Before we get started, I feel it’s deeply important to answer the big, burning questions surrounding Ubisoft Singapore’s Skull & Bones: yes, Virginia, there are sea shanties.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled preview:
I feel confident in saying that for a lot of people, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is probably one of their favorite games in the franchise. Setting the game against the backdrop of the Golden Age of Piracy, in which our hero Edward Kenway rubs shoulders with famous pirates, like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Blackbeard, and Charles Vane, made for an immensely enjoyable pirate romp since The Curse of Monkey Island. The game’s most talked about gameplay feature was naval combat - a carryover from its debut in Assassin’s Creed III. The Jackdaw served as the players' vehicle, getting them from one mission or side activity to the next while granting the freedom to engage in a little skulduggery in between. Piloting the Jackdaw was a sublime experience as was upgrading the vessel to take on bigger and badder targets of opportunity. With the exception of Assassin’s Creed Rogue, ship combat would eventually get left behind with the releases of Unity and Syndicate, though it would make its soft return in Origins and in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
Skull & Bones, then, feels like a great opportunity to build a game that revisits piracy on the high seas theme that put Black Flag on the map. I've been interested in this game since it was announced at last year’s E3 . Even though it was suggested to be a multiplayer only experience, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt because, well, I love the idea of engaging with or against my fellow pirates. After my hands-on time with Skull & Bones, I can easily see this as a game I can come back to every so often I feel that urge to pillage and plunder.
I suppose the easiest way to describe the game is to say that it’s like Black Flag but with no getting off the boat. That means the action is primarily focused on exploring the high seas engaging in a single player campaign or taking things online for ship to ship PvP in an area called Disputed Waters. The latter was the focus of my play session and with five other players, we engaged in an activity called Loot Hunt that tasks each player with trying to collect the most riches through various treasure hunts. The area in which we were tasked with hunting down treasure was occupied by a fairly large number of AI ships, many of them sailing under the flag of different countries and factions, that ignore you unless you provoke them into a response. Mixed into the crowd were my human peers, off doing their own thing. If I used my spyglass to spot them in a crowd, then I can send an in-game request for them to group up and tackle the objectives together. Or, you can easily ignore them and go off and do your own thing. Or, maybe play the role as a ne’er do well and send a few cannonballs across another player’s broadside until they’re chilling out in Davy Jones’ locker.
Ship to ship combat plays out similarly to Assassin’s Creed IV but with enough tweaks made to the gameplay design to make sea battles more challenging and different. Each ship has a familiar set of tools with limited ammunition: chained cannonballs, which are effective at damaging sails, mortars, broadside cannons, and rudimentary rockets. You’ll want to position the ship appropriately to fire specific weapons and in doing so, contend with a more active wind mechanic that can slow or speed up your boat depending on your position. Wind direction changes often, and I found it to be a fun way to keep the players on their toes, especially if they are trying to close in for the kill. Nothing sucks more than having to call off an attack to account for shifts in the wind, leaving the target a chance to repair their vessel and increase the distance.
Beyond that, the experience plays out exactly like Black Flag - and that’s awesome. You navigate the play area by using your spyglass to seek out ships at a distance and get the lay of the land via the crow’s nest. Shipwrecks litter the area, as do special glowing markers on small island beaches that cue you to special contextual actions. On beaches, you can search for treasure or find raw materials to repair your damaged ship. Shipwrecks can also repair and offer loot but also give you a chance to disguise your ship by flying a different flag, letting you sail past unmolested. Outside of combat is the best time to launch your crew into song and while I noticed familiar shanties from Black Flag, they sounded like new recordings.
There are different ship types to play as in Skull & Bones, each providing their own useful stats that either excel or fall short in areas like speed, maneuverability, ammo stores, and special attacks. I played as a smaller vessel which gave me lots of speed in the ocean at the expense of firepower but quickly discovered that it was more than enough to tackle some of the bigger fish (not to brag, but I took out three other players on top of the AI ships before dying within the last minute of the demo. Mad pirate skills!). My ship’s special attack gave me a burst of forwarding speed so that I could plunge my ram against the hull of the opposing ship, dealing significant damage. AI and human ships alike can also be damaged to the point where they can be boarded. Unfortunately, you don’t engage in melee combat with the other ship’s crew but rather watch a cutscene of the ensuing takeover. That being said, the cutscenes are pretty cool.
I liked what I saw of Skull & Bones so far. Assassin’s Creed IV fulfilled an untapped niche for pirate-themed adventure games that I didn’t know I wanted. So, if there’s one studio I’m pleased to see make this sort of game, I’m glad it’s the team that made Black Flag. The game’s price point wasn’t discussed but I wouldn't be surprised to see this as a full-priced release. If that’s the case, I hope to see more content and gameplay reveals closer to the final release - and microtransactions kept at a reasonable level. Fair thoughts to have but as I gathered my things for my next appointment, I walked away from Skull & Bones with a smile on face and feeling extremely satisfied with the game and eager to play more.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.