For the last year, I’ve been confused about Ubisoft’s upcoming pirate game. Perhaps you have been as well.
Skull & Bones, to be released in 2019 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, debuted at last year’s E3 as an apparent offshoot of the pirate adventures in 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, except without the assassin stuff, a swap of the Caribbean Sea for the Indian Ocean, and a focus on multiplayer.
The pirate-ship combat in Black Flag seemed ideal for multiplayer, but that game was a solo adventure. Skull & Bones seemed like a follow-through, but it seemed limited in its own odd ways. You would play this game basically as a ship, the game’s reveal info showed. You couldn’t get off it. You’d be a pirate captain attached to his or her vessel.
Perhaps, I figured, Skull & Bones was intended to be an aquatic For Honor or Team Fortress or Overwatch, a game made for PvP, a fleet consisting of ships helmed by me and other players against a rival team.
It was also confusing how it might stack up against the 2018 Xbox pirate game Sea of Thieves, though it became clear that the key divide there is Thieves’ focus on multiple players operating each ship as a hopefully-coordinated crew as opposed to Skull & Bones’ focus on one player per ship.
A year later and after having played it, I see Skull & Bones as more as a pirate Destiny. This year’s E3 demo showcased the experience of sailing in a shared, open ocean. You still can’t get off the ship, but you’re now doing player vs environment as well as player vs player.
“The fantasy we all have as kids is to say, let’s get ourselves at the helm of the ship, let’s go out and look for treasure, let’s take down our enemies,” the game’s creative director, Justin Farren, told me at E3. In execution, that means the game will consist of “disputed waters,” which is Ubisoft’s jargon for matchmade PvP, and the “hunting grounds,” a series of massive open-ocean maps that players will share. The game’s E3 demo was set in a hunting ground off of Madagascar, a 16-by-16 kilometer expanse several times larger than Black Flag and sprinkled with islands, ships and treasure, Farren said.
Skull & Bones is no more Overwatch than it is World of Warcraft. It’s not an MMO. Farren said that hunting grounds maps would contain around 10 player-controlled ships, a number that he said is intended to allow encounters to be meaningful and somewhat personal.
Players unlock starter ships, upgrade them with better gear and eventually add other ships to choose from. “Our ships are RPG archetypes, so you have tanks and you have DPS, hybrid, support. That’s the type of experience we want people to have, so it’s accessible and people can understand it,” Farren said. He expects players will find their favorite, and then, “as they learn the intricacy and develop the skill of navigation and combat, they start to develop proficiencies with that ship.”
The plan is to let players customize their own pirate, who they’ll see in a hideout where they plan their loadout before entering a hunting ground. In the E3 demo, I chose from pre-set characters and ships, noting differences in speed, offense, special abilities (one ship might be better at ramming, for example), and the way the ship will handle in the wind. The wind thing is crucial, as sailing into the wind will lock a ship “in irons,” the nautical metaphor for barely being able to move.
I had told Farren that I assumed last year that the game was primarily for PvP, and he replied that they wanted to make a game that would be interesting for people who aren’t into that kind of thing.
“I want to sail with my daughter, and she’s a gamer too and she’s a little PvP-averse,” he said. “So we look at how do we make the game accessible for people who are not necessarily PvP players, and it’s giving you tools. You can use your crow’s nest or your spyglass to identify threats. It’s not like many shooters where someone is on top of you very quickly. You can react and see it.”
When I tried the game, several other players were also in the same hunting ground. I could distinguish their ships from computer-controlled ones easily, since theirs had their player IDs over them. You can look out at sea with a spyglass or switch the view to your man in the crow’s nest and then identify ships to attack, avoid, or ally with. I joined in with one player, was attacked by another, but mostly steered my own route away from interaction with other players in order to try to figure out how the game’s quests and PvE work.
It was hard to tell during the demo, because the wind was intense and I was no good tacking through it to reach some objectives. But, bit by bit, I pursued a sequence of basic missions: sink one ship, collect treasure floating in the sea, and so on, all with the goal of triggering an appearance by a mighty pirate captain who also sails in these waters. As I did this, I also seemed to activate an optional co-op challenge to attack a slew of ships loyal to that grand pirate. I tried to take them out on my own and was obliterated. They did warn me it was meant for co-op.
I sailed toward some shipwrecks and landmasses to see what those had to offer. At one wreck, I could repair my ship and also disguise myself by raising a Portuguese flag, which suggested that Skull & Bones will give players an option for more devious play. Near land, I was able to grab some treasure, though any off-ship action, as with boarding of damaged vessels, is presented in cutscenes.
I didn’t see any standalone missions, nothing that would take me out of the shared map and into a more linear adventure. My sense is that Skull & Bones doesn’t do that. It seems to be about being in a shared space, sizing up other ships from afar with the knowledge that there are other people around making similar decisions of their own.
After my demo, I am more interested in Skull & Bones now than I was a year ago. I still struggle to envision how Skull & Bones will unfold—how its multiple hunting grounds will unlock and be explored, how the gameplay will sufficiently varied, and how it’ll satisfy those who see it as missing features like on-foot gameplay that’s in other pirate games like Black Flag or the Xbox’s Sea of Thieves.
I assume part of the game’s potential will be realized via its volume of content. This is a Ubisoft game, and although Farren is leading a team at Ubisoft Singapore, they’re not alone. The demo lists four Ubisoft partner studios, no doubt toiling to put in enough things for Skull & Bones players to see and do. It’s certainly no bad thing for Ubisoft to try something a little different with its pirate game. What they have now is pretty and looks like the foundation for an interesting game, but where it lacks features of some other games, it’ll need to make up for them with an ocean full of interesting things to do.