Ubisoft's arena shooter XDefiant needs to do more to stand out from the crowd
Different or better, pick one
After two hours of XDefiant, I came away with a rather different thought in my mind than I expected. More than anything, I was impressed at just how good we have it in the multiplayer FPS genre at the moment. Apex Legends, Warzone 2, Overwatch 2, Valorant, Rainbow Six Siege. That's some unbelievably tough competition. XDefiant has to either give players something completely different, or absolutely nail the basics. It's opted for the second path, and having played several matches against a medley of press people and content creators, I'm not convinced Ubisoft's new arena shooter is up to the challenge.
Our time with XDefiant was prefaced by a short prerecorded livestream introducing us to the game and the philosophy underpinning its development. According to executive producer Mark Ruban, XDefiant was the result of their desire to reignite players' love for classic fast-paced arena shooters. Clean movement, solid gunplay, easy to dive into. Essentially, this is the vanilla ice cream of arena shooters. A free-to-play first-person game with several familiar arena and escort-style modes, a bunch of three-lane maps, a medley of familiar guns and attachments, and - brace yourself for the fascinating twist - five factions (read: classes), each one taken from a different Ubisoft game series. oooOOOOooo.
You've got the Echelon, from Splinter Cell - they're the flankers. Then there's the Cleaners from The Division - they're the DPS. Libertad hails from the Far Cry series, they're your support characters. Phantoms, from Ghost Recon, are your tanks. And Deadsec are the hackers, from Watch Dogs. Tell me, Ubisoft - did anyone actually ask for this? Of course the idea isn't intrinsically bad, but it certainly makes you question the decision when each of these factions has been reduced to a stereotypical FPS role. If the intention was to promote interest in all these other Ubisoft titles, then surely you could have these factions a tad more inspiring?
Each faction has a passive trait, an Ultimate ability (called an Ultra), and two quite similar abilities to choose between per life. There are different characters within each faction, but they're purely cosmetic (and therefore meaningless in my book). Players can hop between factions at will before respawning, Overwatch-style, and you can mix and match loadouts too with a gun progression system lifted straight from Call Of Duty.
So off I went, running around unknown maps, popping heads, dying, and respawning barely a second later. I chose Echelon as my class. Along with Libertad, it seemed like the strongest class by quite a margin, and over the next two hours I'd be proven correct, as more and more matches were filled up by these two factions. Echelon gave me the ability to turn mostly invisible at will, and my Ultra revealed every enemy on the map and gave me an extremely powerful pistol with which I could go around scoring multi-kills with ease. It felt cheesy, but it was fun as long as I was on the right end of the pistol.
My first several games were true arena shooter experiences, with familiar game modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Occupy. It was hectic as all hell, mainly because none of us knew the maps very well and kept running headlong into enemy spawns. Most players were going round first with an M4 and then the AK-47 once they'd unlocked it. I opted for the SMG route instead, rushing in with my invisibility and melting Cleaners and Phantoms with my Vector SMG. It was mindless rinse-repeat fun, and probably the best part of it all was the map design, which is actually very solid from what I saw. It ain't no Overwatch, but the maps were easy to understand, fun to explore, and filled with opportunities for interesting flank attacks and escapes.
But I've never been a fan of those sorts of game modes in shooters. I like to play smart, and games like TDM reward rushing in and getting a couple of kills before dying. There were opportunities to play smart, particularly as the Echelon - but it meant that despite getting lots of multi-kills and a very strong K/D ratio, I was invariably in the bottom half of the scoreboard compared to those who just charged in like Vinnie Jones, The Juggernaut Bitch. Also, there was the traditional issue of spawn-swapping, where one team pushes far enough into the other's spawn that the game switches the teams' spawn points. I hate that. Always have, always will. It's messy, unintuitive, and leads to unjust deaths.
So I moved onto the Escort game mode, which I stayed with until the end of my two hours with Tom Clancy's Smash Bros. A carbon copy of the Escort mode in Overwatch 2, we were tasked with either pushing a payload down a long track, or stopping the other team from pushing it to the end. I enjoyed this mode a lot more because it felt like there were actual consequences to dying. If someone died, they'd be sent back to the last checkpoint, rather than just spawning back in the action a moment later. It gave more opportunities to work as a team, rather than go off and play your own game under the guise of working together with your allies.
But look at me. I'm not even talking about XDefiant anymore, am I? I'm talking about staple game modes in tonnes of different arena shooters. That's the trouble with XDefiant. There's really not much to grab onto and think, this right here is the game's identity. This is why I'd play this game. Instead I was just left thinking, "Yep. It's a vidyagame." Is it gonna pull me away from Apex? Hell no.
I don't want to give the wrong impression here - XDefiant actually feels quite good to play. The gunplay was decent. The movement was serviceable. The matches were fast-paced, and the kills were satisfying. I had fun! But when I stopped and thought things over, I realised it's the fun I could have with any other shooter out there. There are lots of games nowadays with much better gunplay, with vastly improved movement. No one's going to be drawn to XDefiant simply because it features classes inspired by other Ubisoft games. They'll play it to see if it's worth their time over the likes of COD or Overwatch. And those games are spectacularly good at what they do, whereas XDefiant is... just okay.