It would probably be a slight understatement to call Skull and Bones' development cycle... "turbulent". The whole project began back in the distant 2013 (! ) as an expansion for the excellent Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, and since then it's really been through quite a lot: a conversion to an MMO spin-off, a change of course towards a Rust-style survival game, changes in location, multiple cancellations and reboots, budget overruns, announcements of what eventually looked like a complete game, new delays and release date postponements. As a result of all the above, Skull and Bones finally ended up in our hands just a few days ago, as essentially a multiplayer ship-to-ship combat action game with a pirate theme.

Note the wording above. Despite the rather prominent piracy element that seems to be present in the game (the fact that it's called... Skull and Bones, is a pretty strong indication in itself I suppose), the truth is that we end up playing in it less as "pirates" and more as their ships.

Skull and Bones ship combat
Naval combat is inevitably reminiscent of Black Flag, in a much more visually developed way obviously.

When one thinks of pirates, either in general or the most well-known, beloved and/or successful games or movies with a pirate theme, there are a number of features that would be considered fundamental to this setting. Quickly coming to mind are e.g. the Caribbean as a setting, rowdy sailors with wooden legs, eye patches and parrots on their shoulders, French, Spanish, English and Dutch colonialists/soldiers/merchants, cannon battles between ships and swordfights on their wooden decks, treasure hunts in the jungle, the acquisition of wealth and chests overflowing with gold... perhaps even a slight or more pronounced supernatural element, such as in the Monkey Island games or the famous Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of all of these, Skull and Bones mostly implements ship-to-ship combat, and everything else is either implemented in a completely rudimentary way, or skipped over entirely.

The game's events take place in the Indian Ocean region, from the east coast of Africa to western Indonesia (in the original stages of the game back in 2013 it was going to take place in the Caribbean, but that changed along the way for some reason), in the late 17th century. Based on the rudimentary plot, our character is a survivor of a shipwreck, who ends up arriving at one of the 2 major pirate centers in the region and doing business for the "pirate lord" there, earning fame and money along the way. The equally simplistic missions that form the main plot are mainly meant to teach players the basic aspects of gameplay: resource gathering and crafting (ships, weapons, food, tools for more efficient resource gathering), trade, and, of course, navigation and naval battles.

Skull and Bones resource gathering
Resource gathering is done through Quick-Time Events. For some reason.

The navigation and naval combat aspect could be described as "Assassin's Creed Black Flag but without the Assassin's Creed part". Meaning on one hand that the battles are completely action/arcade rather than having any hint of tactical combat (we fire our cannons and they reload within 5-6 seconds, enemy ships have weak points that if destroyed cause more damage, if our ship's Hull Points drop then we just "consume" a repair kit and these are replenished), on the other hand any kind of man-to-man combat is completely non-existent - to board an enemy ship all we need to do is to lower its HP enough, throw our hooks at it, and the rest is done automatically within 5 seconds after which we just get a message with the amount of loot we collected as a result of the plunder. Even if we destroy a ship, of course, the loot it's carrying turns into barrels that conveniently float above the wreckage and can be collected with a simple button press, but at least boarding offers some small bonus to Loot to make it meaningful.

A similar absence of swordfighting applies to the pillaging of all kinds of bases on land. We simply start the plunder with the appropriate button, and then we have to use our ship to destroy the defense towers and enemy sea reinforcements while our crew automatically gathers loot on land which we receive in 5-6 tiered phases.

Skull and Bones boarding
As it stands, Boarding manages to distract from the intensity of naval combat rather than provide any particular thrills.

This is essentially the core of the gameplay loop for the vast majority of the game (there is a slight variation when we get to the endgame, as we'll see below). 95% of our time in Skull and Bones is spent commanding our ship, while similarly the majority of the available main/sidequests involve attacking enemy ships and/or fortresses, gathering certain types of resources/commodities and transporting them to the indicated location in the world. The remaining 5% spent on land is mostly about the "downtime" part, i.e. buying/selling equipment and commodities, crafting, taking on new missions or customizing our ship and character.

There is also a rudimentary (how many times will I end up using that word?) treasure hunting component, which also takes place on land. Acquiring a treasure map mostly as loot, we visit the location it implies based on some rudimentary clues ("the location is southwest of X place", while also providing a photo with the art of the correct location which can be seen by browsing locations on the world map, one would literally have to be stupid not to find the right place) and once we get there and find the "X" spot (which is conveniently illuminated with a beam of light when we get close to it), we literally press F to dig up the chest.

Skull and Bones treasure
Just like in real life!

The vast majority of the above is done in a PVE environment, with the only PVP instances being specific world events that players can join voluntarily. This thankfully changes somewhat once we raise our pirate rank enough to unlock the endgame aspect. As part of this, all of the world's land-based locations become sort of production nodes for special currency ("Pieces of Eight"), and at half or one hour intervals global PVP "Hostile Takeover" events are initiated in which we have to fight other players and PVE enemies to take control of the location in question.

The currency generated in our owned locations is not automatically stored, but we have to collect it manually there and then transfer it (without fast travel) back to the head office. Occasionally this also triggers some interesting PVP events, like accepting to become PVP targets for the duration of the return trip and if we manage to arrive safely then pocket double the money, with a real risk of course that someone will wipe us out and pocket the coins for themselves.

This currency is also used to buy the more powerful crafting recipes in the game, to further upgrade the stations (e.g. to produce more pieces or to increase the cap of pieces that can be stored there before we need to "empty" them), or to unlock various kinds of tiered perks that help the whole process. The amounts of this currency we accumulate is the criteria by which we are placed on the Skull and Bones Leaderboards, and based on our rank each season we get various kinds of goodies. Obviously once each season ends then the possession of all the trade stations is reset and we have to start all over again.

Skull and Bones endgame Empire map
The whole endgame segment is one of the most interesting aspects of the title, for those who are interested in this style of gameplay at least.

In general I would describe Skull and Bones as a fairly "safe" pirate game. Although a multiplayer title, it in no way puts the player in PVP danger situations unless they accept it by joining certain events. Even the portrayal of piracy is quite safe and "Netflix" in style, with the pirates portrayed less as savage bandits or murderers and more as "freedom-loving defenders of native cultures and opponents of capitalism and colonialism" (phrases explicitly mentioned both in the game's introduction and in the speeches of various NPCs), with all that this implies.

As a result of its troubled development cycle, it's clear that the game was pretty much eventually released just to "get this over with" and allow Ubisoft to devote resources to other projects, and as such it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. As the creators of the also recently released Helldivers 2 aptly state on their webpage, "a game for everyone is a game for no one", and Skull and Bones in its final release form leaves this very feeling of trying to do many things to please many people, but most of these things are implemented in a (you guessed it) rudimentary way, thus ending up being "a little bit of everything".

It's a pirate game, but only "pirate-y" enough to colour the ship-to-ship combat that is its core (and to sell the corresponding cosmetics in the in-game store, obviously), and without any other special gameplay implications. It is PVP, but only PVP enough to justify its designation as a multiplayer game. It does have a treasure hunting component because "you can't have a pirate game without treasure hunting", but it is implemented in the most rudimentary and simplistic way. There are PVE events that offer high challenge and valuable rewards, but these are few in number and quickly become repetitive. And this can be said for almost all of its features.

Crafting ships in Skull and Bones
The 9 ships currently available to craft and navigate are divided into "Tank/DPS/Support" roles according to their stats and perks, in an attempt to strengthen the co-op element.

As a brain exercise I can think of many things that could have been implemented in the game to add more depth, character, and/or challenge factor. It could have been exclusively full PVE singleplayer or PVP multiplayer with no half-baked middle compromises (or at least singleplayer with the existence of full PVP servers). It could have a deeper Reputation system so that our actions in the game have an actual impact, so that e.g. if we constantly cripple French ships then they chase us as soon as they spot us on the seas until we placate them with special missions or the appropriate bribes (as it stands in the game, if we anger the French then all we have to do is sail somewhere far and remote, and we automatically become Neutral again within minutes). It could also have a truly dynamic economy system with commodity prices determined by player purchases and shortages/needs created by conflicts between factions (as it stands, commodity prices fluctuate occasionally, but in a completely random way). But this discussion is purely philological, as the game is what it is.

Skull and Bones sailing in pretty scenery
One can accuse Skull and Bones of many things, but being ugly is certainly not one of them.

This doesn't mean that Skull and Bones in its release state is an ENTIRELY mediocre and forgettable game, of course. Obviously the first impression is created by the visuals which are gorgeous, both on land and on the high seas. Then the navigation and its mechanics (wind, weather conditions, speed, and how these affect ship control) are well-implemented and at times sailing around feels almost relaxing I would say, and the ship-to-ship combat especially towards the endgame and against strong PVE or PVP opponents is definitely a fun experience. And the PVP events alone can provide intense thrills. Playing the game 2-3 days earlier than the full release due to the review code, I had encountered a pretty empty world in truth and could complete the PVP events practically alone, however yesterday I entered similar events with the participation of other players and I can say that I enjoyed it, to the point of letting out a sigh of relief when I finally successfully completed the event being a winner. And even as I write these words I feel a desire to get back into the game to participate in a Hostile Takeover to expand my financial empire and climb the Leaderboard.

Being what it is, the game will probably resonate to those who loved the Assassin's Creed games' naval battles and seek a game with them as the focus of gameplay, and will also be of interest to those who want a game with a (safe) pirate theme, or those who are looking for a similar title with co-op features to play cooperatively with 1-2 other friends and with enough PVP elements to boost their competitiveness and climb the Leaderboards. There's always the possibility that the game will be radically upgraded in the future (it's a "live service" game, after all) and become something more impressive and worthy of its 10-year development cycle. But, in its current form, the parts where Skull and Bones truly shines probably end up getting lost in a sea of mediocrity.

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RATING - 70%


The Rum is Almost Gone

Skull and Bones is visually beautiful, and the frantic pace of its ship-to-ship battles can potentially provide intense PVP and PVE thrills. However, as a result of its turbulent, decade-long development cycle and the game's resulting "identity crisis", its high points end up getting lost in a sea of mediocrity.

Κώστας Καλλιανιώτης

Archaeologist/Historian, RPG Player, Motörhead fan, Consumer of Mutton.

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