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.