Skull and Bones Hands-on Preview

Skull and Bones is finally here, or at least the open beta is. After a tumultuous development cycle, the game is ready to sail forward as its open beta starts today.

Just ahead of its eventual launch, we got the opportunity to play the game during a hands-on session hosted by Ubisoft. Running through the introduction sequence of the game and a brief taste of how endgame missions will play out, the hands-on answered a lot of questions but also left us questioning some decisions about the game that could maybe spell some trouble in the high seas.

For starters, the easiest way to describe Skull and Bones is if you take Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and you take away all of the assassin stuff, leaving behind just the ship battles. While that in itself is not inherently a bad thing because Black Flag’s naval battles were the bomb, there has to be something more because the game is a live-service title.

If Skull and Bones is essentially Black Flag, how is it, then?

Trimming the fat out, you are simply an unnamed pirate trying to make it big in the world of Piracy. You’ll start as a nobody who will slowly build up “street cred,” or sea cred, and be the next hotshot in the business. Pretty straightforward and a serviceable premise for something like this.

While the story is not such a huge factor in live-service titles, it is one of the hooks that will keep players along for the ride, and currently, Skull and Bones might have something there that could interest players. There’s a lot of material that can be used in the world of piracy, and since the team has used creative liberties in building the world, Ubisoft could take advantage of this.

While I haven’t played enough of the intro outside of a few tutorial quests to comment about the story, the potential for some good tales is there. The allure of mega corporations, sea monsters, pirate legends, and the like do make for good storytelling!

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Sailing the seas has to feel good, and here is where Skull and Bones falters a bit. As you can imagine, taking on missions happens in hub areas that you explore by foot, and all of the hunting and fighting happens out in the water. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue, seeing as most quest-based systems work this way, but heading in and out of the water is quite a tedious process.

One reason is that every time you sail off, you’re taken to a menu that allows you to customize your ship’s loadout to prepare for the voyage ahead. This is one menu too many, compared to Assassin’s Creed games where you simply take on a quest and go forth. The next, and a more problematic thing for me, is ship stamina.

Controlling ships is as you would expect. They’re big and burly crafts that do not turn like a car would, and you’ll constantly be shifting speeds to make your ship more responsive in the water. Ships have 3 speeds (maybe better ships will have more, I can’t say), and you’ll be advancing through that with simple button presses. Think of it as stop, cruise, and full speed ahead, but the fastest setting drains stamina that you can refill with food.

This would be ok, in a sense, except that some quest items are so far away that you’ll spend time traveling to and from the hub to fulfill the quest. Combine that with slow ship speeds when starting out, along with the possibility of throttling speed due to a lack of stamina, and you have something that feels tedious very early in the game.

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Quests in Skull and Bones are the usual fare, where you simply need to collect X amount of resources or deliver some goods, as far as I’ve seen. Some items in the world will require you to gather lumber or plants through a small minigame of timing button presses to get more of that item should you perfect the timing. While that’s ok, players cannot get off their ships in Skull and Bones. Swimming in the open sea is not an option, nor is boarding other ships during battle, nor can you even explore your ship and enjoy the cosmetics that you’ve earned for it.

This sort of defeats the purpose of living the pirate fantasy, and is a huge missed opportunity, I feel. Boarding ships during battles and winning the skirmish through a swordfight certainly feels and sounds exciting, but “boarding” a ship is relegated to a pre-recorded sequence that is basically a ship finishing move, if you will.

Additionally, there are other sequences where you can throw Molotovs at the opposing ship, provided you are close enough for the special attack to connect. There are other special attacks, if you can call them that, and these serve to sort of break the monotony of just waiting to reload and fire.

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One other portion of Skull and Bones that I got to try was a bit of the endgame, where I got to try out a fully decked-out ship with a full arsenal of cannons, mortars, and even flamethrowers. Players will be allowed to equip multiple weapons on each side of the ship, including the front and back, so this offers some level of depth in terms of customizing loadouts for the battles ahead.

My gripe here is that ship combat can get very repetitive a few hours in, where battles are relegated to simply circling the enemy vessel, firing, and waiting to reload before you can fire again. The diverse selection of weapons ensures that each firing style is different, but it all just boils down to firing, waiting to reload, and then firing again.

Ships in Skull and Bones can be kitted for firepower, or even support, where some of the firearms are healing cannons. This is a novel idea that parties can take advantage of when faced with a pirate with superior firepower, as healing can be the difference between walking away with loot or picking up the pieces of your wrecked ship.

Endgame missions in Skull and Bones are somewhat fun, as I got to duke it out with a huge sea monster (fun!), some world event elite ships that were way too strong (totally wrecked us in a couple of hits), and activities like a fortress takeover where I held off waves of enemy ships while destroying a fort. The last activity was a weird one since it would have been nice to get off the ship and complete the takeover on foot, but none of that was here.

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Overall, Skull and Bones looks like something that has potential but misses the mark on some of its core systems, which doesn’t feel like it can be solved with some small patches here and there. Some of the activities are good fun with friends, but doing them solo would otherwise feel like a chore. Monster hunts were fun and exciting activities, but a lot of the endgame content feels like just overcoming bullet-sponge enemies with a “you see one, you’ve seen them all” approach.

It’ll be interesting to see how Skull and Bones evolves throughout its first year. Ubisoft is keen on listening to the community for feedback, as they’ve done over the previous closed beta tests, and the game can only get better from here. Ubisoft has proven that they can support a title with quality content and take pointers from the players, so we’ll have to see how they navigate the stormy seas ahead.

Skull and Bones Open Beta is now available. The game is scheduled to launch on February 16, 2024, for PS5, Xbox Series, and PC, with cross-play and cross-progression support.

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