Things looked pretty barren in the way of exclusives for the Xbox One in its early years but at E3 2018, there was a glimmer of hope. Phil Spencer took to the stage to reveal that Microsoft had added four new studios to its portfolio and amongst them was Ninja Theory - the brains behind Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice and 2013's DmC: Devil May Cry. Splashed in a bright coat of neon paint, Bleeding Edge, Ninja Theory's first release following the acquisition, is a radical departure for the team and represents its first venture into the online arena.
Online brawls within Bleeding Edge are 4v4 and see teams go head-to-head in two different match types: Objective Control and Power Collection. Objective Control is your typical Control mode where players scramble across the map in an effort to retain control of several lettered objectives. Power Collection differs as players are tasked with gathering power cells and depositing them at marked locations once they become available. Things feel a bit more cat and mouse here, as dying results in all your power cells being dropped and you can't stash away any cells if another player is inflicting damage.
Ensuring you work as a team and have a varied team composition is vital to your success - you won't get too far abandoning your team and braving the battle alone. Players can select between Tank, Support, and Fighting classes and each of these has their own role to fill (you shouldn't pick Kulev just because you think he is the coolest, basically). Tanks, for example, should make their way to the forefront as they can take the bulk of the damage and Support players should hang back to lay down shields and splash teammates with healing beams. This emphasis on teamwork does become a problem though when your team has been whittled down to the last few members as groups can wipe out a lone player in seconds.
Something that we appreciated was the sense of energy and momentum that Bleeding Edge presented through the design of its arenas. Across each map, there are jump pads to propel you up to higher platforms, and by holding down the right directional button you can pull out a hoverboard to whizz around on. There are also environmental hazards that you need to be wary of and these can also be used to your advantage. During an early match, an opposing player knocked us into the path of an oncoming train, wiping us out immediately. The maps all felt well-crafted but with only five present right now things quickly feel repetitive and it didn't take more than an hour or so until we had seen it all.
We also found the combat to be snappy and easy to grasp through a short five-minute tutorial. Each different character has a basic attack (some are melee and some projectile-based) and this can be strung together to create combos just like a traditional brawler. Each character also has three different special abilities which can have potent effects but carry a cooldown time of a couple of seconds. The most impactful abilities are supers that must be used sparingly during matches. Each player has two different supers but only one can be active at a time, so there's tactical thinking required in choosing the right one and knowing just when to use it.
You can tinker with your fighter beyond the limited choice of which super to equip, however. Each fighter has a selection of mods that you can equip, with a maximum of three per character at any one time. It would have been impossible to try all of the combinations, but the passive boosts they offer seem relatively balanced and subtle so it's more a case of specialising your fighter in a certain direction, rather than making them ridiculously over-powered. There's also a Dojo that lets you practice with your new build before taking it to the arena, and we'd definitely recommend playing around in there with a character before jumping into a new match.
The cel-shaded online team brawler launched with 11 playable characters (with one more set to be added soon, Mekko the dolphin) and, as mentioned, these are split into Tank, Support, and Fighter classes. We really admired how much effort Ninja Theory had poured into making each fighter feel distinct and we had a few favourites. Among the standouts were Kulev, a robotic snake wrapped around a decaying corpse, and Buttercup, an augmented lady who has been modified to be part motorbike. We would take quality over quantity any time, but as it stands, the lineup does feel a little thin and we quickly got used to seeing the same old faces out on the battlefield.
Something that was sorely lacking was some form of matchmaking feature where we could select what type of match we wanted to enter. This might sound trivial as there are only two modes currently, but we found Power Collection to come up the majority of the time and we imagine this issue will only get worse as more modes are introduced. There's also no ranked matchmaking at present, meaning that more seasoned players will end up being pitted against casuals as there is no way to be grouped with others of a similar skill level.
We're sure that Bleeding Edge has the potential to grow into something special but we couldn't help but feel that things were a little too bare-bones at launch. The brawler currently only features two match modes and five maps, meaning that we had seen it all even pretty early on. On a positive note though, the melee-focused brawls carried a great sense of energy and its cast of characters all make for fun picks with their own quirky personalities. If you're a Game Pass subscriber, we'd say it wouldn't hurt to jump into a match or two, especially if you're keen to see a talented studio take a stab at something new.
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