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XDefiant was a project that, in a lot of respects, came from nowhere. Originally bearing the Tom Clancy name, it was pitched as a free-to-play shooter with class-specific abilities bringing aspects of the various Clancy games together in a competitive arena-style offering.
However, the Clancy-verse is more known for slow, methodical paced action than frantic, reactive gameplay seen in hero shooters such as Overwatch, so seeing how the two seemingly disparate concepts would mesh was always going to be intriguing. Eventually, it dropped the Tom Clancy name, and now, as it enters closed beta, we’ve had some hands-on time to experience XDefiant.
Right away, it’s obvious why the Clancy moniker has been dropped, as Ubisoft has looked further into their catalogue for the game’s other classes – with Far Cry and Watch Dogs now joining characters based on factions from Splinter Cell, The Division, and Ghost Recon. Though it still retains plenty of Clancy hallmarks, there’s now an injection of pastel clouds of colour from the Guerillas, and the whole anti-establishment hacker vibes of DedSec. This also means the game steers a little harder away from the pseudo-realism for its gadgets, weapons and – perhaps most importantly for an arena shooter – the maps themselves.
There are 14 maps at launch in the beta, including two based on Splinter Cell and Far Cry respectively – and each one manages to evoke memories of the series they’re based around, even if you don’t get too long to bask in that during the heat of battle. There are a couple of standouts too, including Midway which is set in a Carnival – the bright lights and bold decoration giving it a unique visual look. Each map has a layout well-suited for competitive play, funnelling players to key locations, leading to plenty of action around where you’d expect the objectives to be.
Despite its familiarity and inspiration from plenty of existing games, XDefiant does manage to find its own niche somewhat. Guns have a similar feel and lethality to Rainbow Six Siege, Ubisoft’s flagship multiplayer shooter, but the real meat comes in the form of abilities. Each class can pick one of two abilities, but each one is thematically appropriate, and helps individual classes carve their own strengths. So for example, the Cleaners from The Division are based around fire – so they can either pick a drone that sprays fire in a path ahead of you, or a firebomb that can help you control an area, molotov cocktail-style.
The Guerillas from Far Cry, meanwhile, are a support class – their abilities are based around healing, with the choice of either a directed heal that can target specific players, or area-of-effect (AOE) healing in the form of a medkit pack that can be placed wherever you like. However, my favourite class was the DedSec from Watch Dogs, with one of their abilities letting you send out a Spider-Bot that will hunt out the nearest enemy and give them a face-hug, obstructing their view for just long enough for you to introduce them to the business end of your weapon.
These classes do feel different enough from each other to support specific playstyles, although guns and equipment loadouts are largely universal – meaning there’s a lot of options to help you find the best way to support your teammates. The difference between abilities within a class isn’t quite as pronounced, but is still just enough to change your tactics up when you’re playing as them.
The beta also offers up five different modes – and they’re fairly familiar fare, such as Domination where you’re trying to hold onto points on the map for as long as possible. There’s also Escort, which sees you (as the name implies) escort a package across a map while the other team tries to stop you, much like the payload in Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. There’s also a pretty fun take on Kill Confirmed in Hotshot, only as a player racks up more kills without dying, they become a bigger target (and bigger bounty) to the player that kills them.
Overall, the game does feel fun to play in these short bursts – firefights can be frantic, and occasionally feel a little ‘how did that guy kill me?’ at first – but once you find your groove, along with your preferred weapon and loadout, it certainly ticks all the required boxes for an online shooter with satisfying combat and a victory earned. While the guns themselves feel a little generic, the twists from the class abilities, plus the maps do a fair amount of the heavy lifting to make the game stand out among its contemporaries. It’s worth noting that our preview experience was marred with some severe connectivity issues that resulted in most matches cutting out early, but we were assured this was just an issue with the preview servers and would be fixed in time for the closed beta launch.
But what about the game’s long term prospects? It’s pretty clear – even in this pre-release stage – that Ubisoft wants to support this game for a long time. Of course, there’s the expected battle pass for players to work their way through and unlock cosmetics for their other weapons, and we’re promised regular post-launch updates in the form of Seasons bringing new maps, new content including new classes with the potential of characters based on other Ubisoft series getting involved.
It’d be understandable to see this with some scepticism – after all, the fate of HyperScape and the mixed reception to Roller Champions don’t paint the best picture of Ubisoft’s track record with online competitive free-to-play games. However, we also have to remember this is also the same Ubisoft behind Rainbow Six Siege – which is currently in its ninth (and counting) year of content – and while the latter is not free to play, it’s maybe earned them a little leeway into seeing where XDefiant could go.
It’s early days, but there’s certainly something here for those looking for a new free-to-play shooter to get stuck into. Whether they’ll stick around will no doubt be whether Ubisoft can keep enough interest to keep the engine running.
XDefiant’s closed beta runs from April 13 until April 27 on PC, Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 with the full game expected to follow later in the year.