a fundamental part of the experience too. We talked to the audio team, which seems to consist entirely of Daniele Galante and David García, about their process when working with voice actors, and how they create sound effects. The thing that really stood out, however, was the soundtrack. Mirroring the visual aesthetic, there are '90s-inspired tunes with breakbeat, funk, and hip-hop beats on hand to warm players up ahead of each match. There isn't actually any in-game music, however, based on the positive feedback from the ongoing beta tests, that may well be added in the future, audio lead David García mentioned during our chat, although they don't want to distract players from the task at hand with intrusive tunes and a balance will have to be found. There's already a lot going on.

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Feeding into the chaos is the visual noise on stage during battle. At times the screen can fill up with area-of-effect markers, visual effects linked to attacks, and environmental factors to consider; it can be hard to keep track of everything at once, especially when all eight players are locked in a battle over an objective. We were told that adding more ranged characters helped spread the play out a bit, but familiarity will also help players make sense of what can, at times, look like chaos. "The more you play it, the more it balances itself out, and you don't all throw yourselves in the middle," McElligott told us. "Learning the game is a lot about positional play."

Balance is key to all aspects of Bleeding Edge, then, and this is certainly true when it comes to assembling an effective team. You can only pick a hero once per team, and so naturally it makes sense to blend damage dealers, tanks, and support. We mentioned an eclectic cast of characters, but things are a little more traditional when it comes to how the classes dovetail, generally speaking at least. One thing we did appreciate, however, was the fact that the support role is really fleshed out and nuanced.

"The reason I wanted to make a team game is 'cause I like playing support," Tucker said, "and you have to have a team to have a support, right? Otherwise, you don't need them. If everyone can take care of themselves, it's not a team game anymore. It annoys me when games make the support role kind of an afterthought. It had to be as cool to play a support as it did to play a damage dealer or a tank."

For our part, we enjoyed playing as a tank, not just while we were at the studio in Cambridge, but also during the closed beta that preceded our visit. Perhaps our favourite character was the E. Honda-inspired Makutu with his combo moves that see him slap his opponents silly before juggling them up into the air and then slamming them down to earth. Like every one of the characters, there's real depth, with multiple attacks (all on cooldown timers) along with a fully-featured control scheme. There's a lot to remember and it can be easy to forget the world around you and instead zone in on one player on the enemy team (if you do that, their healer is usually a good place to start).

Bleeding Edge

There are a bunch of more accessible characters, like the guitar-playing Nidhoggr (who also features prominently in the tutorial, making him even easier to get to grips with) and Daemon, a katana-wielding go-to for many first-time players. While the roster isn't overflowing with options right now, we played with nearly all of them in the dojo and they all feel distinct and nuanced.

"Maeve was very popular in the beta," McElligott told us later when we asked if there was a clear favourite during testing. "I think when people realised about her cooldown reset - 'cause when you kill someone all your abilities are up again, so she's kind of a character that can deal with a couple of people." She was one of the characters we tried in the Dojo, the training area where you can go two-on-two with AI-controlled bots and try out new moves. That's where we spent our time with the Mekko, the newly-announced mech suit-wearing dolphin. He's a more nuanced character for advanced players looking to affect the action in more subtle ways so it's hard to draw conclusions, but we absolutely love the character design if nothing else.

During our time at the studio, we also got a good look at the mod system that gives players a chance to tinker with their character. Each one is limited to three mods, and they all cost the same to unlock, so it's a zero-sum game where you can push your favourite characters in certain directions, enhancing your approach to suit your play style. We noted damage boosts, health buffs, and reduced cooldown timers; all minor improvements but when part of a more thoughtful build, the kind of enhancements that will give you a subtle advantage in battle.

There's not long until Bleeding Edge is out in the wild, but the fact that it's included in Game Pass means that there's a ready-made audience lined up and good to go, which should help Ninja Theory's arena brawler get the foothold it needs. After that, it's a case of supporting the game with more quality characters, new ways to play, and fresh maps to battle over. It's the standard hero shooter playbook, then, but if Ninja Theory can follow it with enough creativity and energy, and with potential access to Microsoft's entire back catalogue of IPs for potential future crossover appearances, we so no reason why Bleeding Edge won't be around for the long haul.

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