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XDefiant

XDefiant is shaping up to be a great shooter, although its live premise worries me

We've played a couple of hours of Ubisoft's upcoming free-to-play shooter, and while we were impressed by what we saw, the live-service approach is ringing alarm bells.

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When you look at it in a macro sense, there are very few reasons to not be excited about Ubisoft's XDefiant. Free-to-play, boots-on-the-ground, arena shooter featuring an array of iconic Ubisoft brands. It's essentially a Ubisoft-verse (yes, this apparently exists now) take on Call of Duty. But despite this being the case, the reveal for XDefiant didn't do a whole lot to get people excited for yet another Ubisoft shooter, as this is a live-service project and god knows we don't need any more of those.

It has been months, over a year for that matter, since XDefiant was announced, and following an extensively long period of silence relating to the game, Ubisoft is seemingly gearing up to getting this project into the hands of players, as today a closed beta for the game officially kicks off. In the spirit of this effort, I recently had a chance to play a couple of hours of XDefiant and I'm actually pleasantly surprised by what I experienced, even if I still do worry about the game's future.

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The gameplay is fairly self explanatory. You jump into one of 14 maps to play a variety of different game modes, as a collection of unique factions. Designed primarily as a 6v6 game, the game modes are ones that any Call of Duty player will instantly recognise and include Domination, Occupy (aka Hardpoint), Hot Shot (Kill Confirmed), Zone Control, and Escort, which is pretty much a carbon-copy of the Overwatch game mode. From here it's simply about beating the opposing team to the score limit by gunning each other down and racking up as many objective points along the way. If you've played any arena shooter before, you'll feel right at home here.

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It's not in game modes that XDefiant looks to stand aside from other shooters, it's in its faction system, which if you really boil it down, almost feels like a hero system. Currently ranging five factions, each are tailored to a Ubisoft brand, meaning you have Far Cry 6's Libertads, Watch Dogs' DedSec, The Division's Cleaners, Splinter Cell's Echelon, and Phantoms' Phantoms. And while the term 'faction' would imply that there are multiple parts to a single class, in reality, they are split between the core abilities you choose to head into battle with, as for example the sneaky Echelon faction can either bring an invisibility ability or a suit that will act as a recon device and reveal nearby enemies. Each faction does have a specific set of other abilities that are present regardless of the main ability you choose and that play into the theme of the faction, for example DedSec's Ultra ability (think Overwatch's Ultimate) is always Lockout, which hacks and prevents enemies from using their abilities, and this is the same for passive traits across each faction.

The faction system is really well implemented and no one faction feels massively stronger or worse than the other, and in fact you can easily pick any of the factions and slot them into the gameplay, because at the end of the day, XDefiant isn't a hero shooter like Overwatch, meaning the gameplay and meta isn't as rigid as that of Blizzard's title.

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While you can't really customise much on the faction side of things, the weapons are a different beast. Regardless of the faction you choose to play, you can use any of the weapons in XDefiant, and by getting kills and experience when using weapons, you can level them to unlock attachments that will allow them to be further specialised into the way you intend to play. The customisation suite here is reminiscent of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II's Gunsmith, except it is more rudimentary and less complex to understand. Essentially, it's generally better for players even if the buildcrafting does take a hit.

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While I like the weapon customisation suite, I'm not a fan of a game having too many progression avenues as is found here, and what I mean is that XDefiant requires you to level up your actual account, each individual faction, and then each individual weapon. Doing so will unlock new weapons to use and attachments and so forth, and this is where the live-service elements creep in and start to concern me, as I already know that I won't have the time to really explore this in its full depth when the game eventually launches, only those who solely commit to XDefiant will.

But anyway, back to the gameplay. Before moving away from the gunplay and general feel of XDefiant, I'd like to add that this does come across as a very premium AAA shooter. The gunplay and movement feels fluid and responsive, and while the time-to-kill values are rather low, the pacing of XDefiant means you are never out of the action for long, which is exactly what an arena shooter is looking to serve up. The HUD is also tight and refined and doesn't overwhelm with information you don't need.

Adding to this are the maps, which are designed with two words in mind that will make every shooter fan weak at the knees: three lanes. Every map feels like a classic Call of Duty map with predominantly three lanes to travel down that are intersected with different buildings and alleys and so forth, and while I only managed to play XDefiant for a couple of hours, the maps felt intuitive and easy to understand, whilst still having plenty of nooks and crannies to get the jump on unsuspecting flankers. Oh, and the fact that most are based on locations from Ubisoft games makes matters all the more fun, as you can head to The Division's ruined Times Square, Pueblito (based on a location from Far Cry 6's Yara), Watch Dogs' Nudleplex, and more.

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While I will attribute the horrible servers and poor connections to the fact that this was a press preview session, the monetisation does leave me a little concerned. This is a free-to-play game meaning it needs to generate revenue some other way besides a straight purchase, and this means that XDefiant boasts a battle pass, a store, premium currency, and all of those other doodads that try to make you spend money on cosmetics and other additions that don't add to the gameplay in any shape or form.

But none of this changes the fact that the live-service market is absolutely cutthroat regardless of the game. There are too many games these days that require your undivided attention and frankly it is impossible to commit to several games with live elements at once, and this is the precise fact that worries me the most about XDefiant. Because while this game seems like a fun and entertaining shooter, for it survive and thrive, it will need to draw people away from titans like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Destiny 2, even Rainbow Six: Siege, and I don't think it's premise and gameplay is unique enough to do that in the first place, nevermind then somehow managing to maintain players weeks and months after launch. MultiVersus looked like a surefire hit with its unique concept and interesting cast, but three months later and the game had a fraction of its playerbase. Live-service games are at a tipping point.

So, while XDefiant is clearly a game that feels refined, premium and fun, I can't quite say it will be a hit yet. With its free-to-play nature and its tight gunplay and action, I can see this being a game that draws a lot of players at release, but then haemorrhages players following this. Hopefully the packed seasonal content plan and post-launch support (that promises new maps, factions, weapons, and more) can stifle this, as it does look like XDefiant could be the next big shooter and the successor to Siege, which has already surpassed its seventh birthday. Long story short, you could say that I am cautiously optimistic about XDefiant right now and I genuinely hope it finds its place in the market because this is a very fun and well-designed shooter.

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