It’s hard to think that Skull and Bones has been in development for almost ten years. I remember finishing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and recognising that the naval combat felt distinct enough to become its own game. So, when Ubisoft first announced Skull and Bones at E3 2017 to be precisely that, it felt like the perfect match. But now, in 2023, so much time has passed, and with the game still under wraps, you have to wonder how it’s faring. With the closed beta coming to a close this weekend, the answer might surprise you, though I have some obvious concerns going forward.
The closed beta held over the last weekend was pretty meaty. I could play around fifteen main missions across two regions, with access to around seven ships and heaps of equipment to customise them with. I’d estimate I’d spent around fifteen hours with the game, though I admittedly wasn’t counting. Having spent so much time with Skull and Bones, I’ve now got a much better idea of how it plays, how it flows and what it needs to do to be successful going forward. There’s a treasure trove of potential here, and I hope Ubisoft will capitalise on it.
The beta wastes no time getting to the action – putting me on a ship in conflict with one of the many factions in this lawless world. Here, it becomes clear that the combat is a lot more flexible than what was previously presented in Assassin’s Creed games. You still select which weapon you’re using by looking at the side of the ship they’re attached to, but you can free aim to hit weak spots much more easily. I did feel like this was a bit more arcade-like than in other games, but given how much you’re controlling at any given point, it’s a welcome quality-of-life adjustment.
The ships themselves are still heavy and unruly to control, though I don’t mean that in any negative sense. You’ll often have to decide between attacking, evading or defending yourself from your enemies, and doing so in a big ship that is hard to move requires strategy. This weightiness to the ships themselves rears itself even more when you’re battling during tumultuous weather conditions, where it’s equal parts stressful and enjoyable.
During the opening, the conflict ends as my ship is sunk by enemy reinforcements. In the aftermath, my character looks at their reflection in a puddle on my shipwreck, and I’m given the chance to customise the appearance of my pirate. There are twelve basic looks to choose from, each being further customisable. It’s not the best character creator I’ve seen, but also not the worst. I’d imagine most players will be able to find a look they’ll like.
Here, your up-and-coming pirate is thrown into the big open world and given the task to build up their infamy. It’s basically a levelling-up system – completing specific tasks in the open world rewards experience, as does completing contracts for people living in the various outposts worldwide. Most of the action here occurs in Saint Etienne, a hub you can walk through to buy upgrades for your ship.
I’m immediately wondering just what the point of these on-foot segments is. You can physically walk through most outposts and even enter some shipwrecks to explore them. But there’s no combat and some very light puzzle-solving elements, so it feels like a strange addition. Perhaps if there were more to these sequences beyond looking in the direction of a waypoint to find treasure, I’d be more excited, but right now, the on-foot segments feel like they serve little purpose. There are even dialogue choices during conversations, but once again, they feel like they’re just there for the sake of being there.
Most of the action will occur at sea, however, and the whole experience of being a pirate is very well-realised. You’re given contracts from people at outposts, but many of them can organically appear in the world while sailing, too. You’ll come across both AI-controlled and player-controlled ships, giving a sense that this world is alive and bustling. Even more so, the world is littered with travel-trade routes that you can sit on to intercept to steal loot to help upgrade your ship.
And there are so many upgrades, too. Upgrades are gated behind levels on the Infamy system, presumably, so you’re not overwhelmed. You can find blueprints out in the wild or buy them from specific vendors, allowing you to craft as many as possible. This is important as it will enable you to customise your many ships, each with different weapon load-outs, to suit your needs. I liked that you’re building your own fleet rather than just focusing on one ship – especially given how weapons and damage are handled in Skull and Bones.
There are five different types of damage in Skull and Bones: Explosive, Piercing, Fire, Flooding and Tearing. The first three are obvious. Flooding can be stacked on enemy ships until they begin taking damage over time, slowing down and creating irreversible damage with repair kits. Conversely, tearing rips the ship’s sails and causes the vessel to become immobile. It’s a great system, and it’s similarly crucial to properly think out your ship’s damage-dealing capabilities to take down some of the bigger ships in the game.
But it’s not just about ships either. There’s a wealth of activities to participate in out at sea. Plundering is the one I probably did the most of – you find a fort, send your crew to plunder it and defend the sea around it from enemy ships. The longer you survive, the more loot you grab. Other aspects include listening to conversations or reading maps to find treasures on the game’s many islands. There is even potential to encounter less realistic aspects – sea monsters like a Tylosaurus or even a ghost ship – showing that Ubisoft isn’t afraid to shake up the formula to keep it interesting.
But the bounty board was where I saw Skull and Bones’ potential. It’s a simple activity – you’re given the location of an infamous pirate with a legendary ship and expected to go take them down. I struggled initially in my first encounter – the ship was equipped to be fast and ram me rather than take me down with traditional weapons. But with the press of a button, I could “call for help,” and within seconds, I had two other players helping me out seamlessly. It was exhilarating, and we won, but it felt strange yet rewarding to feel such a strong sense of community with complete strangers so quickly.
Of course, it was short-lived, as other activities will pit you against each other. Cutthroat Cargo is a mode that triggers whenever you pick up a legendary treasure map. The rest of the world is informed when this happens, and while you’re racing to get the treasure, other players will be racing to get the map off of you. It’s a high-risk, high-reward mode that was exhilarating to participate in. It’s a running theme with all the activities in Skull and Bones – fun to participate in and distracting in the best way possible.
I can’t talk about Skull and Bones without talking about Sea Of Thieves, as it’s interesting how both games offer the same experience but in different ways. While the tone of Skull and Bones is unabashedly more serious, the games feel different. Having your team members control their own ships gives a better sense of permanence to everything you’re doing. Not having to focus on the intricacies of operating your ship means that the game can focus squarely on combat. It’s the right choice, as Skulls and Bones offers an experience different from Sea of Thieves rather than just becoming a bland imitation.
But the success of Skull and Bones will only ever be as good as the content behind it. I’m hoping Ubisoft has a good selection of content planned to come to the game, especially given how much time has been spent on the game so far. But I can see so much potential here, too, both serious and goofy. It’d be awesome to run into Edward Kenway in a limited-time event or something. Or perhaps even a ghost ship overrun by Rabbids. Or a Kraken. Or a Megalodon. Who knows. The sky or the sea is really the limit.
But that’s what I keep coming back to with Skull and Bones. While it’s easy to laugh at its prolonged development, I almost trust Ubisoft to turn this ship around (sorry). Sure, they’ve had all kinds of unsuccessful experiments like Hyper Scape and Roller Champions, but they’ve also had some remarkable successes with long-running games like For Honor and Rainbow Six: Siege. Considering my time with Skull and Bones has been nothing short of engaging, even for someone who doesn’t care for pirates, I’ve got the feeling this could be the latter.
It’s early days, but Skull and Bones could easily be up there with Ubisoft’s other brands. While this closed beta shows great promise, only time will tell if the game will live up to its lengthy wait. After playing for so long, I’m optimistic.
Skull and Bones is coming to PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC. A release date has yet to be announced.