Playing Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge made me think about the famous quote from U.S. Army General George Patton: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

But in Bleeding Edge’s 4-versus-4 multiplayer team combat, you die a lot. Then you learn who killed you with what, and then you go back into the fray to die again. Eventually, you may start to catch on about how to make the other bastards die. But you have a lot of enemies to learn, and they have many ways to put you down.

Microsoft’s Ninja Theory studio is closing in on the release of Bleeding Edge, a third-person action brawler. I got a look at it for a few hours at a Microsoft preview event, and found it was easy to get into but very hard to figure out what was going on. The $30 game debuts on March 24 on Xbox One, PC, and Xbox Game Pass.

The game is quite short on story. It’s the year 2057, and people are modding themselves with cybernetic parts, getting rid of limbs and replacing them with mechanical or biological snap-on augmentations that give them an edge in combat.

Nidhoggr spews fire in Bleeding Edge.

Above: Nidhoggr spews fire in Bleeding Edge.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

It’s well-designed when it comes to balance, and the kind of fast-action game you would expect from Rahni Tucker, the creative director at Ninja Theory who previously worked on DmC: Devil May Cry. Each character has a super-ability they can pull out on a timer, and they can level up by grabbing items on the map. And then you have three abilities that can be used once and then recharged on a timer. And if you aren’t tough enough to take one player down by yourself, two players can gang up on one.

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But you see where that goes. Three players can gang up on two. And four can gang up on three. It’s kind of a never-ending chain of combat, where the idea is to move fluidly across the map and achieve your objectives (like collecting fuel items and returning them to a spot), without ever getting isolated by the other team.

The need to work together and gang up on enemies means that you have to communicate, and so good voice communication is a must. Ninja Theory built this into the game, and it worked well in the room where all of us were playing on the same network. Of course, the big question is whether it works well in team combat across the internet.

Gameplay impressions

Above: The Landscape map features mini trains that can run you over.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

I played the game for a couple of hours with the dev team guiding us in four-on-four matches. I tried a few characters out and played multiple rounds. But I didn’t feel like that time was enough to make me competent at the game. For one, the game has 12 characters (11 at launch) and five maps. Since each character has multiple attacks, you see a lot of combinations of what can happen to you in a match. And you have to also think about the mods that players earn over time, as each character has 20 of them.

The game has two modes: Objective Control and Power Collection. Objective Control is like Domination in Call of Duty multiplayer, where you fight to control three points on the map. If you dominate two of the three control points, you’ll eventually win the match.

In Power Collection, you race to a point to collect Power items. You are vulnerable to attack when you collect them. Then you race over to another location to deposit your Power Cells.

I played on the Landscape map, which features a couple of levels. You can run around on the upper level looking for a spot to jump down on a player, and a lot of boost circles allow you to jump up to the second level. Spinning tracks can make you lose aim or fall behind when you’re running.

Most of the fighting took the form of brawls, like fighting in a bar. Support characters can engage in ranged combat, but most of their weapons are short ranged. You can’t snipe from afar. It’s a lot of mano-a-mano combat, where you have to pull out the right attack or defense at the right time to outfight your opponent.

What you’ll like

A chain of combat attacks in Bleeding Edge.

Above: A chain of combat attacks in Bleeding Edge.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

Hardcore gamers will like the mastery required

If you’re gung-ho about the combat style and want to learn every aspect of 11 characters and the nuances of the modes and maps, then this game is for you. I had trouble, of course, because I am Dean Takahashi. But I enjoyed trying to learn how to bring down enemies and I was ecstatic when I started getting more kills than deaths in a match.

Each character has a basic attack, but if you start getting hit from a surprise direction, you can pull a trigger and push the stick in a direction to dash away in a quick escape. You can also pull out a special attack at the right time to hurt multiple enemies, or you can use any one of three defenses/attacks that are on a cool-down timer. In split-second combat, these are a lot of things to remember. You also have to be aware of how much damage you have taken and then get out of the fight to go recover somewhere.

You can master one character and then enjoy lots of them

Rather than try to understand all 11 characters and their attacks, you can master just one type or character. You can choose from support characters, tanks, and attackers. Those roles are easier to understand. And if you play just one character for a while, you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll also learn how that character works in relation to other teammates or enemies. That is an accessible way for you to learn how to be an important team member. I focused on Nidhoggr, whose guitar serves as an axe and who has an ability to spit fire.

Nidhoggr was fast enough to do some damage and run, and he could do damage with his noisy guitar solos. I also played El Bastardo, who is a heavy tank that definitely took a while to get used to. But once you master him, you can launch devastating attacks on sitting ducks.

If you really get into the game, you’ll enjoy leveling up all of the characters. It’s a highly repeatable game, and the characters have their own unique quirks and absurdities, like how has Buttercup has wheels for legs.

The matches are short

Fast action in Bleeding Edge.

Above: Fast action in Bleeding Edge.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

Each match may last no longer than 10 minutes before one team overwhelms the other. That’s enough time to give you a lot of chances to score kills or die and be reborn. But it also helps you soak in the lessons of combat and then get back into the fray. It takes a bit of time to reload the game, but you’ll probably spend hours playing match after match before you realize it.

Hover boards are fun

It’s a real bummer if you get killed and have a long way to run to get back to the action. But you can summon your hover board and ride it at a much faster clip compared to running. So you can use it to get back into the action or swoop around the enemy to a control point or just use it to sneak up on them.

What you won’t like

Too much chaos

When all eight players are massed together in a single melee, it’s hard to tell who is attacking and what not. It’s a big mess of a fight, like a food fight where pies are flying in all directions at once. That’s part of the thrill, but it also means that players will be confused and unsure of what to do. Folks who don’t like this might give up in frustration.

Some lag in the attacks

When you’re in a duel with another player, you may attack each other at the same time. But your attack won’t happen if the opponent pulls the trigger a second before you do. That is as it should be. But quite often you’ll find that you’re swinging at someone who is no longer where you thought they were. This means that you have to master your timing in the melee, pretty much by predicting what your opponent will do and then trying to head them off before they do it.

The tutorials are good, but hardly extensive enough

You can learn how to play a healer, tank, or swift attacker in the tutorial. But It’s pretty hard to get a good idea how all 11 characters play unless you play them all. You can practice with characters in the Dojo, and that’s helpful as you fight against AI-controlled characters in a practice arena. But while the addition of the tutorials and the Dojo are useful, they signal one thing for sure. It’s not an easy game to just pick up and play.

Hands-on conclusion

Nidhoggr is a heavy metal flame spouter in Bleeding Edge.

Above: Nidhoggr is a heavy metal flame spouter in Bleeding Edge.

Image Credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

I had a good time playing the game. But it makes me wonder if the tutorial good enough. Rahni Tucker, creative director, told me in an interview that the team worked hard on creating a more extensive tutorial for players. They found that was necessary because more players beyond just me felt like it was tough to learn.

The combat keeps you busy, and it’s like you’re looking at a dashboard with too many knobs on it, trying to do some damage before someone does it to you. Keeping your head in this combat is hard, but it’s also very rewarding and fun when you figure it out.

Bleeding Edge takes a lot of presence of mind, and you can only learn it in a trial by fire, dying and dying again until you kill more than you die. This game is growing on me, and I see its potential.