Given that Ninja Theory has established itself as a studio with a pedigree for fantastic single-player games, it’s interesting that its latest title is a strictly online multiplayer affair. With the outstanding Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice still lingering in the minds of many gamers and its sequel on the way, Bleeding Edge is a complete 180-degree turn in terms of tone: a colourful, over-the-top action game with an emphasis on a strange sense of humour.
It’s essentially Ninja Theory’s answer to Overwatch, then, but there’s just one problem: it’s the answer to a question nobody actually asked, and the result is fairly underwhelming, despite its attempt to make things interesting by focusing more on melee combat than first-person gunplay.
Set in the year 2057, Bleeding Edge pits two teams of four against each other in a series of different types of battle. And when we say ‘a series’ we mean two. Sadly, at launch there are only a literal couple of modes to play, and the game chooses a random one for you each time you enter a match.
The first of these is Objective Control, which is an elaborate take on King of the Hill. Three objective hotspots are dotted around the map, and at regular phases certain ones will light up. The aim is to ‘claim’ these hotspots by standing on them until they turn your colour, then defend them from oncoming opponents. You gain a point for each second you claim a hotspot, and whoever reaches 600 wins.
The other mode (and arguably the weaker of the two) is Power Collection. It’s similar to Objective Control but throws in some Capture the Flag elements too: a bunch of power capsules appear on the stage and you and your team have to gather as many as possible within a fixed time. Once the time runs out, you have to take them to drop-off hotspots and stand there for a while until they’re added to your points tally. Naturally, though, enemies can kill you and take your capsules from you.
Both modes take place over five different maps, which are also chosen at random before each battle. Their layouts are designed well enough as far as maps go but they’re fairly uninspired visually. Other than the odd dangerous gimmick hazard on each stage – a pair of trains travelling through one, electric fences on another and the like – it’s hard to imagine players pledging their allegiance or hatred for any specific map like they do in other games with dedicated fanbases.
Bleeding Edge’s strength doesn’t lie in the diversity of its game modes, then, but rather in the diversity of its character roster. Each of the 11 playable characters has some sort of cybernetic augmentation, and while some of their designs are more immediately appealing than others, you certainly can’t accuse them of being boring.
Take Nidhoggr, a Norwegian death metal star who runs around with an electric guitar, which can conveniently fire actual electricity at opponents. In true lead guitarist fashion, one of his special attacks has him sliding across the floor on his knees, naturally damaging anyone he hits. Cass, meanwhile, is a Russian ex-dancer who was paralysed after a failed surgery and now has cybernetic chicken legs. As you do.
Best of the bunch, though – from a design perspective, if not necessarily a gameplay perspective – is Kulev. When a British scientist died, he requested that his soul be digitised and implanted into a robot snake: this snake has wrapped itself around the professor’s corpse and is making him run around as if he was still alive: seeing him stumble around is an absolute joy.
Although they’re split into three main categories – damage, support and tank – each character controls very differently. Finding the one that fits your style best may take a while, but the game recommends characters in each category that may be easier to get to grips with. The sheer diversity of styles can lead to some balancing issues, with some match-ups heavily favouring certain characters.
The focus may be on melee combat (unsurprising given Ninja Theory’s past work) but a number of characters have ranged attacks instead. These aren’t aimed with a crosshair as in most third-person shooters, they instead lock onto enemies and hit them automatically. This may make gunplay a cinch but it does come with one big ‘however’ in that ranged attacks are generally weaker than melee ones, meaning those willing to jump in and get their hands dirty are capable of offing opponents quicker.
All this combines for a title that clearly has potential but fails to meet it: at launch, at least. The characters may be suitably wacky and the combat may be relatively entertaining but these aren’t enough to carry the game, not when there’s such a disappointing lack of content at this stage. By only two or three hours in we already felt like we had seen everything the game had to offer, and the ability to unlock mods (which are mostly stat boosts) and new skins (which are just recolours) by levelling up failed to keep us hooked.
There’s plenty of scale here for Bleeding Edge to eventually become a brilliant game. The foundations are solid and Ninja Theory has already confirmed that a 12th character – a killer dolphin in a wheeled tank – is on its way soon. As long as the studio continues to support the game beyond that it could eventually grow into something pretty special. At this point, though, it feels more like a proof of concept than a finished product.
This would be all well and good if it was a free-to-play game, but while its presence on Xbox Game Pass may have led some to mistakenly believe that’s the case, it’s actually a $30 title. Anyone spending that on a game only to find that contains two match types and five maps will surely feel disappointed. This is one of the few occasions where the usual ‘game as a service’ mechanics like seasons would actually be welcomed, if only to give players a reason to boot the game up every day. As it is just now, neither of the two match types are particularly engaging, and there aren’t any other options available to prevent things feeling repetitive too quickly.
With solid combat and some brilliant character designs, Bleeding Edge has all the potential to become a solid, compelling online action game. Sadly, though, that's all it is at the moment: potential. What's here is good, but there's just not enough content to keep players' interest for weeks or months to come.