XDefiant preview: Is it the right place, right time to dethrone Call of Duty?

XDefiant key art showing various factions

Ubisoft is entering the competitive FPS space again with XDefiant, this time taking a shot at Call of Duty and other competitive arena games. We spent two hours with the game recently, and here is what we thought.

For as long as Call of Duty has been a massive multiplayer hit, it has had many games trying to dethrone it at the top of gaming charts. The series has felt like a goliath ever since 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which helped sculpt the modern gaming landscape.

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Games like Medalof Honor: Warfighter and Insurgency have taken shots at Call of Duty’s top spot in the past, all to no avail though.

At any other time, I’d not be optimistic about XDefiant’s chances. This is Ubisoft’s new competitive FPS, and it comes on the heels of the soon-to-be-shuttered Hyper Scape.

This is not any other time, though. Call of Duty is feeling mortal right now. Warzone 2 and Modern Warfare 2 have not been well received, to the point of the community celebrating record-low player counts in hopes of change. The other challengers like Halo Infinite and Battlefield 2042 have also floundered in recent years. Ubisoft may have found itself in a ‘perfect storm’ situation where it doesn’t have to convince players away from other titles – instead, the players are looking to embrace a game just like XDefiant.

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For that to pass, it has to hold up its end of the bargain – it has to be good. That’s the headspace I came into a two-hour preview with. And truthfully, I’ve walked away cautiously optimistic.

Will Ubi-having a good time?

A player shooting a gunThe Division version of New York is one of the most recognisable in the game.

XDefiant is simple to understand in its broad strokes. It’s a 6v6 competitive arena FPS, boasting various game modes with differing objectives. If you’ve played a modern FPS that fits that description in the last 15 years, XDefiant won’t throw too much at you that will surprise you in its wider construction.

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However, that doesn’t mean XDefiant is devoid of its own identity. At the core of XDefiant is the idea of ‘factions’ based on major Ubisoft franchises. Sadly, it focuses on those already entrenched in gunplay, so we may be waiting a while to see a Rayman or Just Dance faction (for now…).

Instead, The Division, Watch_Dogs, Far Cry, Splinter Cell, and Ghost Recon are all represented here, each with their own abilities tied to them. Unsurprisingly, Splinter Cell players will specialize in being invisible and gathering information, The Division players love to use flamethrowers, the Watch_Dogs faction is all about tech and disruption, Far Cry is about support and healing, and Ghost Recon acts more with shielding and objective presence.

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Faction game

It’s a fun mix of ideas that never gets too overbearing but gives the game a unique identity. After touching all of the classes, I ended up warming to the Watch_Dogs faction the most, and in particular using the Spider-Bot, one of the most broken and hilarious tools I’ve seen in a competitive FPS in a while. It involves placing a robotic arachnid on the ground, that will then path find its way across the map until it finds another player, where it will jump on their face, obscuring their vision, and allowing you an easy kill. It was a genuine thrill to place it, see it skitter off, and track behind it waiting for it to locate someone.

However, each faction seemed to have use. Ghost Recon players, with their massive shields, were great in objective-based game modes, able to lock down points they were capturing. Invisible Splinter Cell agents also got work down, slinking in the shadows looking to pick off anyone on their own. While these abilities sound powerful, they never felt too cheap, and the gunplay was still center stage.

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The art of shooting the bad guys

Several players fight each other with gunsHaving a shootout on the maps of Far Cry is a distinct joy

Speaking of, there is a great arsenal of weapons available here. While I didn’t have time to get hands-on with most, I spent some time in the menus, and if you’re a veteran Call of Duty player, there’s nothing here that should surprise you too much. With each weapon, you progress through various tracks that unlock new attachments, allowing you to customize it further. From what I saw, there was nothing as distinct as blueprints, but I didn’t get too much time to dig deep into these systems. I know I used an AK-47 a decent amount, and as I used it, I got a couple of attachments unlocked. It was simple. For those who like to get lost in those systems, it might be a bit bare-bones, but to me, it was blissfully straightforward.

The other thing XDefiant has going for it is that it feels good to shoot guns. It’s a small, but all-important aspect of the game that should keep FPS veterans happy. There’s no generational leap forward for the genre here, but after shooting a bit, I said to my duo, “This feels good.” That’s always a good sign.

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What about those maps and modes

Characters escorting a robot through the zoo.A trip through the zoo with a robo-pal hits different.

XDefiant distinguishes itself further within the modes and arenas in which you do combat. Pulling from Ubisoft’s library of compelling locations, you’ll find yourself in firefights from the tropical islands of Far Cry, the deserted streets of The Division’s New York, or various other compelling locations from the publisher’s past.

In terms of modes, you’re going to recognize most. ‘Occupy’ features an objective you’ll have to sit in before it periodically moves to another location, much like ‘King of the Hill’ modes. ‘Dominion’ had three fixed points that teams would fight over to hold, in the vein of ‘Point Control.’ For the most part, there isn’t much that is going to surprise you.

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That is, except for one addition. XDefiant came together for me when there was a mix of its most unique game mode and map. ‘Escort’ has you… well, escorting a little robot along a fixed line through a map. This is very reminiscent of Overwatch’s own ‘Escort’ mode, though the roles of Tank, DPS, and Support are far less defined here. That said, it added a new feel to a game like this, which felt pretty fun.

That especially goes for the map we played on – a wonderful recreation of a zoo. As you move through the welcome center, past some exhibits, through an aquarium, and out the other side, this map felt big and was a ton of fun to navigate. It was moments like this where you’re struck by these flourishes that help XDefiant stand out from other closely related games.

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Splinter sells?

A Splinter cell agent shooting a gunUbisoft
The gunplay feels great in XDefiant

That doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns for XDefiant as a whole. The free-to-play shooter space is fiercely competitive. There are only a handful of games that end up sticking the landing and finding a spot for themselves. XDefiant has flourishes, but for the most part, it just feels like a pretty well-put-together competitive FPS. Is that going to be enough to carve out a section of its own in the live-service pie?

Speaking bluntly, when you look at the long line of failed live-service games, XDefiant has the deck stacked against it. However, what’s here is good. This is a title put together by a team who knows what they’re doing, and thanks to a market of disgruntled FPS fans, it might just find itself in the right place at the right time.

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XDefiant feels like a ‘back to basics’ experience for a genre that has bloated with systems, services, and mechanics. While XDefiant has abilities that shift gameplay, there is merit to its easy-to-understand experience. Get in an arena, use the gun you’ve been leveling up, and shoot the enemy team to get more points than them. It’s the backbone of the entire multiplayer FPS genre, and XDefiant feels like it has a strong skeleton. That might just be enough, at exactly this moment.

If you want to try XDefiant, the closed beta is live now, and you can sign up for a chance to play.

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