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Skull And Bones Review

Call me Sam “Pirate” Bridges

Ubisoft’s latest live-service, open-world action-adventure is languid in its vastness. Prescriptive in its action. Thin on theme, insisting that you fill its creative gaps. No, Skull And Bones won’t be for everyone. Or even for most, I suspect. Yet, with time and a great degree of patience, I became enthralled by its whiplash doses of meditative cruising and adrenaline-fuelled naval combat.

Players begin their pirate adventure with a brief introductory sequence that pits them against an encroaching fleet amidst a great sea battle. However, I didn’t get to appreciate this or the light bit of tutorialising that occurs. Being a live-service game, there’s no pausing when things kick off, and while I was making a coffee before sitting down to get immersed, this sequence played out entirely without any input from myself. Followed by a shipwreck and our character being thrown ashore via one of the game’s incredibly rare cinematic cutscenes, I admit it didn’t make the best first impression. Despite however much you might want to be involved in the fire and smoke of this grand age of piracy, you must be prepared for much of this game’s exciting moments to either occur without your involvement, or offscreen entirely.

The story begins similarly to many roleplaying games, although I wouldn’t group Skull And Bones in that genre. The throughline in this title is that you are an aspiring naval kingpin, starting in a tiny wooden dhow with a complimentary crew, seeking to make a name for yourself and climb the ranks of the Indian Ocean’s criminal world. To do so, you will network with all of four well-acted and competently written pirates who will serve as primary quest-givers in the game’s two main hub areas. Your voiceless protagonist has no stake in the happenings of this world, but you will happily play the errand-person and fulfil their contracts for rewards of silver, cosmetics, and the occasional new ship weapon. Gradually along the way, you will encounter this world’s four faceless warring maritime factions. These each have their own ships, merchant goods, outposts, and little else. Everything interesting that happens during the story such as betrayals, conspiracies, and the shifting power of the factions, is all verbally relayed to the player during the dialogue cut-scenes on either side of critical path contracts.

The skyboxes enjoy a lot of attention during the lengthy quiet stretches

Contracts, whether primary or secondary, largely come in two flavours. They either involve going to a location and engaging in combat, ferrying a delivery, or a combination of both. The biggest twists with combat missions involve taking down a notorious pirate leader or plundering an outpost, which can be a frustrating proposition in the early game due to the limited combat utility. Bosses are often spongey and there is no procedural ship damage other than shooting glowing red targets. This means that your underequipped, early ships will endure long naval fights with achingly slow cannon reloads and seemingly enormous enemy health bars. 

Feeling under-armed leads to occasionally unfair plundering missions. These require the player to stay within a defined area next to a shore-side colony and endure waves of enemy ships. If you are unlucky, passerby ships will wander into the zone and add their firepower against you, leaving you to fight off the wind, cannonballs and mortar fire in a small area while praying your precious, slow cannons will eventually change the tide of combat. If in your mad dash to put distance between you and the enemy fleets, you accidentally wander outside the zone and find an unfavourable headwind that delays your return to the mission area, your crew mutinies. These many instances of plunders, or missions in general, arbitrarily going awry due to several frustrating systems colliding against one another can leave a sour taste that occurs more often than I’d like. Oh, and the hub NPCs that normally don’t respond to anything you do outside of the main questline will heckle you for being a shit captain, which is nice I suppose.

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Co-op combat with multiple strangers is almost always a good time

After the ten-hour mark, players should find themselves in possession of a medium-sized ship. It will require grinding and refining some of the dozens of crafting materials for a few hours but rewards players with a much-expanded combat repertoire that brings the naval combat to a state that is finally comparable to what Assassins Creed did ten years ago. Now, ships have guns on every side, as well as mortars or rockets, and even torpedoes and flamethrowers. Every direction on your ship is armed with lethal prospects, and the frustration of slow reloads is mitigated by your expanded arsenal. Add in the fabulously wild weather that dynamically occurs, and Skull And Bones finally hits its stride in combat. Fighting against a fleet as a nearby human player passes by and joins in, with tides over ten meters high creating dynamic barriers to navigate, makes for memorable and thrilling moments that may even stand as some of the best in this very specific nautical niche. Shit weather makes for the perfect conditions, as atmosphere, tension, and risky engagements bring this action to a thrilling fever pitch.

While the other common kind of naval mission, deliveries, is a far cry from combat, there is an enjoyable experience to be found for the patient sailor. Taking goods from A to B across a vast sea is about as thrilling as you would expect, with no surprises in this vast world to pull you astray. There are some nice skyboxes to enjoy, and the horizon occasionally looks sublime at a distance. These sections are really about finding your flow state and gliding along favourable winds. When you hit your stride, and the appropriately soft meditative tunes kick in, the experience becomes relaxing. Chuck on a podcast or audiobook, and it’s the closest you can get to a Euro Truck Simulator experience this side of the AAA(A) sphere. If there was more meaningful impact on the world or semblance of player interaction, I might have jokingly suggested this was a Strand-type game.

Oh shit, the Flying Dutchman!

Once well into the game, as the grind to trade commodities and building materials becomes crucial to stay competitive with the main quest path, the litany of bugs and jank begin to make themselves apparent. During the opening hours around the Red Isles, everything seems to work well, aside from vendors that are slow to respond to inputs. This meant I often accidentally dumped all my silver on useless purchases like duplicate blueprints (that I couldn’t cash back or sell!), but was mostly forgivable and had no impact when the action heated up. Once well accustomed to the West Indies later on, many of the more disparate locales on the edges of the map seemed to be coincidentally plagued with bugs. Islands where nothing can be interacted with. Enemy ships that immediately respawn on destruction, often bringing friends with their revenge resurrection. Intrusive UI blasts across the top of my screen nagging me with messages saying missions are nearby (when on the other side of the world). Quests breaking or refusing to progress. Objectives not spawning. Visual artifacts. Missing inventory. Disconnects. At the time of writing, a week since release, the in-game chat service still doesn’t work, meaning I was even booted when maintenance hit with no warning. 

Finally, a quick word on the endgame. Although the main story suddenly ends with no fanfare whatsoever, players are directed to progress with the Helm. This is a location that has players becoming black market magnates, refining rum and opium before delivering them for the endgame currency. It is a bit stagnant at this time, with fast travel arbitrarily restricted during these deliveries. The Helm’s world events benefit from concentrating players into six or so locations every 30 minutes, meaning that the game’s best moments of crowded combat occur more frequently. At this time, the rewards are pretty skint, with almost all available endgame weapons being downgrades and ship progression being tied to luck or dozens of hours of ungenerous, repetitive grind.

The Helm will allow you to install manufactories at claimed outposts to create a passive income of endgame currency

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Final Thoughts

I don’t resent my time with Skull And Bones. Indeed, despite my turbulent experience, a part of me remains optimistic that this game will get the belated injection of personality and play that comes with the grand Ubisoft live-service turnaround. They proved me wrong with the year two resuscitations of For Honor and Siege, and there are enough nuggets of a good experience here for them to build upon. Unfortunately, the product at launch feels lifeless and lost at sea. A consuming grind with occasional moments of adrenaline, its patent Ubisoft formula is an unspectacular comfort food, but only for the right seafarer. 

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Skull And Bones Review
Piracy is a full-time job
Perhaps Ubisoft's most mediocre new IP launch to date, eliciting neither excitement nor offence.
The Good
Naval combat hits a perfect storm when the weather gets wild
Cruising around on deliveries can be relaxing with a podcast
Some nice skyboxes and effects
The Bad
The story lacks any hook, relegated to recapping offscreen events
Too many bugs and network hiccups for such a solitary experience
Laborious, unrewarding grind
5.5
Glass Half Full
  • Ubisoft Singapore
  • Ubisoft
  • PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
  • February 16, 2024

Skull And Bones Review
Piracy is a full-time job
Perhaps Ubisoft’s most mediocre new IP launch to date, eliciting neither excitement nor offence.
The Good
Naval combat hits a perfect storm when the weather gets wild
Cruising around on deliveries can be relaxing with a podcast
Some nice skyboxes and effects
The Bad
The story lacks any hook, relegated to recapping offscreen events
Too many bugs and network hiccups for such a solitary experience
Laborious, unrewarding grind
5.5
Glass Half Full
Written By Nathan Hennessy

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