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Skull And Bones resurfaces as a Sea Of Thieves-like without the jokes

And it's out in November, for now

Back in the mists of time, I actually had a hands on with Ubisoft's pirate 'em up Skull And Bones once. In my memory of it, I was an adolescent, which was categorically not the case and probably more a product of the booths at Gamescom being very tall, not to mention the hands on taking place so very long ago. At that time, the game was essentially the naval combat bit from AC: Black Flag, carved out and extended to be its own thing. Now, years later and with many delays and reworks bobbing about in its wake, Skull And Bones is back, and looking a bit different.

The current state of play for Skull And Bones was revealed with a livestream tonight, featuring an explainer video walking you through some of the game features, a chonk of the game in piratical action, and a surprisingly close release date confirmation for the 8th of November 2022 (there's still time for it to be delayed again!). All those extra months in the oven have produced a decidedly Sea Of Thieves-shaped bun. But this one is all realistic and gritty, more complicated, and is taking itself seriously. You won't catch Skull And Bones announcing its new season features with a comedy song, that's for sure.

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It's a decent USP to find a market. I'm sure there are more than a few people who like the idea of a pirate MMO, but perhaps own a Tap Out t-shirt and therefore want a more traditionally badass one. Skull And Bones' somewhat self-conscious "will you live as a pawns or die as pirates?" trailer line, and logo art that kind of looks like ye olde Rainbow Six, is going to appeal more to them than the primary colours and wacky head shapes in Sea Of Thieves. In my pre-brief session, world producer Vanessa Seow even said that the new version of Skull And Bones is "taking a darker, grittier approach" to your traditional pirate fantasy.

A high def screenshot from Skull And Bones showing a huge red-sailed pirate ship sailing away from an explosion
This is a very high rez shot, so click to embiggen | Image credit: Ubisoft

This means that everything in Skull And Bones is more realistic to look at, with regular proportions and more polygons and stuff like that. You can customise your character (and I actually really love the outfit options they showed off) but with piratey clothes more suited to a Black Sails extra than a waiter at a Pirates Of The Caribbean-themed cocktail bar. There are some islands that are gravity-defying and weird to look at in a semi-fantastical way, but in general there's more mud and clutter. It will remind you, in fact, of an Ubisoft game. Seow talked about the world of Skull And Bones being a very hostile one, and listed off not just dangerous fauna (hippos and crocodiles, presumably cribbed from some recent Assassin's Creeds), but also weather, pirate hunters, powerful corporations and mutiny from your own crew if you're an unusually terrible manager.

I'm going to keep comparing Skull And Bones to Sea Of Thieves, because I suspect everyone will, but also because Ubisoft are clearly gunning for that experience themselves. Game director Ryan Barnard talked about how it's a "social game" first and that Skull And Bones is best played with your friends. Quest director Terry Han popped up to assure everyone that Skull And Bones will have regular free updates adding "a lineup of new content" post-release, ranging from bigger challenges for groups of players to smaller themed events. They want it to be, he said, "the best open world pirate experience for our players".

Three versions of the same character in Skull And Bones, wearing progressively more impressive pirate clothes
Examples of how your cool pirate can get cooler in Skull And Bones
Three Captains in the Season Seven Sea Of Thieves update, each with different custom gear and ships
The children's birthday party that is Sea Of Thieves character customisation (as of season 7)

But you gotta look like you're not copying someone else's essay on Edward Teach, right, and this game has been developed and redeveloped for years, so there are noticeable differences. Skull And Bones seems to have a more obvious rags to riches progression than in Sea Of Thieves. You begin the game as the survivor of a shipwreck and become, well, a mighty pirate. Barnard described how you start with just one Dhow, the smallest ship type in the game, and climb the ladder by doing contracts for more powerful pirates to gain Infamy. More Infamy unlocks blueprints to "allow you to craft new ships, different weapons, different armours" and do better contracts for more famous pirates. Raising your Infamy is the main goal of the game, and while contracts are the main source of achieving this goal, you can also get it from completing other activities including exploration, treasure hunts, plundering, investigations, and the mysterious "dynamic events".

A tall ship in Skull And Bones sails around the edge of a strange, almost inverted rock island

Eventually you can build up a whole fleet of ships, with different types offering different advantages. Cargo ships have loads of hull space but move slowly; navigation ships are fast but weak; and firepower ships are your big guns with a terrible turning circle. You can craft unique armour and weapons for all your ships, including Greek Fire, explosive mortars and rocket launchers. Barnard described the combat, which can be PvE or PvP, like he was analysing Real Madrid's performance at half time: "visceral, fast-paced, rewarding". But to my eye, the combat still looks mostly like, you know, the naval combat from Assassin's Creed, with some extras.

Barnard narrated a gameplay video, where he took on a contract in co-op. He picked a ship to complement what his co-op partner was using, and customised his weapons and armour for attacking a settlement. What stood out most to me was the camera in combat. Rather than being in first-person, you've got more of a ship's eye view, able to look at things through a spyglass, from the crow's nest, the helm, or along the sides as you need. It looked busy and confusing, and is something I imagine will take some getting used to, as opposed to a more traditional 'this is you, this is what you're looking at through your digital eyeballs'.

A turquoise and yellow ship with black sails comes under fire from a cliffside fort, and a large merchant ship with blue and white sails, in a screen from Skull And Bones

In fact, Sea Of Thieves' whole thing is more simple and easy to understand in general, and I think this will be the main problem for Skull And Bones. Sea Of Thieves goes "you're a pirate, please go off and do pirating", and that, within a bit of scaffolding, is kind of it. In Skull And Bones, you have to collect crafting materials to build stuff, targets have flashing weak points, you have to stay inside areas demarcated for fights as if Poseidon spray-painted an orange line on his water. It's a lot, and it will form, I suspect, a bulwark to the kind of instant joy on the open water that Sea Of Thieves facilitates. You can see, I think, the legacy of previous rounds of development in everything they've tried to cram in here. Although I like the ideas of mutiny, the more real-world setting and the enhanced customisation, what Skull And Bones really needs before release is probably a ruthless edit from an impartial pair of scissors.

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