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Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones

There is potential to explore in places, but there are also far too many holes for this ship to make it back to port.

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Skull and Bones has actually surprised me. I really didn't have high hopes for this game, but that's because of its troubled history. A decade of development and a complete reboot for that matter doesn't do much to inspire confidence, but this game that Ubisoft has created is surprisingly coherent. It's a broad and sprawling multiplayer pirating action experience, one where you can live out your dreams of becoming an infamous swashbuckler, and in many ways it does this well. However, Skull and Bones is also a game with a metaphorical title, because this is not what we should expect from a full-priced, AAAA game (as Ubisoft's CEO claims). This is a game that is fundamentally just a skeleton without the flesh that brings something to life.

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The beta perhaps slipped a blindfold over many people's eyes. Sure this beta revealed several cracks in Skull and Bones' hull armour, but it also presented a huge amount of content to chew through, no doubt leaving many with the assumption that the full game will be much, much more. But that's not the case. What you see and experience in the opening few hours of Skull and Bones is what you get for the rest of the experience. You have to learn to swallow endless repetitive contracts (which translates into the endgame with the Helm smuggler system) all in an effort of acquiring resources to make your ship better and in the name of earning Infamy, which essentially raises your standing across the Indian Ocean. On top of this, the minimal amount of narrative depth that was presented in the beta becomes even more of a problem as the game progresses, ultimately reaching a point where I don't think you can even say that Skull and Bones has a story. It's that poorly implemented and ineffective at presenting story information and compelling characters that you should know from the get-go that you won't find anything of value in that regard here.

So, as a brief recap there, Skull and Bones does not have a story worth a damn and features quest design that is frankly abhorrent. Yes, I realise that's a pretty savage start to this review, so let me instead move to a more positive point for a moment: the ship gameplay. It isn't realistic but neither is it so arcade in fashion that it's more like a spaceship combat title. It fits in this sort of weird limbo where ships are fundamentally sluggish and heavy to control, but at the same time, you can throw your ship about and fire cannonballs without nearly any limit. This comes together for a system that is just real enough to develop immersive qualities, but free enough to feel fun to spend hours out on the open waves and locked in strategic combat.

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The battles are also exciting and thrilling. You have to use your ship and the surroundings to your advantage, adjusting your ship's position to use a different array of weaponry, all while keeping an eye out for enemy reinforcements or even incoming weather systems like storms and devastating rogue waves that can throw battles into disarray. The damage systems aren't great though, and there's no real impact to using different types of weapons. Essentially, if you just make sure to target a ship's weak spots, the rest of the combat falls in line, begging the question why there are various damage resistance attributes to explore. This could all be explained better if Skull and Bones had a functioning and useful tutorials system, but it doesn't. In fact the game is so poor at explaining itself that at no point does it tell you that wind actually affects how your ship moves or likewise how to better harness the wind to more effectively move around the world.

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Talking about the world, Ubisoft is back to its old tricks in Skull and Bones. As we've seen before in Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and various other franchises, here we get a world that is big but boring. You have the freedom to explore it as you see fit, but truthfully there's not a lot worth visiting. That is unless you find mining ore deposits, cutting down trees, harvesting fruit, interacting with villages, raiding shipwrecks, or docking at a port interesting in any manner. I can almost guarantee you won't, however, as aside from docking, every part of this game takes place on your ship, meaning all these extra activities add very little to the immersive nature of Skull and Bones and are simply presented as very basic mini-games. Here's where I'm about to contradict myself however. The docks, the only part of the game on foot, are the worst parts of Skull and Bones. When you're boots on the ground, you're let loose in a hub location that is effectively just the same vendors in different locations. Ubisoft could have saved a lot of effort and resources eliminating the on-foot elements and instead having docks as simply a set of menus that you can access from your ship. What I will say in favour of this game, the ability to attack any ship you meet on the open water is fantastic, and as there are a variety of factions and ship types, you're usually treated to a slightly different kind of battle each time.

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This is where another problem makes its arrival though. The progression in this game is all out of sorts. Not only will you be handed contracts that are five levels higher than your current ship, making them nigh-on impossible to complete, but you'll also experience instances where random NPC ships will be multiple levels above you too. Skull and Bones wants you to upgrade your ship or buy a new ship to overcome this, however the problem is that the more powerful and higher level items require a higher Infamy rank or resources that are only found in more dangerous areas. Eventually you get stuck in a frustrating cycle of farming low level boring contracts or making mad dashes into terrifying territories in order to get better resources until you reach the endgame where you're expected to complete the same contracts and events over and over again for the more 'premium' kinds of currencies to acquire the really rare weapons and gear. It is worth saying in regard to the "mad dashes" that a lot of ships will never notice your presence until you attack them first, but there are privateers and NPC pirates that will gun you down without a second thought, and when this happens you have two options; respawn at the last dock you visited (which could be thousands of units away) or respawn nearby, which more often than not will be in the aggro range of the very ship that sank you, meaning you will probably just be sank again...

Adding to this is the multiplayer elements. Skull and Bones is fundamentally playable solo, but better resources and the most challenging of activities (which reward the best loot) require allies to overcome. This could be fighting massive sea monsters, plundering threatening forts, sinking infamous pirate lords, taking on global events, and even treasure map hunts that include PvP elements. Whenever you take these on you will need friends or otherwise they are pretty much impossible to complete unless you've spent hours and hours building and designing a much higher level ship. They are some of the most fun activities, but they're ruthless and I wouldn't be surprised if most players avoid them altogether, especially since the game does a horrible job at explaining pretty much any of its multiplayer elements.

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It's not just the clearly poorly implemented systems that are problems, Skull and Bones constantly hits you with notifications and warnings that it never explains and that pop up relentlessly and cover half the HUD and screen in the process. There are a slate of bugs and weird issues that plague the experience, including incorrectly tracked quests, textures popping in, dialogue options never appearing, and quests not completing either - many of which require exiting to the game's main menu to overcome... and that's without mentioning hard crashes. But even these problems are minor in comparison to the largest fault that faces Skull and Bones: it features far too little content to be classed as a £70 game. Considering there are a lot of microtransaction opportunities too, the sheer limited array of content is shocking. Half of the map isn't available and when you sail into the clouded-over area the game forces you to turn back. There are only around seven/eight ships to actually build, and the weapons are pretty much the same, just with slightly different visual aesthetics and statistics assigned to them. If you like playing dress-up and treat fashion in games like Destiny 2 as one of the core and most important elements, then you'll know doubt have a blast with Skull and Bones. But the savvy consumer will no doubt see this game as something that should be valued at half of its current retail price at most.

I will say that I don't think Skull and Bones is as rotten as some of the other live service games we've seen in the past. Assuming it survives a few years, the addition of a variety of new content can work in favour of this game, filling out its world and making the experience less dreary and repetitive. There are core elements that work and show lots of potential, but right now Ubisoft hasn't given them much of a leg to stand on as everything around them is poor and not befitting the standard of what you'd expect from a AAA (or AAAA as Ubisoft's CEO seems to believe) production.

If you have any desire or curiosity to buy Skull and Bones, I'd suggest either waiting for it to drop in price, for it to be added to a more accessible subscription service other than Ubisoft+, or for more content to be added as part of its live design. Or even better yet, just jump back on Sea of Thieves. Rare's pirating adventure is far more complete right now, with more engaging gameplay, storylines, and exploration, and that game was announced after Skull and Bones originally was and still launched almost six years ago! Without a doubt, Rare is still the undisputed most infamous pirate on the digital waters.

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04 Gamereactor UK
4 / 10
+
Ship systems are a lot of fun. Combat works well in practice. Environmental and weather systems are interesting. Endgame activities are more unique and interesting albeit hard to access.
-
Lacking in content. Frustrating progression. Awful respawning system. Boring and too large of an open world. Quest design is terrible. Narrative may as well not exist. Loads of strange bugs and issues.
overall score
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Skull and Bones

REVIEW. Written by Ben Lyons

There is potential to explore in places, but there are also far too many holes for this ship to make it back to port.



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