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Skull And Bones Preview – More Shipshape Than I Expected

A pirate’s life awaits you

Skull and Bones. We’ve all wondered at some point whether Ubisoft Singapore’s open-world pirate game would eventually ship given all the delays and setbacks. After all, it’s been in the works since 2013 and Ubisoft has no doubt spent a boatload of cash on its development, so you could forgive Yves and the powerbrokers at the French company for sentencing the project to the walk the plank. But what if I told you that not only is the game definitely coming out (on February 16, 2024, to be exact), it’s actually pretty fun.

Recently I was able to visit Ubisoft Singapore courtesy of Ubisoft Australia and was able to go hands-on with the content from the game’s upcoming closed beta, as well as hear from and speak to a bunch of the team behind the project. It not only gave me a much better understanding of what the game is, but a deeper respect for the creatives behind these big AAA operations.

Born out of would-be DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Skull and Bones is set during the 17th century in the Indian Ocean and inspired by the golden age of piracy. Your job is to climb the pirate ranks and become a kingpin – an infamous pirate leader who’s feared across the seven seas. Rising through the ranks may not be the most original premise, but it fits what Skull and Bones is aiming for.

What is exciting about the narrative is the use of the Indian Ocean, which has allowed Ubisoft Singapore to showcase the cultures and history of its own region. From chatting with the team, you can sense their excitement at getting to feature its heritage in the game.

The beginning of the closed beta and the game sees your character shipwrecked after losing a battle with the British. After going through the character creator where players can choose from a bunch of options to create the perfect pirate, you find yourself captaining a dhow (a small and largely unimpressive boat) to Saint-Anne, also known as pirate paradise. Once you arrive in Sainte-Anne you meet with John Scurlock, the kingpin in the region, and convince him that your talents can be useful.

Ubisoft has certainly given the writing team liberty for Scurlock and other characters to embrace their inner pirate; there’s plenty of crude dialogue, and it’s clear there are smatterings of influences from other popular pirate media. To their credit, the brief instances with Scurlock are compelling, and it does give the piracy theme a bit more authenticity.

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The view ain’t bad

Saint-Anne is a bustling haven with plenty of opportunities to engage in trade. One of my first missions involved speaking to the local shipwright who promised to build me a ship if I went and collected the resources required, while another trader swore to build me cannons. Thankfully, the map shows you where particular resources can be found, but as it’s a live service game these resources are shared with other players and decidedly finite, meaning you may have to wait for them to regenerate if others have beaten you to it.

At first, I thought that resources would need to be acquired by exploring the islands on foot, however that’s not the case, with obtaining resources as simple as pulling up alongside them and completing a QTE minigame (which from what I gather lessens the number of resources collected if failed). That is of course assuming you manage to pull up alongside them successfully, which can be a little hard given the difficulty of manoeuvring yourself alongside them in a boat. On one hand I understand why Ubisoft has chosen to make this feature like this – this is a ship-first game after all. But it would have been cool to have to travel to an island and explore for resources.

It wasn’t long until I’d upgraded from my humble dhow to a ship more befitting of my stature – my own glorious vessel named SkullyB. I also got the opportunity to deck it out with cannons to help me tackle the challenges of the sea. Indeed, ship customisation was one of the most interesting features on offer, and can be done any time before you leave land. Each ship will have different amounts of customisation and there seems to be a solid number of weapons available to craft on launch. As a live service game, nailing the ability to create unique ships that align with your pirate personality will be key to its appeal, and Ubisoft seems to understand this.

Welcome to pirate paradise

Once you are out on the big blue, you’ll feel right at home if you did play Black Flag, as Skull and Bones builds on the same mechanics. Waves will rock your boat every which way, and you’ll need to keep an eye on the wind to ensure your speed isn’t impacted too much. You can sail your ship in either first or third person, but I preferred third-person perspective to get a broader view of what was ahead in of me. First person does offer a more immersive view though, as you get a front-row seat to your crew being hit with water spilling onto the deck, getting pushed back as cannons fire, and working the sails.

There’s also a dynamic weather system, and storms can truly wreak havoc as they try and pull you and your crew down to Davy Jones’ locker. It looks phenomenal when happening while playing, and several times I decided to head straight for the storm just to see what damage could be done. But the weather isn’t your biggest worry, as it’s mostly other warships that you’ll need to watch out for. There are three mega corporations that traverse the ocean that you’ll need to be aware of – Compagnie Royale, Dutch Merchant Company, and British Trade Alliance – with each controlling one of the game’s four regions of the Red Isles, Coast of Africa, East Indies, and Open Seas. Engaging in warfare with these ships can produce some epic naval battles but it’s easy to become outnumbered and overwhelmed, so you’ll need to pick your battles wisely. This is where playing co-operatively can increase your chances of success. You also don’t have to sink enemy ships, instead you can board and plunder them, although the mechanics for this are a little finicky as you need to be perfectly aligned to execute it.

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Humans and their ships aren’t the only dangers lurking the ocean, with animals such as sharks giving your smaller ships a run for their money, as well as otherworldly entities such as ghost ships and sea monsters really making you earn your pirate stripes.

When you aren’t in combat, there’s something serene about sailing out on the ocean with nothing but the sounds of the waves and animals, and the gorgeous fidelity of the water. Frequently, your crew will burst into song and Ubisoft says there are 30 different sea shanties in the game, and impressively these will be sung in four different native languages.

It’s not all naval warfare though, as a bunch of the islands can be explored, and it’s in these moments that I wish Ubisoft had ditched the live service elements and focused more on a story-driven pirate co-op game. Each island will have its own village or town where trade can be engaged in, and each village has its own resources and costs, as well as secrets to uncover. In the towns, players can take on extra work in the form of Contracts and Bounties to earn more silver and infamy, and can also come across treasure maps that will lead to a fruitful bounty.

I do have some concerns with the game’s live service focus and its longevity. I know Ubisoft has big plans for the game’s future, but in an oversaturated market where players already have too many live service games to choose from, it’s going to be a challenge for Ubisoft to pull enough players in for what is a somewhat niche experience. Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed my time with Skull and Bones. If the early hours are anything to go by, there’s an epic pirate fantasy to be had in here, and it will no doubt be even more enjoyable with friends. I am certainly looking forward to hitting the high seas this coming February and living my best pirate life.

Skull and Bones hits PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC via Steam and Epic Game Store on February 16, 2024. If you slip Ubisoft some extra silver for the Premium Edition, you’ll receive access on February 13, 2024.

Previewed on PC // Preview code supplied by publisher

WellPlayed was provided transport and accommodation for the purpose of this event

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Written By Zach Jackson

Despite a childhood playing survival horrors, point and clicks and beat ’em ups, these days Zach tries to convince people that Homefront: The Revolution is a good game while pining for a sequel to The Order: 1886 and a live-action Treasure Planet film. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan. Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts

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