XDefiant Review – Flashy and fun, but will it linger?

The latest free-to-play phenom, XDefiant offers small twists on a classic formula – and a nod to some of the greats.

After multiple delays, the fast-paced first-person shooter XDefiant has well and truly come hot out the gate. Outpacing even Apex Legends in unique player count in its early hours, according to Insider Gaming, the question remains: will XDefiant possess the staying power of that behemoth?

XDefiant’s conventional 6v6 team-based structure and depth of weapon customisation offer much in the way of tried and true but nonetheless addictive gameplay loops. Combine this with the game’s May release date and it’s clear to see its attempt to catch both casual and hardcore players alike in the Call of Duty offseason.

XDefiant’s gameplay, defined by quick respawn times and even faster reaction speeds, offers pleasures familiar to those who’ve thrown even a passing glimpse at Activision’s genre-defining FPS in the past decade. The essentials are all in check: the controls feel taut and responsive, movement is hefty but fluid, and the maps are well-constructed and maintain a great flow. 

Gamers are often hindered by their desire to compare one thing to another, but XDefiant wants you to view it in close proximity to Call of Duty – and not just for how its title reads like a gamertag you’d spot in a Black Ops lobby. It’s as much for simple marketing purposes as it is based on the desire for you to see how well XDefiant addresses common criticisms of Activision’s long-running series. 

The game’s lack of a conventional Team Deathmatch mode seems to underline an emphasis on teamwork and curb maverick solo players from not playing the objective, something further suggested by the game’s lack of traditional killstreak rewards.

The included game modes are essentially riffs on Call of Duty staples – Occupy (essentially Hardpoint) and Hot Shot (a spin on Kill Confirmed), Domination (you know this one) – and are currently joined by a pair of game modes, Escort and Zone Control (playfully referred to by fans as the ‘Overwatch’ mode and the ‘Battlefield’ mode, respectively). 

Read: Ubisoft’s XDefiant officially launches in May 2024

Image: Ubisoft

That XDefiant is nipping at Call of Duty’s heels may come as no surprise, given that the game is headed by Mark Rubin, former Executive Producer at Infinity Ward for the first Modern Warfare trilogy (2007–2012) – games nestled firmly within a period fondly remembered as the golden age of Call of Duty

Seemingly in response to growing dissatisfaction with Call of Duty‘s skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) – a relatively straightforward system which matches you with players at a similar skill level – XDefiant’s developers have leveraged the game’s lack of SBMM as a marketing point.

This criticism has been largely led by content creator types, who, discontent with not being able to “pwn noobs” on a consistent basis, have waged a campaign against the supposedly game-tainting system. To highlight how loud this conversation has become, Activision have in recent months posted research on the game’s matchmaking system to explain the technical behind-the-scenes.

Whether this the lack of SBMM frees gamers from the supposed tyranny of (checks notes) being matched with players of a similar skill level, it would be rendered a moot point if XDefiant does fade into oblivion – fated, perhaps, to follow viral F2P FPSs like Splitgate and The Finals as low player counts are touted online as evidence of near-dead game status. 

XDefiant + IP = a nod to the greats

The free-to-play model lives or dies by the fortune of its microtransactions. Like other F2P games, XDefiant uses a battle pass system, the first of many purchasable across each of the game’s proposed three-month seasons. As is par for the course, the opening set of maps and game modes – relatively slim but enough to keep you busy – will be expanded on with each season. 

It may seem like a healthy sign then, that XDefiant is afforded the luxury of raiding Ubisoft’s closet of IP. Just as in other FPS games, the game lets you customise your loadout – pick your weapons, their attachments, and your choice of grenade – but you’re also given the choice of five classes or ‘Factions’, each with unique abilities that come loosely modelled on a Ubisoft franchise. The mix centres around a Tom Clancy’s tripartite of Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell, and The Division, with Far Cry and Watch Dogs thrown in, too. 

Each Faction comes with a passive trait (such as extra health or less visibility on enemy mini-maps), a pair of swappable basic abilities (including a spider drone which tracks down and stuns an enemy, or a temporary shield which blocks incoming damage), as well as an ultra ability (the coolest one lets you don night vision goggles and one tap enemies with a pistol). I remain unsure whether the contents of this IP closet possess a designer aura – or whether the brand management of it all renders everything a little tacky. 

The IP mining also extends to the theming of the game’s maps, many of which are donned with a little franchise subtitle. A handful of maps – Dumbo and Emporium – are so distinct to The Division that a friend and I reminisced about how long it took us beat one of that game’s toughest bosses when we played it in 2016.

But extending this branding to the characters is a deft touch, taking generic class types and synthesising them with character designs that draw on sometimes iconic (the night vision goggled-styling of Sam Fisher) or sometimes just familiar (a vaguely Far Cry-themed rebel outfit) character attires and attributes. 

This is much like what the recently relaunched MultiVersus does with Warner Bros., and like what Nintendo has always done with Super Smash Bros. We’ve become accustomed to the conglomeration of characters from multiple franchises, be it in cinema with The Avengers or games like Dead by Daylight’s collect-a-thon of iconic horror movie killers. 

But in XDefiant, this formula feels tinged with crisis. Rather than the Fortnite model of letting you play as your favourite character from another franchise, it feels like their inclusion is rather to keep dormant or underperforming IP afloat – to passively remind, rather than immediately excite.

Despite not producing a Splinter Cell game for over a decade, and in the face of rumours surrounding the Watch Dogs franchise, XDefiant seemingly trots these properties out and shakes them around like forgotten toys from a fondly remembered past. Each season proposes to add a new Faction, so it will be interesting to see if other big hitters like Assassin’s Creed are adaptable for the FPS form.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the minute-to-minute gameplay is just a whole lot of fun. The varied mechanics of each class, and the deep bench of weapon customisation, will offer something to keep the wheel spinning. If nothing else, that the game is free helps clear the hurdle of getting your mates to drop in – especially in the face of Call of Duty’s premium price tag – even if only for a month or two. 

Three stars: ★★★

Platform(s): PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 21 May 2024

This game was played on a PS5, for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale.

Samuel Harris is a Media PhD candidate at RMIT University and freelance screen critic. Cinephile by day and game enthusiast by night, Samuel balances his healthy affection for Letterboxd with his unhealthy affliction for PlayStation trophy hunting. Tweets from @samewlharris.