The 17th century Indian Ocean did manage to shiver my timbers. There are details to soak in. Your ship’s shadow on the water’s surface. Smoke rising as thick as a volcanic eruption. Every ship exploding in a blaze of glory. Even this castaway clothing is the best I’ve seen on any game leaving me shipwrecked on a tutorial island. And there have been plenty of those.
Skull and Bones held a closed beta this past weekend. Everyone was given six hours. Ubisoft fired up the opening cinematic then started the timer.
I learn how to raise and lower sails. I learn how to turn the rudder left and right. I dodge a wreck floating half-sunk ahead of me. And then it’s on. I’m swarmed by the British Fleet. The odds are stacked against me. I don’t know what I did to upset the British Crown, but a dozen fast-moving ships are circling like sharks. Cannonballs crack and splinter the woodwork, puncture and tear the sails, and send my crew tumbling for cover on the gun deck.
I send half a dozen of King Charles II’s best and brightest down to Davy Jones’s Locker. We’re one lonely French (?) frigate against seemingly the entire British Armada. As far as I can tell, I’m about to become one of the last casualties in the Thirty Years’ War. Against an overwhelming force, I have to take an intentional loss. My ship is blasted to pieces. “You’ve failed us, captain!” one of my crew shouts. I’ll make sure he takes a long walk off a short plank. But for now, I’m getting hauled out of the ocean and into a fishing dhow that a couple crewmates absconded with.
Skull and Bones is open-sea exploration and nautical combat. You play a pirate. You can style yourself as a more law-abiding buccaneer type, but everyone you meet will call it like it is: You’re a bilge-drinking, scabby sea bass of a “pyrat.” Might as well live up to it.
If you’re thinking this must be some online multiplayer spinoff of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—you’re right. It’s been 10 years since Black Flag. Five years since Skull and Bones’ 2017 reveal. And only two short months until it launches, me hearties. Hope against hope, and without further delay, Skull and Bones arrives on February 16, 2024. Pre-order for three days’ early access and you can mess up Valentine’s Day for you and your significant other. Unless taking a vacay around Madagascar was already part of your plans.
So, I’m being hauled out of the watery wreckage. My future navigator and some poor fellow named “Crew” are trying to lift my spirits. It wasn’t my fault we lost the treasure ship and were accosted by the entire English Royal Navy. Only thing left to do, they imply, is to become the most nefarious pirate to ever sail the Seven Seas. Well, starting and ending with the Indian Ocean.
Another player takes potshots at me during my rescue cutscene. This is exactly how online real-time opening cutscenes should go.
I force my way into a ship’s wreckage by way of a quick-time mini game. I learn about bullet drop. Or rather cannonball drop. Though it seems excessive that a load screen is required between “shoot a cannon” and “explore the rest of the boat” modes. How naive I was.
Loading screens are the greatest scourge of the aforementioned Seven Seas. Once you figure out how many loading screens there are in the towns and hideaways, you’ll be thankful Skull and Bones keeps you onboard ship as much as possible. One egregious example is when you visit the clothing shop. Run up to the front door—loading screen. Walk up to the shop owner—loading screen. Ask to try on some clothes—loading screen. Stop trying on clothes—loading screen. Walk out of the store—loading screen.
I didn’t break out a timer, but it’s entirely possible I spent 60 minutes of my six hours in loading screens.
First merchant I talked to told me to stock up on repair kits. That’s useful advice. Plus she told me how she’d made off on a ship disguised as a boy. “The ruse worked. For a while.” That’s more story than you get out of any stock-standard merchant. Several other merchants of varying pedigrees also gave me localized, historical info. Along with random notes to be found laying around, I’m starting to get a feel for Indian Ocean cultures. That’s something I didn’t start this game with.
“More dregs washed up on our docks!” There’s a welcoming committee of sorts in Sainte-Anne. After wrapping up the tutorial, Sainte-Anne is the pirate town you swagger into.
And swagger it is. A pirate’s bodily movements are not precise. They saunter around corners. They take two steps at a time going upstairs. They double-time it downstairs. They backpedal away from conversations. They give passersby a lot of side eye.
Still, with what crowd interaction there is, don’t mistake Skull and Bones for an Assassin’s Creed game. You’re not here to cut off your ring finger and slap on a wrist blade. Nor will you be scaling buildings and leaping off buildings into piles of hay. You’ll be looting and plundering aplenty, but none of it is to collect some science-fantasy Pieces of Eden. Despite having speedboats (as I call every ship in a Ubisoft game, due to their unfathomable movement rate and turn-on-a-dime maneuverability), Skull and Bones may be Ubisoft’s most grounded-in-reality game.
Place a marker on the map, and a pillar of golden light rises up from the marker into the sky. You can see it from miles away. My crew calls out, “Foul weather ahead.” Which is true. We’re sailing straight into a storm. The sky grays. The waves swell to my crow’s nest on top of my mainsail. My ship takes damage when it crests a wave and drops to the bottom of the trough on the other side. Visibility is horrible. Winds push me off to the side so hard I wonder if my gamepad has developed stick drift. Lightning flashes endlessly.
To get a ship that will get you through a storm, you’ll collect resources. There are lots of resources and a few ways to get them. I saw trees being chopped down when I approached an acacia wood harvesting node. A mini game popped up so I could fell my own trees from my ship. No need to disembark. Which is a good thing. The moment you leave your ship, that’s when the loading screens begin. Nobody’s got time for that.
So, harvest from your ship. Chop trees, mine ores, fish out flotsam from the water, harpoon a Nile crocodile and scoop the skins and meat into your hold. Plunder some goods by sinking an enemy ship. Plunder even more goods by dropping their hull’s hit points and then pulling up broadsides and having your crew board the enemy vessel.
Gather loot. Improve your ship. Build a new ship. Keep sailing.
Visiting new locations continues to introduce a diverse ethnicity of characters. From Welch in the British Isles to Chinese in East Asia and seemingly everything in between. You might even learn a word or two of Swahili while you’re at it.
I’m even learning a new sea shanty or two. It was wonderful that as soon as I upgraded out of my fishing dhow into a bedar, I had an instantaneously larger crew belting out songs. Before that point, the orchestral soundtrack was pounding out some good percussion and sorrowful, ship-sinking stabs. But once the sea shanties started, I knew this game was in good hands.
The hecklers on the docks are entertaining. They even regurgitated some of the tall tales starting to form around me. But when they couldn’t think of anything specific to say, sometimes they would just tell me to “f*** off more swiftly.” Catching curse words from a peanut gallery of landlubbers like them makes it worth coming home again.
Six hours over one weekend served up a decent pie slice of Skull and Bones gameplay. I wasn’t blown out of the water, graphically or gameplay-wise. But it’s obvious there is finally enough meat on these bones to launch a game. I will want to see Skull and Bones go big to know whether it will have any lasting power. But as long as Ubisoft gives players a comical amount of cosmetic upgrades to put on a fleet of ships, as well as enough eyepatches and peglegs to give other players a fear of missing out, then Skull and Bones will do well enough. Additionally, if they can batten down the hatches on the amount and severity of these load screens, then we can be in and out of port before we lose our sea legs.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile