Ninja Theory's Bleeding Edge is a bit out there when it comes to its hero characters. It's got a character who's part motorbike, a character who's got robot chicken legs, and a character who's consciousness is housed in a robot snake arm that's attached to their corpse.
Now, rounding out the roster of playable characters included with the team-based competitive multiplayer brawler at launch is a super smart dolphin who pilots a fishbowl crab mech via an on-board Japanese-made AI that also translates for him.
The dolphin is called Mekko, who I had a chance to play around with during a recent trip to Ninja Theory in Cambridge. I found him hard to get to grips with, but fun. The video below includes Mekko gameplay and provides a good idea of how he works. For more on how the game feels to play, check out Chris Tapsell's Bleeding Edge hands-on preview from E3 2019.
In battle, Mekko assumes the role of a ranged tank. To that end, his mech has a sonic gun that turns the dolphin's pulsed sounds into a projectile. He's also one of Bleeding Edge's more advanced fighters, and a lot of that has to do with the fact he lacks mobility (he doesn't have an evade) and thus relies on smart use of his abilities.
He also has one of the more complex mechanics in the game: he uses an active shield to absorb damage in orbs that then boost attacks. Mekko is the only character in the game with an active shield, and you find yourself using it a fair bit to generate the orbs. The tricky part is knowing how to manage the shield's meter - it doesn't last forever and his lack of mobility means he can have trouble escaping.
As for his abilities, he's got an umbilical cord-like teammate grab and a buff AOE that splashes on the ground, but my favourite of his cooldown abilities is his charge, which sees him slam repeatedly into an enemy, pushing them back with each hit. It's a great way to keep someone stunned for a bit, or even chase down an enemy low on health who's trying to escape. In keeping with a lot of Mekko's abilities, it's pretty annoying to be on the end of, too.
Of Mekko's two supers, the Exclusion Bubble is best. This traps an enemy fighter inside a bubble, which floats in the air for several seconds. It looks pretty funny, too. The super doesn't do damage, and the bubbled character can't take damage either, but their team can destroy it by shooting it. As you'd expect, getting trapped in the bubble is proper annoying.
While Mekko is tricky to get to grips with, I imagine he'll be popular simply because of his design and audio. There's a real 90s cyberpunk movie feel to him. The tank in anime movie Ghost in the Shell is a clear influence, but I was reminded of the cybernetically-enhanced dolphin that turns up at the end of terrible Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic to fry Dolph Lundgren, although no-one I spoke with at Ninja Theory seemed to remember it.
Mekko also has an interesting development story. It turns out he was one of the first characters Ninja Theory worked on, but he was shelved for over four years before being brought into the fold.
"When when we started Bleeding Edge we had about six people, and we didn't have a concept artist," Aaron McElligott says. "So we were trying to work out ideas for ourselves and trying to find out where the game was gonna sit. But there was a chap next door who was working on Disney Infinity, and he basically just helped us out in his free time in the evenings. So we'd spoken a bit about the game and he went away. We were looking for some sort of Japanese mech thing that was maybe led by AI. And he came back with this and was talking about how dolphins were intelligent. And it was like, what? I was not expecting that at all. It was completely nuts. But we loved it.
"The problem with it at the time, though, was it just didn't fit what we had in the game. It was too outlandish. We needed an accessible character to get into the game and test it out. So it's just been sitting on the shelf for four or five years. A long time."
Years later, after Ninja Theory had changed the tone of Bleeding Edge considerably, the concept artist's design was used to create the Mekko we see now.
"We'd created a few tanks, but we needed another tank," principal animator Warwick Mellow says. "And Rahni [Tucker, creative director] was like, 'I haven't done a ranged tank yet.' It was like, maybe we can pull him off the shelf. During the process of the game, we'd become a bit more colourful and characters had become a bit more outlandish. And it was like, actually man, this could fly. Maybe this character could work.
"We recognise he's pretty out there, but we love him! I like to say it's nice having a juxtaposition of a very interesting and unique character versus a character that's a bit more vanilla, because they complement each other. "
Mekko's mech is a crab because that's what a dolphin would want as a mech, Ninja Theory says.
"If the dolphin is intelligent enough to pilot the mech, maybe he would have choices about what he wants the mech to be as well," Mellow adds. "Obviously it's on land, but how does he get into it if it's on land? Maybe it's subnautical as well. It could be a deep-sea diving mech he can swim into and then he can come out of it."
Mekko's audio is a lot of fun, too. The on-board Japanese AI translates for the dolphin, so you hear this deep, dry cybernetic Japanese voice saying things like "look at Mekko in bubble shield", "good job, Mekko" and, for his super, "bubble trap, muah ha ha ha ha". There's a robotic clack to the mech's legs as Mekko moves about, too. He is unmistakable.
Overall, I got a cool 90s vibe from Bleeding Edge, which I was not expecting. It's also the first video game I've ever played with a character who's a direct reference to cult classic 90s thriller Hackers, which starred Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller as high school hackers who saved the world. In Bleeding Edge, there's a character called Zero Cool who's a healing hacker gamer with abilities such as Firewall (which creates a Tetris like wall on the map) and a super called 1up. In Hackers, Jonny Lee Miller's character goes by the name Zero Cool.
This is all down to Rahni Tucker's obsession with Hackers, it turns out.
"Yeah, that was me," Tucker admitted when I brought it up. "I love Hackers. It was one of my favourite movies when I was a kid."
Speaking of Zero Cool in Bleeding Edge, Tucker says: "He's a hacker, right? He's a gamer guy, but in his spare time he writes hacks for aimbots and stuff. That's how he makes money on the side. So he's a prodigy hacker. Not hacking corporations, but he's hacking games basically making aimbots."
This 90s vibe courses through Bleeding Edge, from its character design to its tone, and even its audio.
"I was born in 82 so the 90s were my formative years," Tucker adds. "That's true of a lot of the guys on the team. I see a lot of cyberpunk, right, which is very 80s. And it's kind of a little bit tired in some ways. And I was like, we need some 90s up in here! We're bringing the 90s back!"
The addition of Mekko means Bleeding Edge has 12 playable characters at launch. The game comes out 24th March 2020 on PC (including Steam) and Xbox One.