Skull and Bones is about being a ship, not a pirate

Skull and Bones [official site] is a game I’ve wanted for a long time. That has nothing to do with its setting or style, though a Black Flag follow-up of sorts is an attractive proposition – but, no, the appeal of Skull and Bones is more abstract. This is the result of Ubisoft having one of their apparently specialist studios build an entire game around their specialism. Almost like a mega-bucks version of the animation experimentations of Grow Home.

In this case, it’s not procedural animation. Here, we’re with Ubisoft Singapore and the wonders of water.

Skull and Bones is a distillation of the naval combat in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. For those who don’t remember, Black Flag is the Assassin’s Creed game that people who hate Assassin’s Creed games are allowed to like. That’s partly because it lets you ignore the assassin stuff to live a pirate’s life instead, with sea shanties and treasure hunts and rum, but it’s also because the naval exploration and combat was exciting and new.

Ships weren’t simply a rehashed mode of transportation, behaving for all the world like sea-horses, they were huge, heavy, creaking juggernauts. The simulation wasn’t complex, but it gave a sense of shouting orders and of wrestling the wheel of something too massive to master. Black Flag served up all the delicious flavour of ship-to-ship combat and sailing without making you memorise a thousand button combinations, or forcing you to understand the configuration of the rigging, the cut of a jib, or the va-va-voom of a boom.

With Skull and Bones, Ubisoft Singapore have transplanted all of that good stuff into an even more beautiful world, with seas so vibrant and choppy that the waves are hypnotic. The catch is that you are no longer a pirate. You’re doing pirate things, smashing up merchant ships and stealing their haul, and outrunning pirate hunters, but you’re not a pirate. Instead, you are, essentially, a pirate ship.

Sure, you have an avatar of sorts, barking commands at the crew as they scurry around the deck, manning the guns, trimming the topsail, and performing boarding actions, but you are very much in control of the ship rather than an individual on the ship. That means you won’t be disembarking and digging up buried treasure, and in that sense Skull and Bones is a more realistic depiction of pirate life. You’re a raider and a robber, essentially, striking fleets with little in the way of defences, and scarpering before the Sea Cops arrive.

There will be a singleplayer mode, but the mode playable at E3 is clearly designed as a team vs team game. Two pirate fleets, of five in this instance, seize as much loot as possible from NPC merchants and from each other, and then flee when the timer runs out and the hunters arrive. Carry a load of loot and you become a high profile target, and anyone sinking your ship can take the lot.

This leads to some nifty teamwork. If one ship in your fleet is weighted down with pieces of eight, the rest should protect it rather than trying to hunt booty of their own, and if you are that ship, you’d best make sure you don’t lose track of your mates. Staying on course or in a pack is tricky because wind plays a big part in the game, allowing for high-speed chases, as well as causing clusters of ships to rotate and meander as if they’re navigating through molasses.

Beyond that mode, I have no idea what Skull and Bones will offer. There will be more, but it’ll most likely be in the form of other multiplayer modes rather than anything resembling a story. And remember – you are the ship rather than an actual pirate, so you’re not going to be courting the governor’s daughter or hanging around in taverns.

Instead of speculating about how the wider game might work – ship unlocks, persistent upgrades, kraken? – I’m going to tell you about the game’s best feature: ramming.

The Enforcer ship’s speed lets it get onto the tail of opponents, which is great if you want to shelter from their broadside cannons, but not so great if you want to shatter their hull. To do that, you need to predict their path, figuring out what their current target might be, taking all of the wind simulation into account, and plotting a course that’ll make your intentions unclear until it’s far too late for evasive manoeuvres. The complexity, and pleasure, of Skull and Bones is all about these predictive courses, and the real joy is in the collisions rather than the cannonfire.

Cannons are overrated. My Enforcer is a nimble vessel that packs a hell of a punch. We cut through the smoke and the waves and split the lumbering, treasure-laden hulls of our enemies into splinters. People are looking for ships lining up alongside them to unleash a barrage of balls and they find the paths I sail much harder to read.

That’s how I ended up winning the second round I played almost single-handed, striking and then circling back and retreating, before picking off another isolated ship. For all of its glorious graphics, Skull and Bones quickly became a game I played on the minimap, identifying the vulnerable ships that were running against the wind and, even better, those making a run for the edges of the map with their booty. Sticking to their rear-ends, I was like a wasp at a picnic, causing people to run around in circles to avoid my sting. As soon as they lurch to one side or the other, they’re locked into a decision they should never have made.

There was a sinking feeling in the room when the game was announced, following the immediate high of “MORE BLACK FLAG YES PLEASE”. People want to be pirates, not pirate ships, but Skull and Bones has enough tactical nuance in its course-plotting and interceptions to give me hope that it’ll be a fantastic game of ship-to-ship combat. And if there are other modes as robust as the hunt, as well as a decent progression system, I’ll gladly pretend to be a ship for a while.

Despite appearances, it’s probably better to think of dogfighting than pirate simulation. In fact, more than anything, Skull and Bones reminds me of the rather obscure pretend dogfighting game Cult of the Wind. For all of its visual fidelity, it’s really a big old toybox, even if it does have the best water I’ve ever seen.

Skull and Bones is due Autumn 2018.

48 Comments

  1. Freud says:

    So it’s like World of Tanks with pirate ships?

  2. Anti-Skub says:

    Best water ever seen? Did you not see Sea of Thieves?

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Don’t know what trailers you were watching but Sea of Thieves definitely does not have better-looking water than Skull & Bones.

      link to youtube.com link to youtube.com

      I mean Sea of Thieves looks really neat, but it’s not competing on water simulation. Anyway, I think it’s great that we’re getting multiple very different pirate games.

  3. Cederic says:

    I still miss Sea Dogs, which was awesome single player piracy, and Pirates of the Burning Sea which did MMO piracy.

    I had a very pretty pink skirt in POTBS too :(

    • bikkebakke says:

      Age of Pirates 2 was so good as well, even if it was riddled with bugs (mods fixed some of them though).

      I’m still waiting for someone to do a similar game to age of pirates or sea & dogs that is actually good. Too many of the recent pirate games (released or announced) have either been MP based or extremely arcade’y (like black flag). I just want a (somewhat) realistic ‘pirate’ game with plenty of ships, where I can sail around being a pirate, a merchant, a privateer or just simply sail under a nations flag doing missions for them.

      //also adding that some of these games have been too ambitious on adding both sea and land-based gameplay instead of focusing on the sea, which often leads to poorer gameplay overall. Age of pirates suffered a bit from this.

    • drinniol says:

      Pirates of the Burning Sea is still very much alive and kicking! Some of the original devs saved it after Sony pulled the plug.

      • Cederic says:

        Argh! But that means grinding up to a first rate again.

        I may have to anyway :)

  4. Jokerme says:

    I’ve never wanted to be a ship. I guess this game is not for me. I might consider being a spaceship, though. Or a relationship…

  5. Zenicetus says:

    So they’ll still drive around like motorboats as in Black Flag, ignoring the wind? Ignoring what sail combat is ALL ABOUT, which is who can master the wind? What a load of bilgewater.

    Okay, I know most people don’t want to mess with that, but it does make tactics more interesting than constant circling tail chases and ducking incoming cannon fire.

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      basilisk says:

      “Staying on course or in a pack is tricky because wind plays a big part in the game”
      “figuring out what their current target might be, taking all of the wind simulation into account”
      “Skull and Bones quickly became a game I played on the minimap, identifying the vulnerable ships that were running against the wind and, even better, those making a run for the edges of the map”

      Next time, I suggest reading the article before you comment on it.

      • Zenicetus says:

        There is a difference between just slowing down when facing or turning into the wind, and not being able to move at all in a very large portion of the compass rose. Especially if you’re square-rigged.

        One of these things is called sailing. The other is not.

        • Techne says:

          But, to be pedantic here (since you are), it’s not “ignoring the wind”. Apparently.

          • Zenicetus says:

            Continuing in obnoxiously pedantic mode (can’t help it, as a real life sailor), yes it’s ignoring the wind direction. Moving in that arc of directions is an absolute prohibition with that sail design. There is no allowance for moving more slowly and “partially ignoring” the wind. It’s all or nothing. Square riggers don’t work that way.

            Of course it’s done that way in games all the time, because the percentage of people interested in real sail tactics is relatively small. And more importantly from a game perspective, it’s verrrry sloooow combat when you’re tacking for advantage, compared to the speed of combat allowed by 360-degree movement. Gamers like fast action. But let’s still acknowledge that it ain’t realistic at all.

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            Phasma Felis says:

            Speaking as someone who has never been on a sailing ship, but *has* played Sid Meier’s Pirates and read all of the Aubrey/Maturin books, I would love to see a game with realistic sailing physics, but I’d also happily play a game that made a reasonable compromise between realism and fun. There’s a sweet spot somewhere between Afterburner and a military flight simulator rig.

          • maxcolby says:

            I hear Age of Sail battles were really long due to the realistic nature of trying to master the wind.

            Naval Action is supposed to be awesome(I could barely run it on my potato of a PC)and a good mid ground.

        • Asurmen says:

          Still not driving around like motorboats or ignoring the wind, however you cut it.

          • Zenicetus says:

            IF you can move your boat in a direction directly against the wind, then you’re driving a boat with an invisible motor, not a sailboat. It’s really that simple, however the game presents it. It’s smoke and mirrors pretending that you’re sailing.

            It’s fine to acknowledge the compromise for the sake of gameplay and faster action. Let’s just acknowledge how far from reality it is. Anyone who has actual experience with sailing will understand what I’m talking about.

          • drinniol says:

            You’re right! How dare they market this as a 100% age of sail simulation, and not as a somewhat silly game of pirate ships.

          • Sandepande says:

            I would imagine the sales expectation for a supremely realistic sailing game is fairly low.

  6. wwarnick says:

    I’m crossing my fingers that it will be a bit like Sid Meier’s Pirates.

    • sdether says:

      All I’ve wanted since Black Flag came out was a Sid Meier’s Pirates remake with that engine. I get the feeling Skull and Bones won’t be for me.

  7. Phantom_Renegade says:

    So not only is it not a real singleplayer game, it also does not have airships. I’ll pass.

  8. charmingtuber says:

    I just really could not want this game less. I like the idea of piracy, but vehicle combat is usually boring in a vacuum and I don’t see this being fun. Ubisoft has a bad track record on games that actually look fun in their demos, so this is pretty much dead in the water.

  9. Chairman_Meow says:

    My only question is: Does it run at ROCK SOLID 60 FPS? Is it NATIVE 4K!!!!?

  10. TheBookThief says:

    I was rather saddened after reading the title, to find out that the game doesn’t have you playing as a sentient boat hunting other boats for food.

    • Zenicetus says:

      That’s an amazing concept for a game. Post-Global Warming Apocalypse. The military ships have so much AI crammed in that they’ve become self-aware, and have to resort to sails because there is no more easy petroleum for fuel. Humans are dead, it’s just the sentient sailing ships fighting each other for resources.

      Somebody make this game. And make it better than that stupid Waterworld movie, although I did like that trimaran.

      • April March says:

        Isn’t that the plot of Pixar’s Cars?

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        Phasma Felis says:

        I vaguely recall that someone actually made a self-sailing ship, with sails and mast and…whatever, all controlled by servos tied in to radar and sonar.

  11. April March says:

    I actually realized that in the trailer and realized this is a game I totally want, even knowing that I’ll never be able to coordinate well enough with four other people that I’ll be good at it. A pirate ship’s life for me.

  12. Hyena Grin says:

    Ugh.

    Okay, maybe I’m an outlier, I dunno. But I really wish the ‘you are a (vehicle)’ genre of games would kinda go away.

    Don’t get me wrong, this looks… fun. Not play-every-night fun, but fun.

    I enjoyed the ship stuff in Black Flag, but at the end of the day I gave the simplicity of the ship controls a pass because it’s a game that’s doing a lot more than just ship combat and sailing. If they are going to take the ship combat and sailing and turn that into a standalone game, I really want it to expand on what Black Flag did. But I’m not sure it’s doing that.

    I actually would prefer a single player pirate game that appeared like Black Flag but focused less on parkour and more on being a pirate. I’d vastly prefer a co-op game which allowed you and some friends to form a pirate crew and explore the Caribbean together, boarding ships and getting into duels.

    There’s so much potential there for creating a new experience, but instead we get ‘you are a ship, just now you can fight other people who are ships’ and is ultimately a less feature-rich experience than the game it is borrowing from.

    It feels more like, ‘whoops, we spent a pile of money developing these mechanics that have limited re-use potential. How can we repackage this and sell it again with minimal effort?’

    Sigh. Just my opinion.

    • 9of9 says:

      Hey, guess what!

      link to rockpapershotgun.com

      (Spoiler alert: I might actually be a paid shill that totally works for Microsoft)

      • Vilos Cohaagen says:

        That looks great but if it is Windows Store only then I’ll skip it.

      • Hyena Grin says:

        Excellent! I think this crossed my radar at some point, but I forgot about it. I’ll have to look into it a bit more.

  13. The Ni Knight says:

    Meanwhile, there’s this little game called Blackwake, still in Alpha at the moment. Minimal cost, maximum fun.

    You play a pirate or someone from the British Navy. Online multiplayers focused, with a maximum of 54 players, 2 ships of 7 and 1 ship of 13 on each team.
    You play as a sailor, not a ship, you can promote yourself as captain and be elected as one, or simply be a shipmate, manning canons, managing supplies and reloads, repairing holes in the ship and sails, pumping water and always attentive to your captain’s order.
    This game is ALL ABOUT TEAMWORK. The voice chat is quite good. 4 differents voice channels, crew, faction, faction captains and global. Depending on how good is your captain, you’ll feel like a true sailor. Many of them even even put emphasis on roleplay, which is very nice.
    Most important, the game engine. The game isn’t pretty like skull and bones, but the ragdoll physics and the debris of your ship scattering everywhere is very fun. You’ll often see one of your shipmates who was quietly loading supplies being blown away 50 meters back in the water along with bits of your hull, almost always followed by yourself barrel rolling in the air.
    There’s also a variety of equipement and items, different kind of shots for your cannon, regular, grapeshot, boarding ropes…

    Bottom line, the game is FUN. At first, you understand nothing of the chaos around you and you just try to survive and be useful. And little by little you understand how it all works, and start having a blast raming others ships, boarding them or fire a full broadside devastating the opponent’s deck and crew.
    Of course, it’s an early access game, some bugs and glitches are present, you’ll have to be a bit forgiving.

    So, if you don’t want to play as a ship, you might want to give Blackwake a try ;)

    link to blackwake.com

    Just like “charmingtuber” said higher up, Ubisoft is known to make their games look good on trailers and demos but VASTLY DISAPOINT on launch especially multiplayer games(looking at you For Honor and The Division) that die a few months after launch because of horrendous matchmaking, terrible controls, unbalanced mechanics and worse of all, pay to win content.

    It’s a shame but I think I’ll try Skull and Bones only if I hear good feedback or if there’s a free week-end, I’m tired of being disappointed in Ubisoft.

    Cheers!

    • Cube says:

      I’m with you on Blackwake. Its sooooo much fun.

      I do love jumping on the enemy Gally, hiding, and then slaying people as they come past :D

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    MajorLag says:

    Hmmm. I never played Black Flag, but from what I gather the thing people liked most about it was sailing around and singing sea chanties, less so the combat. Maybe that’s all I remember because it’s the part that most interested me.

    It makes me think that maybe there’s a space for a game that takes that hardcore sailing simulator, makes it multiplayer, and… that’s it really. The point of the game would be to sail around with your crew doing tedious manual labor and singing sea chanties. It’d be trucking simulator, but multiplayer and on the ocean. The single player portion of it would have a crew of NPCs that teach you a base set of chanties as well as the various sailing tasks.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    I kinda of want a version of this that still has some of the land-based exploration, visiting pirate towns and islands, looking for treasure, boarding ships, climbing the rigging, jumping from mast to mast, walking around on your ship…. but also the epic naval battles that worked so well in Black Flag (all of that was part of the piratey appeal)…. but I will still totally go for more naval battles on their own.

  16. fray_bentos says:

    I was interested in this up until the point I read that it was a multiplayer-coop game.