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XDefiant dares to ask the question: "What if Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was good?"

'Call of Duty meets hero shooters' could be done right after all.

XDefiant - Echelon
Image credit: Ubisoft

After playing a closed test which I reasonably enjoyed two years ago, my expectations for XDefiant weren't super high. While my experience had been positive, everything I heard about the following tests and closed betas was that it was all heading towards enticing the Call of Duty crowd. Thankfully, the final release of the game isn't exactly that.

The first thing that's apparent after a couple of matches is that Ubisoft San Francisco was smart enough to distance the game from the modern CoD formula and instead focus on the more classical feeling that many twitch shooter series have gradually lost. While XDefiant has a voice of its own to a certain degree, it mostly feels like a very improved version of Black Ops 4, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Let me preface this piece by saying it's stupid to try to avoid the CoD comparisons. Ubisoft very much wanted its piece of that cake with this title, and that's part of the reason why it's been tested and tweaked to hell and back. Thankfully, unlike cancelled online shooters like Hyper Scape and The Division: Heartland, the publisher might have a winner with this one.

While Call of Duty remains a behemoth that no one should try to topple or imitate too closely, there was a clear opportunity in trying to examine why the long-running franchise moved away from simpler systems and less bloated design and how to improve upon that for a modern audience that may feel a bit tired of increasingly complex MP experiences and simply wants straight-to-the-point gunfights reminiscent of the PS3/360 days. So far, XDefiant excels at delivering exactly that, and the early player numbers are reportedly good.

A player fires their rifle in XDefiant
Image credit: Ubisoft

The Black Ops 4 comparisons don't come out of nowhere. 2018's Call of Duty release was arguably the series' lowest point when it came to post-Modern Warfare (2007) popularity; it lacked a story campaign, didn't implement all its borrowed ideas well enough, and simply felt like a much lesser version of its Treyarch-developed predecessor. The fact it was offered as part of Humble Bundle's monthly offerings months later was the big, definitive sign of a game that hadn't turned out how Activision expected at all.

Mind you, CoD diehards don't care that much about the single-player content, yet its absence felt odd, as the franchise has always been famous for its big-budget, Michael Bay-ish extravaganzas that run under 6-7 hours as much as the packed multiplayer offerings, now bolstered regularly with seasonal content updates and whatnot. But perhaps more egregious was the fact that so much of the series' core personality had been muddled by MOBA-like map design and uninspired, hero-like classes that were a step back from Black Ops 3's convincing mix of unique abilities and sci-fi acrobatics. The return to 'boots on the ground' gameplay didn't feel like the good ol' installments, instead coming across as a more basic version of what BO3 and Infinite Warfare had tried to do before.

Now, nearly six years later, XDefiant's devs have picked up those pieces and crafted a competitive shooter that fulfills the promise of grounded-yet-stylish CoD-like gameplay. The right dose of Overwatch (another troubled Activision IP) DNA is there, but it never distracts from gunplay and map design that work well on their own, and the progression systems surrounding it all aren't a nightmare to look at.

A player transports a package in XDefiant

I guess the gist of it, at least for my 32-year-old ass, is that I can't keep up with most of the progression tracks and overly complex class builds that are currently 'the meta', which is why I play the newest CoD much more casually and in sparse bursts following the first one to two months. Meanwhile, I've found a simpler, more streamlined version of that loop in XDefiant. And, of course, it plays great and has maps that don't feel like the cubicles of CoD's darkest age. They're tight but distinct and also flexible, and I'm really enjoying mastering them as much as the guns.

With Black Ops 6 on the horizon and coming to Game Pass later this year, XDefiant will have to face yet another trial by fire, one that will be all about keeping up with the noisy demand of more content without tinkering more than needed with the core gunplay and classes. There are balance passes to be done for sure, but this game's longterm success depends on letting modern CoD do its thing and going the opposite direction with the overarching design and engagement ambitions.

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