Skull and Bones: A Black Flag-inspired revenant with a very familiar tone
We've seen gameplay of the revamped Ubisoft open world game and aren't exactly blown away by it.
The term development hell gets thrown around quite a lot, but if there was one game that seemed to really fit that bill, it would be Ubisoft's Skull and Bones. This game was announced back in 2017 and since then we heard troubling development reports, all before it disappeared off the face of the Earth, got a complete overhaul, and is now racing back onto the scene all in the effort to sail its way onto PC and consoles before the end of the year. With this being the situation, a Ubisoft showcase has just come to a close, where the revamped gameplay for Skull and Bones was just shown off, and as part of a preview session, I've had the chance to check that gameplay out ahead of time to formulate some thoughts.
At initial glances, you can clearly see the influence that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag had on the creation of this IP, as it really does look similar to the pirating and boating aspect of that very game. You command a ship and use it to wreak havoc on other vessels in the Indian Ocean - spanning from the coast of Africa to the East Indies - and do so by using the wheel to steer, all while telling your crew where to aim and fire the cannons and other weapons that you have aboard. It seems like quite the formidable set of systems to master, but when compared to Rare's Sea of Thieves and how this really does ask you to truly sail your own ship, Skull and Bones does seem to be a little one-dimensional in its offering. And this even extends to the way the ship cuts through the water, as in Skull and Bones the sailing seems to be incredibly responsive, making it seem like Ubisoft is trading realism and immersive qualities for faster-paced gameplay.
To some extent I can understand this decision as the Indian Ocean is a mighty big place, and one of the things that always puts me off Sea of Thieves is the mindless and monotonous sailing between islands. From what I've seen, Skull and Bones will alleviate this a tad by having ships that cross the ocean at what seems to be a faster rate, and also plenty of locations to explore within a reasonable proximity. But, this doesn't mean that Skull and Bones has already one-upped Sea of Thieves, in fact, I already don't think that will be the case at all.
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And this is due to the fact that Skull and Bones lives and dies by its naval design. There is a little bit of exploration on land, including the option to search for raw materials and to fight dangerous wildlife such as hippos, but from what I've seen, that ability to head into unmapped islands to hunt for riches or to whip out your cutlass to raid a settlement on foot is generally not your responsibility. Rather you simply send your crew off to do these tasks, while you man the ship and fight off any rival pirates or other vessels looking to protect a settlement. Sure, it makes for action-packed naval warfare, but it does seem like it might get old pretty quickly.
Fortunately, Ubisoft is looking to provide many unique ways to interact with the world. The core concept of Skull and Bones revolves around you, a nobody, growing your legend and becoming a feared pirate, but doing so requires you to grow your Infamy, which is done by destroying ships, plundering settlements, and by completing contracts from other pirates found in the Pirate Den hub locations around the open world. The higher your Infamy, the better ships, weapons, gear, and contracts you'll be able to acquire and craft, or undertake, which in turn resets this loop, so you can continue to grow your legend even more. The catch with this system is that if you fail a contract, or are sunk in battle, your Infamy will decrease, and you'll lose access to better contracts and so forth. Death also has similarities to Soulslike games, as a lot of your loot will be left on your shipwreck, meaning you'll have to race back to acquire it before another player claims it for themselves.
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And it should be known here that while Skull and Bones can be completely experienced as a solo adventure, Ubisoft has built the game to support multiplayer and encourages this. You can team up with allies to run contracts or take on dangerous and well-armed forts, merchant vessels, or Privateer pirate hunter ships. Likewise, you can jump into PvP servers, where you have to worry about all the usual trappings, but also opposing players as well, who will be looking to claim your loot before you can sell it and reap the rewards. Sea of Thieves players will be all too familiar with how this often works.
But how do you fight off threats when out on the water you ask? Well, as I mentioned a moment ago, there's a degree of crafting and customisation to Skull and Bones. Not only can you decide on which type of vessel (assuming you've unlocked them) to use for a contract or voyage, but you can choose to outfit each ship with a variety of different tools and weapons, be it an enormous bow-mounted ballistae, a Greek-fire cannon, or even support beams to carry more loot. Each decision comes at a cost however, as a faster ship will have less armour, for example, and having more storage space will make you less able to defend yourself from attackers. And another catch is that you will need to craft these items for yourself if you intend to use them, meaning you need to first acquire the blueprint from raising your Infamy high enough, then gather the raw materials, then head to a Pirate Den to craft each part/item. It does seem like a rather extensive process.
To add to this are cosmetic elements as well, which determine the appearance of your ship and even your pirate captain. You can change the design and colour of the sails, customise the hull, outfit your crew to look different ways, and of course do this with your own character as well.
While Skull and Bones does have a lot of concepts that excites me, including the weather events (storms and rogue waves) to navigate and the fact that you can face mutiny from your own crew, I'm still not fully convinced by this game. For the time being, I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic, but the live-service approach that Skull and Bones will employ makes me think that we could be in for another Sea of Thieves here, and could be looking at a game that feels rather barren at launch, and it's only years down the line (assuming it manages to cross the choppy waters of time) that we are truly served up a complex and broad pirating adventure.
Either way, with Skull and Bones set to launch on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox on November 8, 2022, it hopefully won't be too long until we get to try the game out for ourselves to either quash or confirm these opinions of mine.