Bleeding Edge hands-on and interview – Xbox's ambitious new fighter

GameCentral plays the Xbox’s newest exclusive and talks to its creator about DmC, punching people online, and being bought by Microsoft.

A lot of people were hoping for multiple new game announcements from Microsoft’s E3 conference and while technically they did get them, they were all for the Xbox One and there was nothing exclusively for Project Scarlett. In hindsight that’s entirely predictable, even if it was disappointing not to see anything on the new Fable and other rumoured projects. But of all the new games that were announced the most interesting and unexpected (if you don’t count the last minute leak) was Bleeding Edge.

At last year’s E3, Microsoft announced that it had bought British developer Ninja Theory, best known for the likes of DmC Devil May Cry and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Like most of the studios they’ve acquired recently, Ninja Theory were already working on new games at the time, but while the likes of The Outer Worlds and Wasteland 3 will remain multiformat Bleeding Edge is an Xbox exclusive from the start. That’s because it wasn’t announced previously, but it’s also exactly the sort of title Microsoft has been championing this generation: a multiplayer-focused action game with a unique hook and plenty of scope for future expansion.

Of course, it’s hard to say anything definitive about a multiplayer-only game when you’ve only had 20 minutes on a pre-alpha version but, as many have already noted, it follows a similar concept to PlatinumGames’ unfairly obscure Anarchy Reigns. Although as a third person, melee-focused online game there are few other comparisons to be made, other than MOBA Smite and that the diverse range of cartoonish characters, and general tone, is reminiscent of Overwatch.

As creative director Rahni Tucker explains in our interview, although Bleeding Edge is biased towards melee combat each character still has plenty of ranged attacks – with some specialising in them. Minigun-wielding Gizmo is one of the most prominent characters so far, perhaps because she, like Tucker, is an Aussie, but there’s also Zero Cool who sits in a gamer chair and has a range of healing powers, El Bastardo who wields duel machetes, and the big-boned Buttercup with her giant circular saw.

Each character is organised into one of three classes – assassin, support, or tank – and has a range of different special abilities. But importantly even the basic attacks have a good sense of impact and damage, which is just what you’d expect from the studio behind the underrated DmC.

Whoever you play as matches are four vs. four affairs on surprisingly large maps. At first they seem too large, but despite thinking that we might we never actually got lost and the only real problem was being run over by the trains that kept criss-crossing the area. Each character transforms into a faster form to traverse the map but once you’re engaged in battle the game works like a standard third person brawler.

Although we did have a dev hovering around, offering tactical advice, Bleeding Edge proved a surprisingly easy game to get into, despite the unusual premise and complete unfamiliarity with any of the characters. Team-play is vitally important, so a lot of fighters have healing moves even if that’s not their primary role, but the simple act of getting up close and punching people is as simple as it is satisfying. And although technically anyone can run away at any time it never devolved into the Benny Hill chase we were worried about before we started.

Playing a Conquest style mode where you’re trying to keep the other team away from a series of control points helps but given the potential for everything to devolve into an incoherent mess it never came close to that.

There’s no release date for the game yet but there is a technical alpha planned for 27 June, which you can try and sign up for here. We strongly advise you do, as not only is Bleeding Edge an exciting new IP but it’s an entirely unique idea – at least this generation. And if that’s the sort of thing Microsoft is going to be encouraging from its newly bought studios then the future for Project Scarlett should be very bright indeed.

Formats: Xbox One and PC
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: TBA

GC: So I just played the game and we won, so I’m feeling pretty good about that.

RT: Nice, that’s a good start.

GC: I always think it’s a good sign when the devs are really into the demo too. Our match was very close and they were killing themselves laughing at the end. I think it ended 500 – 465, which they seemed to think was unusual.

RT: Oh, yeah that’s pretty close. [laughs]

GC: How long have you been working on this? You started it before you were bought by Microsoft, didn’t you?

RT: Oh yeah, we started working on this over three years ago. So yeah, we’re a good chunk of the way through.

GC: So before you started work on Hellblade?

RT: During Hellblade. But this has been an idea in my head since the end of DmC.

GC: At that point did you have a publisher sorted out?

RT: No, we were self-funding it, the same as Hellblade, when we started. It was kind of at the beginning it was like… well, let’s try it and we’ll see where we get to. So to go from that to here is crazy!

GC: I always notice smaller developers are lot more willing to take a risk on new IP than big name publishers, why do you think that is?

RT: I think for Ninja Theory, making original IP and making original games is the holy grail, right? Like, it’s what they always want to do. But we weren’t always able to do that, you need funding – that’s the hard bit. Most developers always want to make original IP, it’s about trying to secure the funding.

So when they started Hellblade that was all going really well, people were really interested in the dev diaries and it was really positive, and about halfway through we thought we could probably roll with another project now. And Nina [Kristensen, chief development director] knew that I had this idea that I wanted to do. And she was like, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’

So we started with a really small team, to keep the risk low, so maybe like six people at the beginning. And then we’ve averaged about 15 people over the development. We’ve got the most now that we’ve ever had, which is about 25 people.

GC: That’s still very low though.

RT: Yeah, it’s small.

GC: One of the indie games I just saw had 50 people on it. That’s even more impressive if you’ve done all this with such a small team.

RT: [laughs]

GC: So what were you thinking of when you first came up with this idea? Were you influenced by anything that already existed? I imagine you’re already sick of hearing about Anarchy Reigns?

RT: No, no! I did play that. [laughs]

GC: I’m going to bet I’m not the first person that’s described it as a cross between Overwatch and Anarchy Reigns.

RT: [laughs] I think for me, where this idea really came from was I did the combat on DmC. And I wanted to make more action combat, because I’d had such a good time. And I love working with animators… I studied a bit of animation at university, it’s something I’m interested in. So I love working with the animators on the action combat, getting the feel right, getting it smooth, getting it responsive, making it posy… that’s all good stuff for me.

But what I play at home a lot is competitive team multiplayer, and that’s usually in the form of shooters or MOBAs or something else. And I was like, ‘Well, where’s this game, where’s third person action combat and competitive team multiplayer?’ And there wasn’t really one.

GC: That is odd, isn’t it? You’d think punching people in the face via the Internet would be more popular.

RT: [laughs] It’s one of the things we thought about and that we prototyped a lot at the beginning, because we’re like, ‘Okay, why hasn’t this been done? Is it because it can’t be done? Or nobody’s tried before?’

GC: The only thing I can think of is that when you get three or four third person characters together, in close proximity, it can become a bit of a visual mess. And you don’t really want to do first person because then the melee fighting will feel off. So neither quite works.

RT: Yeah, yeah. I think the trickiest thing when we were prototyping, that we had to overcome, was how you handle being able to hit stun an enemy with your basic attacks. And then how that enemy can get out of that. So, if you’re playing a single-player action game you can go in against 20 guys and hit them to death and they never get a hit in, because you’re awesome at the game and you’ve got, like, all the power. But obviously that doesn’t matter for the AI because it doesn’t matter if he’s having a bad time.

But when you’ve got another actual player at the other end of that you have to think about, ‘Well, okay but he doesn’t want to be hit by a 20-hit combo with no options to get out’. So that was actually the hardest part of trying to find a balance between playing a melee action game or a combat action game where you can combo moves together and do cool stuff, but while making sure there’s counter-play and there’s stuff there that the guy being hit can do and have fun with.

GC: That’s fascinating. My favourite games are things like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta.

RT: Yeah, Bayonetta’s great. That soundtrack as well! [laughs]

GC: What I love about those games is the sense that you’re making real physical contact with enemies, even though you’re obviously not. You learnt how to do that with DmC, so, without giving away all your trade secrets, how does that work?

RT: It’s a combination of everything, really. It’s the choreography of the move, the way it animates, the feedback you get from the sound and the impact using camera shake, camera pushes, pad rumble…

GC: I assumed it’d be complicated because it’s so rare a game gets it right and yet when it does it’s almost magical the sense of connection you get to the action.

RT: The way the other guy gets hit is a big part of it as well, good hit reactions make a big difference.

GC: That’s a movie thing as well, isn’t it? They always say it’s the reaction that sells the punch.

RT: The guy that’s getting hit needs to look good, exactly.

GC: Is there a single-player component or story campaign?

RT: There’s not, no. It’s pure multiplayer.

GC: Is that what you always wanted?

RT: Yeah.

GC: [laughs]

RT: To be honest though I think we could do some really great single-player campaigns with the game. But it’s such a small team and the multiplayer is at the core of the game. It’s the most important thing and you can’t do it second. It has to be first. [laughs] For me the multiplayer is the game. We have the potential to do single-player stuff in the future, like maybe, there’s plenty of interesting stories to tell with the characters but we’ll just have to see.

GC: People complain about tacked-on multiplayer but I think it’s just as bad when it’s the other way round.

RT: Yeah, yep. That’s it, and when you’ve only got 15 or 20 people on the team you don’t want to do a little bit of everything.

GC: In terms of character design, that seemed very strong as well. But how does that work? Do you just have one or two people that are really good at designing characters or are you all pitching in with ideas?

RT: One of the kind of pillars for the game, right at the beginning, is that it’s all about the fighters. They are your connection with the game and we wanted every fighter to be as strong as a protagonist in a single-player game. And yeah, the ideas for the fighters came from everywhere in the team. So sometimes they would start with a crazy prototype of a box guy, casting ability, something that was gameplay focused that was like, ‘Look, we need this type of gameplay ’cause it’s missing in the line-up of characters’.

Or sometimes it’d be a drawing or a bit of animation or just a crazy idea from a programmer or whatever. And then it’d just kind of build over time. But I think we had a kind of centralised, guiding pillar for character design which was that their augment is sort of the thing that defines them. Each fighter has a cybernetic augment that’s core to who they are and how they fight and how they work, and then we try and build around that.

GC: When you’re making a single-player game it’s got just one job, essentially: review well and sell well. But a multiplayer game, nowadays, it’s so complicated, since most of them now are games as a service title and have at least an eye on eSports… that’s a lot of bases to cover for a team of 20. Is that something Microsoft people talk to you about, about this potentially becoming some massive brand?

RT: It would be great if the game got competitive enough where that started to happen, but I think that’s something that the players decide. But certainly, when we started making the game, the point of making it with such a small team is that it doesn’t have to appeal to every single person in the world and it doesn’t have to be super-duper mass market. We just focus on making a game that we’re passionate about, that we think’s cool, and then hopefully people will like it because we like it and we had passion when we made it.

And that’s kind of the way we approach it, we don’t kind of think too much about what else are people playing and will they play this and will they play that? We just think, ‘What do we wanna make? What are we passionate about?’ And we make that and then we try to find the people that will like it with us.

GC: Initially I was thinking about the difficulties the game might have in finding its audience, but then I realised of course that, as a first party Microsoft game, it’ll be on Game Pass. Which must help you immensely.

RT: Yeah, that’s super cool.

GC: I really hate Game Pass because… it’s a really good idea. It’s this massive project from a global corporation that’s being forced down people’s throats and I can’t find any fault with it. I feel like such a shill.

RT: [laughs] Yeah, it’s really good.

GC: So you can pretty much guarantee that millions of people will play your game from day one.

RT: Yeah, I mean hopefully. Hopefully they’ll see it there and download it and give it a go. It’s one of the really cool opportunities that we get being part of Microsoft now. And, like I said, when we started the game we were completely independent, trying to figure out how we were going to launch the game and get in contact with gamers and tell them about the game and get them into it, and how we were going to distribute it to people. That was all really difficult stuff as an indie developer, that is now made much easier with Microsoft backing us.

GC: One thing I was surprised at though is that, especially given everything you’ve said, there was actually less melee combat than I expected, I lot of it was ranged instead. Or was that just me being a newb and running away from people too much?

RT: [laughs] It’s a pretty even mix.

GC: Was it meant to be more melee-focused at the start or has it all turned out as you expected?

RT: It’s pretty much as I expected, the aim was not to make it melee specific but to make a combat action game. So you were talking about Bayonetta before, she’s got guns, you lock onto a guy and you shoot guns and I think this is kind of the same.

But it’s just that the skill technique in the way that you play our game’s very different to a shooter or an isometric MOBA or something. You’re not using a reticule and you’re not playing top down. It’s direct control, third person, dodging attacks, timing your attacks, working with your team… that type of thing.

GC: But the bias is towards melee, isn’t it? That wasn’t my imagination.

RT: There is more melee characters than ranged characters in the game, so maybe like a 70/30 split. Something like that. So there is more focus on melee combat, but there’s definitely room for both. And I think when you play the game they work well together. But we don’t overthink it too much. It’s just whatever feels right when you put it in the game.

GC: Who do you play as the most?

RT: Oh… Zero Cool. I like healing.

GC: The guy in the chair?

RT: Yeah. [laughs]

GC: I was warned not to play as him because everyone would chase after me… which is exactly what happened.

RT: [laughs] Oh yeah, ’cause he’s such a good healer he’s a massive target.

GC: Okay, that’s great. That’s all very interesting.

RT: I’m glad you liked it.

GC: I did, I did. Well, thanks for your time.

RT: No worries.

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