I haven’t followed the development of Skull and Bones too closely over the years; I’d see the pirate game emerge at a show with a new trailer or demo, and then sink back beneath the waves with delay after delay. So when Ubisoft opened the game to the public with an open beta recently, I was intrigued to see how the close-to-final product looked. I’ve been known to enjoy a spot of piracy, and Ubisoft has the incredible Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag in its back catalogue, after all.
The open beta weekend was a surprising experience, because I didn’t realize that there was a whole MMO-style game on top of the pirate ship combat. The MMO stuff also isn’t great; from seeing everyone’s gamertag above their ship, to poorly implemented mechanics, it feels like the boat portion of Skull and Bones is hauling around a ton of extra mechanics as luggage.
Skull and Bones opens with the player embroiled in battle against a British fleet, helming a respectable pirate galleon. Unfortunately for the buccaneers aboard, the British bring overwhelming force and sink the ship with volleys of cannon fire. The player wakes up, having washed ashore, and the problems immediately begin with character creation.
The player’s pirate looks into their reflection in a body of water, which shows their face and shoulders. This means that some of the character creation categories are a mystery. For instance, I can change my body type to one of four options… but I can’t see my body. Same with tattoos; there are options that clearly add some kind of scar or ink to my pirate’s body, but I can’t see what they look like before I confirm. Even basic things like whether a hairstyle has a ponytail are a mystery. Character creation feels hacked together with incomplete tools; I pick a starting face, each of which only has three skin tones assigned to it, and then stumble through the rest of the options.
Things don’t get easier once I climb aboard my new ship, which is a much humbler vessel than the mighty galleon from the tutorial. I make my way to a small island and disembark. Movement on the land is slow and plodding, and the characters I meet don’t do much to engage me. Some of them discuss how the captain of the last galleon died, and I’m led to believe I’m just a random swabbie who survived the carnage. Other people refer to me as the last captain and scorn me for our defeat. It’s narratively unclear who I am and what the stakes are, but before long, I’m sent back out on my boat to scavenge supplies.
Once I get all of my quests from land-based NPCs, I get back on my ship — no combat on land for me. I was surprised to see classic MMO quests in Skull and Bones — especially because the game lacks some of the failsafes that other developers have long since implemented. Let’s say I’m waiting to collect supplies from the ocean when a nimbler ship swoops in and takes them first. That spawn is now gone, and I have to hunt for a new one. It’s a minor inconvenience, but one that adds up, moreso because it’s a solved problem in games like World of Warcraft.
There’s a lot of cruft in Skull and Bones that just feels plain bad, especially because of how great it feels to be out on the open ocean. This is a game where you are the captain, and you don’t get your hands dirty with the work of cutting the sails or firing the cannons. Instead, you have people to handle that. I used the controller to play, and each movement made me feel like the conductor of an orchestra.
There are no boarding actions, but otherwise I have access to a gamut of options in battle: cannons, ramming, evasive maneuvers. This is not a tactical game of strategy and positioning; it’s more like a shooter, but instead of a gun, you have a boat. I focus on aiming the boat, enabling the automatic cannon fire from my crews and dodging the ideal firing angle from my enemies. In a pinch, I order the ship forward into my foes in a ramming maneuver. The reliance on positioning and pumping out easily accessible damage is familiar to me, and combat is forgiving — it doesn’t require trigonometry to find the best angles of approach.
If you’re looking for a Master and Commander-style series of fraught ship battles playing out like a chess match, you may be disappointed. If you like the fantasy of being a pirate ship captain, with all of the rough parts from history carefully polished off, you’ll likely have a great time on the high seas.
There’s also the world itself as a dramatic backdrop. Sailing into a storm feels appropriately dangerous and cinematic, with choppy waters sending the boat bobbing and dipping. Failing to sail through stormy seas will damage your ship, and getting through a rough spot made me feel like an accomplished captain. There’s also a decent chunk of ship customization, from ship class, to the cute companion hanging out on my ship to keep the crew company.
It’s been a long trip through development for Skull and Bones, and I feel as though certain parts of the game — like land-based movement and character creation — are less carefully crafted additions, roughly stapled upon the mechanics that work. It’s a trip through uneven waters, marred by strange issues and inconsistent gameplay. But when the stars align and a great ship scenario occurs, I can see the vision of Skull and Bones. Those glimpses were just too few and far between for me to truly enjoy my time in the open beta.