GameCentral talks to Hellblade and DmC creators Ninja Theory about their new online multiplayer game for Xbox Game Pass.
A multiplayer-focused video game is a difficult thing to review, let alone preview. Even ignoring how much they change over their lifetime; it can take weeks or even months to learn and appreciate the nuances of some games. But there is one simple test for whether a new game has potential or not: whether you still want to carry on playing when the hands-on session ends. Considering Microsoft almost had to throw us out of ours we’d say that Bleeding Edge is showing a lot of promise.
We first played Bleeding Edge at E3 last year, just a few weeks after it had been officially announced. But on a visit to developer Ninja Theory in Cambridge last week we discovered that the game has been in development since 2013, long before the studio was bought by Microsoft. Ninja Theory’s famously small teams mean that only a handful of people have been working on it for most of that time, but that’s resulted in an impressively original experience with some enjoyably bizarre character designs.
When Bleeding Edge was first unveiled the obvious way to describe it was as a cross between Platinum Games’ Anarchy Reigns and Overwatch. But while that comparison does work on a surface level it’s not really very helpful. Bleeding Edge was inspired by creative director Rahni Tucker’s love of third person melee games (she was combat designer on DmC Devil May Cry), MOBAs like League Of Legends, and being a healer in online shooters. Put that shopping list of influences together and you’re a lot closer to what Bleeding Edge is all about.
What we like most about Bleeding Edge is that it’s still not all that much like any of those things. There is a lot more melee combat than the average online game but some of the characters are purely focused on ranged combat. And while you can see the influence from MOBAs in the fighters’ unique set of abilities, the minions, towers, and lanes that were originally planned never made it into the final design.
What you’re left with is a 4 vs. 4 team game with two main modes: a Domination style mode where you’re trying to secure a set of three control points and a slightly more complex one involving collecting and delivering power cells. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but in Bleeding Edge teamwork is absolutely paramount and acting as a lone wolf is tantamount to suicide. If your team has chosen wisely then each player will have a specific role to play, inspired by their class type, but it’s only by working together that you have any real chance at success.
This feels great when it works – our team were all wired up with microphones and we had a developer playing with us – but the flipside is that if you’re not playing in a team you’re at an obvious disadvantage, or so it seemed to us.
‘The matchmaking system that we have does account for pre-made teams and it takes that into account when it’s matching you with people. It’d have to be two pre-made teams or it’d be a pre-made team against four people who are considerably higher in matchmaking rank’, explains Tucker.
‘I wanted to see how the game felt playing solo, so for the beta weekend recently I just played solo the entire time and I had a lot of fun’, adds senior designer Gerald Poon.
Bleeding Edge has had a number of alpha and beta tests already and they’ve gone surprisingly well, to the point where there have been almost no balancing issues, despite the wildly different abilities of the characters. Tucker and Poon underplay this achievement but it’s a sign of just how effective the game’s long gestation period and careful planning was.
‘Me and Gerald basically made the entire game in Blueprints, the visual scripting system in Unreal Engine, so we basically made the whole game in that first,’ says Tucker.
‘The actual characters and their abilities were more or less set there. We had characters like Kulev in there since the beginning. They all looked totally different though, they were just these little box characters with different hats so we could tell who was who’, she laughs.
When Ninja Theory were acquired by Microsoft it did cause some significant changes, not so much to the game’s design but to its prospects of being a hit. As a first party title it’ll be available via Game Pass, and that means that instead of the niche, hardcore multiplayer game that was originally intended it will now have an instant audience of millions.
‘After we were acquired, and we knew it was gonna be on Game Pass, we knew people would be playing this who maybe weren’t so familiar with the genre,’ says Tucker. ‘Maybe they don’t have much experience with the types of game modes that we have, or class-based gameplay, working as a team, and doing the kind of things we assumed someone buying our game would probably already be familiar with.
‘So that led us to working on the way we tutorial-ise things. Introducing people to the key concepts of the game, having a good team comp., the way the game modes work – a lot of that stuff we didn’t have initially and we’ve added over the last six months, to try and make it easier for those Game Pass guys to transition in.’
Game Pass also guarantees the game a long tail and raises the prospect of major post-launch updates and/or DLC. So we ask whether there was any temptation to have more Devil May Cry style combos, given the third party perspective, but apparently that was taken out fairly early on.
‘We did have more combos at one point, but we found that mostly people didn’t use them, because the game’s so fast. But then at the same time we have players now asking for more of that, so that’s definitely something that we’re listening to and thinking about’, says Tucker.
‘But I think mostly you build your combos in the way that you combine the moves that you have. So you might use Daemon and do a three-hit melee combo and then cancel that with a shuriken and then you can reset your combo again and go back to the first hit without pushing the guy away. If you manage to get a guy in the air you can do a pretty lethal combo too – Gerald’s pretty good at that.’
Tucker won’t be drawn on whether there might be a new character that focuses on traditional combos, but that seems to be more because she hasn’t decided yet than because of any great secrecy.
‘We could do it, potentially, or maybe look at adding a pause combo or an extra bit of depth to some of the characters that are already there. It’s just something that we’re weighing up right now, we don’t have any kind of solid plans at the moment.’
The new character being shown off during the preview was Mekko who is… a dolphin in a mech suit. Somehow that doesn’t come across quite as ludicrous as it sounds in the game, not least because Mekko is one of the most complicated characters to use. Unlike other fighters, who can dodge and parry, Mekko has a shield. But they’re also a healer that can shoot out a grappling hook to pull allies out of trouble and drop great pools of water that can buff or debuff whoever steps on them.
Mekko is great but we had lots of favourites from the hands-on, especially Cass – or ‘chicken woman’ as she was known as during our play session. She’s a Russian ballerina/assassin with cybernetic legs that makes her look and act like a cassowary. She’s the fastest of the fighters but also has the least health, and yet her powerful kicks are so tempting we kept trying to use her.
A more sensible starter though is Daemon the ninja or Gizmo, the Aussie with a minigun who’s a good pick for those more used to shooting than punching in a multiplayer game. Although Zero Cool is another good choice, since he’s the most focused healer, making him Tucker’s favourite and a character that can have a major impact on the outcome of a match without ever firing a shot.
Although designing the characters has been very much a group effort it’s lead artist Aaron McElligott and principal animator Warwick Mellow that have had the most influence on the look of the game, whose comparisons to Overwatch really are unfair – especially as both games entered development at around the same time.
‘A lot of it just came down to what our interests were’, says Mellow when discussing his inspirations. ‘When you’re given that kind of opportunity, as an artist, you really want to go for it. We knew that we wanted to have characters that could fight, in some kind of futuristic arena, and we thought, ‘Well, let’s just have a go at throwing some stuff at the blackboard and seeing what sticks’.’
‘From day one we knew it was gonna be pretty fast paced and stylistic and so we were looking at anime references for the poses and expressive nature of it’, recalls McElligott. ‘Things like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, but it didn’t really work out; it didn’t really represent how we were feeling when we played the game. The game felt more uplifting and fun, rather than some kind of dystopian, gritty style.
‘There was another, more obscure, anime I was looking at called Tekkonkinkreet. The characters are nothing like we have but the world is super stylised and it’s beautiful, so it’s a contrast between the people and the world. And so that ended up being a bigger influence.’
‘A lot of it comes down to gameplay, you need that readability’, says Mellow. ‘If you’ve got characters that are all human-sized fighting against each other it’s very hard to distinguish them. If one’s massive, and looks like a skier, and one’s really small and looks like a triangle, and that one’s blue and that one’s green then the juxtaposition allows you to recognise them almost instantly. So the more we started pushing the characters into those different areas the more fun we were having and the readability was improving and that’s how we got to where we are now.’
The comparisons with Overwatch did affect the game though, with Mellow describing a canned character concept that was a chimp in a giant gorilla suit, that ended up being too reminiscent of Winston from Blizzard’s game.
‘The reality of this is that we’re games artists, animators, and we want to make something cool, that we feel passionate about. It’s that thing that if you like something, someone else must also like it. You just hope that there’s enough people that do, to keep it going’, says McElligott.
‘I think if you care too much about money or success it can dilute the quality of a product, it can change it. If you make it your passion project, you make it something that you love doing and playing, you hope it’s authentic enough that other people can appreciate it too’, agrees Mellow.
It’s certainly a very different approach to that of many other major developers, with Tucker revealing that the average number of people working on the project has been just 15. For most modern triple-A games that wouldn’t even cover the catering staff.
‘Previous AAA games like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved, DmC, whatever… they were bigger teams’, admits Tucker. ‘So we had maybe 60 people on those. But since Hellblade, which was the first foray into this kind of indie AAA, that was around 25 people and we’re kind of following that same format.
‘I like working on a small team because you have lots of creative input and freedom and I think one of the cool things is that every character we come up with, and every level and game mode we come up with… everyone’s involved in and they’re all part of the brainstorming process. So we have ideas coming from different departments and formulating from different seeds, and that’s kind of where some of the crazy variety in our line-up comes from.’
It certainly seems to be an approach that has paid off, and with the game out in just a couple of weeks it’s suddenly one of the most promising multiplayer games on any format this year. It will also prove again what good value Games Pass is and how important it, and services like it, may be in the future, in terms of nurturing and promoting new franchises, instead of just the same old sequels.
Formats: PC (previewed) and Xbox One
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: 24th March 2020
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