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Hands-On With Ninja Theory’s ‘Bleeding Edge’

When “Bleeding Edge” was announced — or, rather, when it was leaked, last week, in an offscreen video — I was nonplussed.

I’ve enjoyed much of developer Ninja Theory’s other work — “Heavenly Sword” had some great ideas and excellent character work, “Enslaved’s” narrative elegantly supported and set up its two-character mechanics, “DmC: Devil May Cry” was an inspired revival of a series that had stalled, and “Hellblade” has found universal acclaim for its storytelling and characterization. All of these games have common threads: sophisticated mechanics, smart singleplayer design, and a heavy investment in story.

Bleeding Edge,” thus far, does not appear to be at least two of these things. It’s a competitive, team-based multiplayer game from a studio which hasn’t released a multiplayer game since 2003’s “Kung Fu Chaos,” a game I had forgotten even existed until I just now Googled Ninja Theory’s oeuvre to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything out, and I don’t know that even Ninja Theory would blame me for forgetting that one.

The point of all of this is that when Microsoft and Ninja Theory announced the latter’s acquisition and integration within Xbox Game Studios, I think there was an expectation that the games Ninja Theory has become known for — singleplayer, story-driven experiences — would be what we got. It’s what I thought we would get. I did not expect a competitive, 4v4, multiplayer action game, featuring a bizarre cast of sci-fi mutants and archetypes, battling around multi-level arenas with capture points.

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But! This is what “Bleeding Edge” is. And … it’s fun. In the very brief amount of time I’ve had with it so far, it’s working.

The main reason “Bleeding Edge” is working so far actually shouldn’t be surprising, when you think for a moment about it, because the basic, mechanical and control fundamentals of the game most closely resemble Ninja Theory’s work on DmC, which, in my opinion, is still one of the best melee combat games of the last 15 years. “Bleeding Edge,” depending on the character you select — and more on that in a moment — can very much play the way you’d think a game from the developer of “DmC” should play, and that’s a very good thing. It is, simply put, fun to move around “Bleeding Edge,” to use its simplified melee combat system, and push its mobility options toward their apparent limits.

That’s the foundation that “Bleeding Edge” is built on, but it needs more, because, as mentioned just now, each character’s basic mechanics is very simple. There’s only one primary attack, and further depth per character is added with a trio of short-cooldown special abilities and a slowly charging ultimate ability whose utility is dependent on their class — assassin, tank, or healer.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re probably someone whose spent some time playing MOBAs like “League of Legends” or “Dota 2,” because “Bleeding Edge’s” particulars feel very explicitly lifted from that genre and those types of games. In 2019, this feels almost quaint. After all, the great MOBA gold rush is over, and outside of “Smite’s” success, no one managed to replicate “League” or even “Dota 2’s” presence and momentum, despite dozens upon dozens of attempts to do so. “Bleeding Edge,” in this way, feels like a game with ideas from four or five years ago, but done very well, very cleanly.

This is all fine and good at a show like E3 — a game needs to be good right away here, but it doesn’t necessarily need to demonstrate a huge amount of depth on the show floor (or at a showcase). “Bleeding Edge” is that, but what I can’t tell is whether or not there’s a lot more beneath the surface to dig into. There aren’t that many characters in what Ninja Theory is showing now, and there’s just the one game mode available, a point capture exercise. A multiplayer game like this needs a lot of depth for a lot of strategies and, ideally, for a meta to form around the systems in play, which, hopefully, provides fertile ground for a community to spring up around it and sustain itself.

Xbox One owners will get a chance to try it for themselves soon enough, as Ninja Theory plans to release a technical alpha for “Bleeding Edge” on June 27.

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