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Skull and Bones review: abandon ship

Skull and Bones brings nothing new to the table while falling short of what came before

No one wants to be a realistic pirate. Much like Vikings and samurai, the truth of pirates is horrific. It probably also involved long weeks at sea where precisely nothing happened. When I think of being a pirate, I want to be the swashbuckling Jack Sparrow who goes on whacky adventures and solves the mysteries of the seven seas.

Ubisoft once made a game that fully understood and embraced this idea, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. In the wake of that game’s success, the idea for Skull & Bones was born, taking essentially the same core gameplay and turning it into a multiplayer experience where we could plunder, pillage, and party.

Somewhere during Skull and Bones’ arduous development, all of the joy behind such an idea was lost. All enjoyable mechanics were slowly stripped away, and we’re left with this boring husk of a once-great idea. If Skull and Bones is based on any famous tale about a ship, I’m afraid to say it’s the ship of Theseus – sure, it might seem like the thing you loved, but its core identity is flotsam drifting on the horizon.

Skull and Bones ghost ship Maangodin

So much is missing from the pirate fantasy in Skull and Bones. No melee combat at all was a misstep. I’m not saying it needed to be a huge part of the game, but sword fighting is a significant part of the pirate experience, especially when it comes to boarding the enemy ship and cutting down its crew before taking all its loot. Instead of cutting down other pirates, you’ll be cutting down trees! And not with your sword! Anyway, I’ll come to that later.

I’m well aware that in reality, most ships usually surrendered to pirates without a fight once boarded, but I cannot express how little that should matter in a video game. Realism should never be the goal here – I want to be a badass conquering the seas, not a merchant with cannonballs who occasionally finds treasure.

Not that you spend much time looking for treasure in Skull and Bones. I rarely found myself plundering ships for things to sell. Instead, I was always doing it because I was on the lookout for crafting materials. Everything in this game requires crafting. Ships, cannons, tools, and even ammo ask you to loot or harvest the resources from out in the world. You chop down trees with your ship, using a terrible timing minigame, for God’s sake.

Skull and Bones Closed Beta 2 reward Welcome Firework

Having some level of crafting would’ve been fine – gathering the materials to build a glorious new ship for your fleet is satisfying – but because almost everything important in the game requires it, I rarely found myself doing anything else. There are plenty of missions to give you a break from that, but the gameplay isn’t different from resource gathering – you’re still sinking ships or pillaging settlements – and most of them are over so quickly that it doesn’t serve as an adequate distraction.

Don’t get excited at the phrase “pillaging settlements” – you don’t get to do anything unique there. Instead, you sail around just outside a land location fighting off ships as they try to stop you from stealing the loot, and there are guard towers that take ages to destroy for no apparent reason.

The main story isn’t much to shout about either. For a game that is mostly PvE content, it doesn’t put a great deal of effort into it. Even by Ubisoft’s standards, the story is barely worth mentioning. It serves as minimal window dressing, giving you the simplest of excuses to get you out doing things in the world.

Skull and Bones Sea Monster

The game might have been able to get away with all this if the combat was as fun as it was in Black Flag, but it falls short on that front too. I did a full Skull and Bones vs Black Flag combat comparison if you want a deep dive on the topic, but in short, Skull & Bones slows the pace of combat and decreases the tactical intrigue that its predecessor had.

A greater variety of weapons exist, and you’re able to customize the layout of your ship, but it doesn’t dramatically alter the face of naval combat, as your tactics for using them will always boil down to roughly the same thing. Shoot your front guns on the approach, circle around to hit them with a broadside, then try and shoot them from your back as you turn around for another pass.

It’s not a terrible combat system, but it’s demonstrably worse than what came a decade beforehand and the game doesn’t provide you with adequately interesting battles or scenarios to bring out any of its best elements.

Skull and Bones cinematic trailer

There is a smattering of unique encounters currently in the game. There’s a ghost ship and a sea monster, but the multiplayer aspect of the game often ruins it. Rather than forcing you to devise unique strategies or ship load-outs to beat these special enemies, you instead just have to bring a few friends to the fight and it becomes ridiculously easy.

The biggest (and arguably only) point in the game’s favor is the fact that I still get a kick out of sailing around singing shanties and bombarding passersby. However, even on that, I can point to Sea of Thieves as a game that outshines it in every way. Maybe if Skull & Bones came out in 2018, there’d be some new ground to cover here, but 2024 is way too late, especially for launching a live service in this genre. The ship has well and truly sailed.

I don’t see much of a future for Skull and Bones. Ubisoft has announced its Year 1 roadmap, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio jettisoned the cargo and let it sink to the bottom of the ocean way before that, it certainly feels like they only finished it out of obligation anyway.

Score: 4/10

Version tested: PC (Ubisoft Connect)

Skull and Bones technical breakdown

Skull and Bones runs well on PC. Aside from one crash during an early cutscene, I’ve experienced no major bugs and minimal frame drops.