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April 2024

Skull And Bones

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Feb. 16, 2024


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PS5/XSX/PC Preview - 'Skull and Bones'

by Cody Medellin on Dec. 20, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

In Skull & Bones you will take command of their own warship to live the ultimate pirate experience alongside their friends and become a legend of the open-ocean.

E3 2017 saw the announcement of Skull and Bones, a game that spun off from the well-received naval portions of 2013's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. While some called it a response to Sea of Thieves, which was announced at E3 2015, it helped that the game would be multiplatform instead of exclusive to one console and the PC. Like many big-budget games, this one got a delay from its original 2018 release date, but unlike other titles, the delays kept coming every few months. So far, the last known release date is February 16, 2024, and alongside that announcement comes the release of the game's second closed beta. We checked out the beta over the weekend to see how the game is shaping up.

The game starts off similar to many Metroidvania titles. You begin with a high-class ship filled with tons of cannons that let you eviscerate any ship in your way. You'll do that in the opening moments while you learn how to steer and attack enemies. Eventually, the game sends enough Compagnie warships against you that your ship get destroyed, and you end up atop some driftwood while awaiting rescue. Create your character, and you'll soon be running errands to get yourself a ship and start your journey toward becoming a fearsome and respected pirate of the Indian Ocean.

You can split the core gameplay loop into two parts. The first revolves around your boat, and its systems are deeper than expected. You can get completely different boat types that are good for things like ramming into other ships or hunting for food or simply providing heavy cannonball ordnance. Those ships can all be outfitted with upgrades for weapons and stats. This is where the game almost transforms your ship into a living character. Not only do you have to worry about ship health, but you also have to take into account stamina and many of the items you carry, including food. It will either heal the ship or give a quick boost when you don't have time to wait for self-healing.

Naval combat seems like the real focus, and that's best exemplified by how naval battles are treated. Fights can be strategic as you determine whether you want to blow up a boat or board it for goods. The actual fights have you trying to be on the move to remain elusive and to make full use of your arsenal as you have guns that act while your other weapons are reloading. It's not much different from what was seen in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but it remains satisfying. At the same time, the level of bombast seen in these fights can get a touch ridiculous. Ships explode into splinters and giant fireballs when you deliver enough cannonballs, but the same thing also happens when you board a ship; it goes from a cut scene of your crew jumping aboard back to the gameplay, where the enemy ship explodes as if it had been affected by cannonball fire. It's dumb but still satisfying to see.

The focus on your boat also creates some strange situations that seem fine for saving time but feel disconnected otherwise. There are some ports where you can't dock, but you can still shop for larger goods. Harvesting anything on land simply has you getting close to the object and performing a minigame to get it or turning on the option to auto-harvest if you don't want to go through that hassle. The same goes for looting wrecked ships, as you can magically get things without leaving your boat.

The beta revealed some potential issues with this naval focus. Looting goods from the ocean surface requires you to look at it and press a button, but it's rarely visible on-screen, so it can feel like the only way to ensure you get everything is to constantly spin the camera and mash buttons. Certain crops can only be harvested if they're fully grown, but the map shows you places where a key item may exist but isn't harvestable. It wastes your time and creates frustration, as you aren't explicitly told why a seemingly good tree can't be harvested yet. The constant banter of your crew is fine, but they often call out the same thing in succession or announce warnings when you're perfectly fine, such as asking you to dump cargo even though your hold isn't halfway full.

The second part of the important gameplay puzzle is when you disembark and explore the islands on foot. Bartering with merchants and getting upgrades for your ship are some of the things that are available in just about every port, as is the ability to stash goods in your warehouse; you'll do this often, since they are still accessible when selling or modify those items. Cooking and adding cosmetics are also tasks that you'll partake in, but the main reason for getting off the ship has to do with missions. Whether you're getting them from pirate warlords or taking on random jobs or bounties, they become essential for story and character progression.

At the moment, the shopping and mission gathering are the only reasons for getting off the boat. The game lacks combat for these portions, so there are no enemies to fight, and there's no ability to engage in swordplay against other players. While some of the islands contain pathways that let you do some exploring and a few lead to treasure, you aren't going to find a wealth of secrets to make it worthwhile. This is a game centered on naval combat, so you have to temper expectations to avoid disappointment in these sections. You'll have to temper expectations even more, as many of the early missions are fetch quests, with only a few combat scenarios sprinkled in.

Due to the nature of both games, comparisons between Skull and Bones and Sea of Thieves are going to be inevitable, as they're two of the biggest pirate-themed games. While both titles require players to be online at all times, the differences between them are big enough to serve two completely different audiences. Skull and Bones feels tailor-made for a solo experience, and the constant online participants cause chaos rather than help out. Co-op multiplayer is slightly limited, as you can only have a party of three at any one time, with each party member commanding their own ship. Sea of Thieves has multiplayer where everyone plays a part in one ship, and there's more care taken to ensure that different parts of the ship are working. Rare's title also feels more tailor-made for getting into hijinks and making your own adventures in the world, while Ubisoft's title feels more rigid due to the constant flow of quests. Both have their place, which makes the act of naming one as better than the other difficult to do, especially since it feels like the beta is only presenting a small sliver of the game and only allows players to experience it for six hours.

Since the game is still in beta with a release date that might or might not stick, it remains too early to talk much about the presentation beyond the fact that it looks to be on par with Ubisoft's offerings over the last few years. One thing that is quite nice to hear are the various sea shanties that are randomly sung when you're at sea with a full crew. It's a good mix of songs in English and other languages, but all of them are so good that you'll actively wait at a port before disembarking just so you can listen to the current song to completion.

At the moment, Skull and Bones has the potential to be a decent pirate game if you can accept its shortcomings. The heavy focus on your ship is nice, but it also means that disembarking to go on land has a narrow focus. At the moment, the missions aren't exciting enough, and they don't offer much variety. The game also lacks a cast of characters to care about in the early stages. This title is manageable for solo players, so you don't need to get a crew together to have fun. If the release date doesn't slip further, we're curious to see the state of the final game.

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