I’ve been waiting for another chance to go hands on with Skull and Bones since 2017.
I first played the game right after its official announcement at E3 that year. This was in the era when Skull and Bones was still very much a spin-off of the popular naval combat from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Back then, it was still using an ampersand ‘&’ symbol in its title treatment, one of a million changes made on its way out of dry dock.
Our group was short a player that day, and their slot was filled by former Ubi Singapore director Hugues Ricour, a man who was later ousted from the company as it investigated toxic work culture claims. It felt then a bit like Ubisoft’s other multiplayer titles, like For Honor — a very specific multiplayer gamble that might or might not pay off.
I never saw the game again after that. I made regular appearances at Ubisoft’s Sydney offices for previews in those days. It never found its way back onto the preview calendar before I joined Kotaku AU in 2021.
And then, last night, the Skull and Bones open beta went live, and I finally got to play it again.
Fire when ready
The beta opens with a very familiar feeling naval battle. It recalls AC4: Black Flag in exactly the same way the 2017 build did, and it’s cool to see that some part of that original vision remains. The sailing is, like AC4‘s, very light on the touch. Pulling the directional stick left or right causes the bow to sweep with a velocity that would surely throw sailors from the deck in real life. The g-forces exerted by some of these ships would challenge astronauts in a NASA gyro, but it’s also not like Skull and Bones is aiming for realism. It’s a fantasy of the pirate life, and ships behaving in a very video-gamey way fits into that.
I was surprised that naval traversal still feels so similar to Black Flag. You tap the A or X button to drop the sails and your ship will handle differently based on her size and class. You also haul flotsam out of the water the same way — pulling up alongside it and tapping A/X to instantly haul the loot on board. This is, to me at least, the beta’s most dated-feeling aspect. It doesn’t feel as though it’s changed much since Black Flag. Considering how much of the experience feels more modern, it stands out a little.
Pulling the L2 trigger lets you aim your ship’s guns in an arc from the port to fore and starboard. Landing solid shots along the cannon line, or emptying your guns directly into your opponent’s stern, gets you big juicy red hit markers indicating critical damage. You can also fire into their sails to tear them up and slowing your foe down. 1,500 hours of Sea of Thieves caused me to try to arc my shots, but you don’t really have to. Just line them up straight and fire when ready.
On the wheel, off the boat
Getting off the boat, at least in the open beta build, is a matter of pulling up to an island and holding B/Circle to disembark. The screen flashes black while the game quickly loads, and your character appears on the shore near a rallying post you can use to return to your boat. It’s a subtle acknowledgement that there’s an air gap between the naval gear and the open-world RPG scaffold that has been constructed around it. It’s not like Sea of Thieves, where the entire world is shared and seamless. You can’t just pull up to an island and go for a look around without encountering that short black screen.
What surprised me in the beta was that the full MMO experience was already going on. There were tons of other boats yeeting around the starting area, other players running up to quest giver NPCs while I was trying to talk to them. Though I could emote at these other pirates, there wasn’t much else I could do to interact with them. I’m hoping the full game offers some extra clarity on this (and, in talking to a few game journo mates who’ve sat for more recent previews, it sounds as though it will).
Ah shit, it’s the British
As I said, the demo begins with a naval sequence in which your pirate captain makes a kamikaze run on a British blockade. Though the game is happy to let you batter smaller British skiffs until you get the hang of it, it isn’t long before a larger, hardier British flagship enters the fray. Battle on for much longer, or threaten to take that larger ship down, and the British will call in another 20 of the things to shut you down for good.
Left with a sad little pontoon to get around on, the beta has you piecing together what happened to your crew and the supplies you were hauling. Few survivors are pleased to see you. Petty baronies and would-be leaders have already sprung up in your brief absence.
The early part of the beta is fairly standard MMO fare. ‘Go to the waypoint, pick up a thing, bring it back, turn it in. Good. Please now retrieve another thing.’ This is where Skull and Bones began to feel familiar in a different way. There’s a lot of the classic Ubisoft open-world formula here, and that feels revealing about its long and troubled production. It feels like the safest path the game could tread to hit release and stand a chance of making some money was to embrace the current Assassin’s Creed RPG model. When a production has been through the kind of development hell, this one has, it’s hard to blame Ubisoft Singapore for that.
Again, though, the addition of live service MMO elements leaves me with a lot of questions. Again, I’ll return to that point when I review the game later in the month.
Based on what I’ve seen here, will Skull and Bones pull me away from Sea of Thieves for long? Probably not. But they are very different games. Skull and Bones is much more authored and linear. Its RPG and progression systems are more traditional than SoT‘s very MMO-like commendation system. The beta’s also not that interested in player interaction just yet, which is the polar opposite of SoT, a game that really wants players to stumble upon each other in the world.
I suppose in some ways, that makes Skull and Bones the game that Sea of Thieves PvE enjoyers have been screaming for. Finally, you can scurry about treacherous islands finding treasure and building a boat of your very own. I’ll be playing more of it over the weekend. If you’re hopping into the open beta, it’s on PlayStation, Xbox and PC and it wraps up on Monday, February 12, at 10 AM. You can keep your progress when the full game launches later in the month. See you on the seas.
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