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XDefiant is less fun than ‘Tom Clancy’s Smash Bros.’ should be

The factions look neat, but they rarely stand out in the gameplay

A “Cleaner” from Tom Clancy’s The Division fires an assault rifle in XDefiant. Image: Ubisoft San Francisco/Ubisoft
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Ubisoft’s XDefiant is an arena shooter with a familiar cast drawn from the publisher’s array of shooter and action-adventure franchises. Players can jump into a match as a Echelon spy straight out of Splinter Cell or use Watch Dogs hackers to confound their foes. It’s a fun premise backed up by competent, crisp gameplay — but does the game manage to make these matchups memorable?

XDefiant is a free-to-play, fast-paced, competitive shooter that allows players to pick from one of five factions: the Libertad revolutionaries from Far Cry 6; ex-Ghost Recon specialists known as Phantoms; agents from the Echelon spy agency; DedSec street hackers; and the Cleaners, former sanitation workers with a love of fire from the Division games. Ubisoft previously described the game as partially a “punk-rock mosh pit,” with earlier materials being significantly more colorful.

The XDefiant preview available to press was much more visually restrained, with liberal use of tacticool style. This is great for gameplay, because it’s easy to read both enemy movement and your own squad. But it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi; the closest thing I can say to try and sum up the game’s identity is that it’s Tom Clancy’s Smash Bros.

Players face off in 6v6 battles on maps both original to XDefiant and ones drawn from Ubisoft’s Far Cry and Tom Clancy games. There are arena-style maps for XDefiant’s Domination and Occupy game modes, and then more linear paths for Zone Control and Escort.

Once the game kicks off, players can liberally swap among the factions and different weapon loadouts. Factions are the game’s character classes; every player will spend plenty of hands-on time with a weapon, but with a faction they have access to additional powers and abilities. Libertad, for instance, are great battlefield medics and healers, whereas the Cleaners excel at area control thanks to their liberal use of fire.

This game might scratch an itch for those who feel Valorant is a little too slow, or for those who find the focus on Overwatch’s unique hero abilities to be overwhelming. There are some fun tools and Easter eggs for each faction. DedSec can unleash the Infiltrator Spiderbot on an enemy’s face, blocking their view and forcing them to cartoonishly flail and fumble. The Cleaners have Joe Ferro, their blue-collar boss with the Noo Yawk accent, announcing the matches for them.

But XDefiant also doesn’t measure up to the casts of other contemporary shooters. DedSec, Phantoms, and Echelon are all tech guys. Perhaps this is why the Division is represented by the Cleaners — they’re one of the few groups in the setting that aren’t also tech guys. The Cleaners are also straight-up villains; they spend their time in The Division torching asthmatics and burning children alive. I’m not morally opposed to the concept of putting pyromaniacs in your game, but the Cleaners are still painted with the same vaguely heroic brush as everyone else. Their inclusion feels like it checks off a necessary box rather than being an actual tribute and homage to the Division franchise. It also dilutes any sense of personality among the rest of the factions.

This sense of wasted potential can be felt throughout XDefiant, even if its gameplay is slickly executed and technically competent. I never encountered a spark that kindled into genuine enthusiasm or excitement. XDefiant is perfectly fine, but in a market already choked with a variety of great shooters, it doesn’t stand out. Even the name is confusing; it sounds like a 2006 Halo clone or an energy drink for gamers. While playing XDefiant, I found myself wondering who this game is for.

Ubisoft intends to include new factions every three months, so it’s possible we could see something very out-there, like a modern-day take on Assassin’s Creed. For now, XDefiant doesn’t elevate any of the characters or gadgets it takes from Ubisoft’s catalog. It’s also hard to think of too many interesting additions that aren’t just more soldiers with cool technology.

XDefiant lacks the indulgent joy of a good crossover, without any original or exciting ideas to make up for that. It raises the question: Why get all of these franchises in a room if you aren’t going to do anything wild or fun with them?

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