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Skull and Bones' naval combat makes me want to play Black Flag again

Black Flag booms while Skull and Bones bombs

As I’m sailing the high seas pillaging and plundering every settlement or merchant ship unlucky enough to cross my path, a thought occurs to me, and I say aloud to no one in particular, “I swear this used to be fun.”

It’s a thought I can’t put away whenever I’m playing Skull and Bones. I’m sure I used to enjoy boat battles on the big blue a lot more, about ten years ago, playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I couldn’t be sure though, maybe nostalgia was blinding me – I was a pretty big AssCreed fanboy as a teenager – so I dusted off my digital download of the game and played a few battles.

Black Flag’s naval combat is a joyous experience. I laugh maniacally as I unleash a relentless broadside volley into unsuspecting ships that burst into flames just as quickly as they disappear beneath the waves; I giggle with glee as I out-maneuver the giant Man O’War and hurl explosive barrels directly into its bow; and I howl triumphantly as even a fortress’ walls can’t defend against my mortar fire raining from the sky.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag naval combat

It’s immediately obvious that Black Flag is much more of a power fantasy than Skull and Bones intends to be, but the thing is, Skull and Bones still has all of those features I just described. In fact, it has even more depth. In Black Flag, you only get one ship for the whole game, and weapon positions are locked, whereas Skull and Bones gives you a much greater amount of customization over what type of ship you want and how to kit it out, along with a bigger variety of weaponry.

Yet I still don’t have anywhere near as much fun with Skull and Bones’ combat.

Looking at the most surface-level stuff, boat movement in Ubisoft’s newest title is worse across the board. For one, the fact that the boats have stamina bars is ridiculous (yes, I know it’s the crew’s stamina but it still doesn’t make sense), and only exists to justify the most pointless and basic survival mechanics like requiring you to catch and cook food. It might have worked if the game had fully committed to it, forcing you to carefully balance a stock of food and water with your loot and ammo, but instead, it’s half-baked.

Skull and Bones gameplay

On top of that, Skull and Bones’ movement is “more realistic”, which is to say, slower. Turning is a chore in almost all circumstances, especially mid-battle as two boats try to circle each other and constantly fail to come into contact. There are still opportunities to carefully control your speed and out-maneuver your foes, but everything is so sluggish and unresponsive that it just kills the pace of battle.

Black Flag makes none of these mistakes. Movement overall feels a lot faster, to the point where I feel in command of the seas when I’m in a battle, even against multiple opponents. I can drop and raise sails on a dime, and manipulate those states to produce some thoroughly stupid but very cool maneuvers. In no other game can I handbrake-turn a giant ship so that my enemy is suddenly plowing directly into my broadside as I open fire.

Skull and Bones

Is it even remotely realistic? Of course not, but when has popular pirate media ever cared about realism? I’ve long been a believer that “realistic” doesn’t always equal better, even in historical settings, and that’s especially true for pirate fantasy. I want to be Jack Sparrow – a madman with a dubious relationship with the laws of physics – not someone who has to worry about how long my crew can hold the ropes tight so I can travel at full speed; just take turns holding it, you idiots.

It’s not like Skull and Bones fully commits to its realism either. It keeps that hilarious “bracing” system from Black Flag where everyone ducking down on the deck of your ship somehow makes the hull resistant to damage. If the game is willing to sacrifice realism for fun in that aspect, why be so rigid elsewhere?

While we’re on the topic of living up to pirate fantasy, proper boarding is non-optional. It was such a brilliant part of the experience in Black Flag. The battle would quiet and the music would slow as your crew used all their might to hook the defeated ship in, letting you pounce across and turn the deck into a giant swordfight, slaughtering the crew and plundering their loot.


The melee combat wouldn’t even have to be that complex for it to be fun – lord knows Assassin’s Creed has never had complex swordplay – but nope, instead Skull and Bones forgoes that part of the experience entirely. All you get when you “board” a ship is a 2-second cutscene and a menu asking you what you want to do with the loot.

Then we end up at the simple fact that firing cannons in Skull and Bones isn’t as exciting. The excellent soundscape does all it can to make it feel impactful, but all the other systems conspire against it. Firing a broadside volley is nowhere near as satisfying now. In an attempt to give you more control, you hold down the fire button to fire cannons one by one. It’s slightly different depending on what weaponry you put on your ship, but the point is that the rush of your character shouting “Fire!” and a thunderstorm of cannons all going off at once is gone.

Hitting your target is less satisfying too. Admittedly Black Flag’s system for this wasn’t perfect either – watching health bars deplete is never particularly exciting – but the visual effects were more dramatic, and I always roll my eyes when I see little damage numbers float up from the point of impact. Don’t tell me how much damage I did, show me with the ship’s hull bursting at the seams.

Skull and Bones cinematic trailer

Numbers are one of the Skull and Bones’ biggest problems. Due to being an MMO-style game, everything needs to be conveyed in numbers. Every boat needs a full array of stats, and every enemy tower, boat, and village needs to be part of an intricate leveling system that sucks all the fun out of progression.

Black Flag had its fair share of numbers, sure, and the enemy boats did technically have levels, but they weren’t that important. What was far more important was looking at how massive the enemy ship was compared to yours and using that to judge whether or not it was a smart idea to plow on.

It means battles in Skull and Bones so often don’t rely on tactics, but just whether or not your boat’s number is high enough to beat the enemy’s number. It’s a rare occasion where I truly feel evenly matched, or like a battle could go either way, it’s usually immediately obvious whether I’m about to squash or be squashed in each battle. It takes so much tension and excitement out of every encounter.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Skull and Bones to live up to a game produced by the same publisher over ten years ago – especially when Black Flag formed the entire basis of the original concept for Skull and Bones – but as far as its naval combat goes, it simply can’t manage to beat what came before.

Every change made makes battling on the ocean less fun, and it results in a game that I have very little drive to keep playing even though I want to like it so desperately. Still, why should I bother putting the effort into beating all of these legendary pirate battles that have been teased for future seasons when Black Flag’s legendary ships already did it better?