XDefiant review: The kid gloves are off in the... Clancyverse?

Ubisoft's new F2P crossover combines elements from arena and hero shooters.


On paper, XDefiant sounds almost repulsive. A crossover hero shooter featuring several of Ubisoft’s various Tom Clancy-branded series? And Watch Dogs? Who asked for that? I struggle to imagine an audience for a Tom Clancy multiverse, mostly because I don’t know if doomsday bunkers have reliable internet for hardcore gaming sessions. But after diving into the game and lurking in community spaces, I began to understand the particular kind of niche XDefiant seeks to occupy. “Call of Duty killer” is probably out of this game’s reach, but I can see the vision.

Clancy Vs. Clancy: Clash of Gun Heroes

A look at some of the different characters in XDefiant
Source: Ubisoft

For starters, XDefiant isn’t just a hero shooter like Overwatch. It’s a full-throated hybrid between that and the arena shooter style we typically associate with Call of Duty. So if you can imagine a game that sort of crams themed cooldown skills into CoD Mobile, that’s what Ubisoft is aiming for here. The other major factor is that XDefiant deliberately doesn’t use Skill-Based Matchmaking, or SBMM as the people call it. This is the core component that occupies most discussions (aside from technical and balance woes of course), ranging from cathartic glee to mudslinging between casual players and “Sweats,” like the weirdest adaptation of Dr Seuss’ The Sneetches.

SBMM, which Activision historically deploys in CoD, algorithmically groups players together based on skill. This might sound fine to the average gamer, but folks a little higher on the K/D/A totem pole kind of hate it. That’s because SBMM essentially forces high-level players to be “on” all the time, even in unranked play modes. If good players just want to vibe and get low-effort wins (arguably rude) or simply try new, unfamiliar weapons without getting destroyed (less rude), the world’s dominant arena shooter doesn’t let that happen. And there aren’t exactly big competitors offering the alternative in a mainstream capacity.

That’s what XDefiant is trying to accomplish. Put everyone on the same playing field and let what happens naturally shape the community. On one side, the players yearning for games untainted by algorithmic guardrails are stoked. On the other, there’s an argument that casual players will be chased away, threatening the game’s shelf life. Somewhere in the middle is a theoretical new audience to grow, who see the appeal of diving into the deep end and getting better through attrition. And since XDefiant is a free to play game, perhaps that sweetens the deal on the casual side.

Crisis on Infinite Clancys

Regular shooting gameplay in XDefiant
Source: Ubisoft

Meanwhile, as I grew to understand the broad appeal, I struggled to find my own, personal appeal. For one, regardless of the stuff going on in the meta, this game has no actual personality. The characters aren’t really characters, so much as generic bodies vaguely dressed up to represent their assigned property. You get little touches like commentary flavor changing based on if you’re playing as the Far Cry or Splinter Cell faction, but that’s about it. Otherwise you just kind of pick up and play XDefiant in fairly standard-looking stages that don’t do much to carve out an identity for the game. There are Rabbid emojis in the initial Battle Pass though, so more colorful vibes could emerge as time goes on. The Watch Dogs characters are a little more colorful by nature, but that’s where the other problem comes in.

Holy moly, good gravy, this game is grindy. To unlock the Watch Dogs faction, for example, you either need to cough up ten bucks or earn 700,000 XP. And playing a match gives you 2,000, with another 2,000 for winning. There are daily missions and whatnot of course that can give you upwards of 10,000 for using a specific faction or weapon or completing a specific task. Even with the missions, that’s an absurd amount of grinding. To make matters worse, weapons (the main attraction in terms of progress) level up noticeably slowly as well. The grind is set to a painful pace. Sure, since this is a brand new game there isn’t as much content as CoD Mobile. But stretching it out that much feels detrimental to having a good time.

In terms of mechanics and balance, it’s hard to make specific complaints considering the live nature of a brand-new game. I could talk about how everyone is complaining about snipers right now, but it’s so obvious a problem you can see the patch notes coming a mile away. There’s a hit detection problem making things funky as well, which is impacting Time To Kill (TTK) when two players clash. But that’s another obvious priority fix for the devs.

That all said, XDefiant feels like it has a very solid foundation. This is at its heart a back to basics arena shooter, attempting to win over Call of Duty fans who have yearned for multiplayer of a bygone era. You got the standard sets of weapons, objective-based match types, and no particularly goofy gimmicks to speak of. Well, except for the hero shooter stuff. The added element of character-oriented skills governed by cooldowns feels earnest, but sometimes at odds with everything else.

The King of Clancys '98 Ultimate Match

A skill being demonstrated in XDefiant
Source: Ubisoft

It’s weird to have grenades on a cooldown in a game like this! And while “Ultras” can certainly make for wild, big plays, the arena shooter structure doesn’t make much room for them. Unless you’re Mr. FragM@ster69 racking up points and not dying much, you’ll be lucky to use your own Ultra once over the course of a match. Maybe twice if you’re lucky. Hope you used it effectively and don’t feel like you wasted it, because you may or may not see it again next round.

Skills like healing were hard to figure out as well, because the fast pace made it difficult to discern a tangible impact. Also, without things like limits on how many of each faction a team can use, and no obvious concerns about unfair compositions, the concept just feels flimsy. Not without novelty, but I don’t think the hero mechanics make or break what XDefiant is largely about. This could all be obsolete a few seasons from now as more stuff is added and tweaked, but at launch it simply feels more important to put more bullets in people instead of worrying about drones and stuff.

XDefiant feels like a niche, that knows it’s a niche, and tries to sprinkle some broad appeal on top. Just enough to draw in more than the hardcores, without risking alienating them too much. At the same time, it’s a line in the sand moment for all the FPS hardcores who are sick and tired of SBMM. On top of all that, crossing over Tom Clancy series has the appeal of mixing a bowl of potato chips from different brands that are all the same flavor. And Watch Dogs? Anyway, there’s a solid foundation here with rock-solid arena shooter mechanics. If the matchmaking experiment works out and some key adjustments are made, I can see this game sticking around for a good while.

XDefiant is available now for PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. We downloaded the game normally at launch for this review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
  • Solid arena shooter foundation
  • Serves a specific purpose (the no SBMM thing) in a fascinating way
  • Zero personality unless you count the Rabbid emojis
  • Slow grind for unlocks and weapon levels
  • Hero shooter elements feel superfluous
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