Hands-On: Skull and Bones channels Black Flag for epic naval battles

Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me...It gets stuck in my head every time I visit Disneyland (which is a lot since my wife and I have annual passes), and it’s very rare that we ever make the trip without riding the Pirates ride at least once or twice. The iconic song is one of the most prominent features of the attraction, and anytime something is able to make me recall that catchy tune I know it’s done a good job of channeling the heart of the pirate theme.

While playing Skull and Bones during a press demo session at Ubisoft’s E3 2017 booth, the tune almost immediately lodged itself into my head. I started humming it to myself, forgetting the mics were turned on for our headsets, and the rest of the team eventually joined in, loudly singing along. I believe in my heart that this natural camaraderie is the main reason we won both of our matches handily.

A Pirate’s Life For Me

Going into the demo, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve never been a big fan of vehicle combat games, even back in the days of Twisted Metal, and don’t play modern simulators such as World of Warships so I wasn’t really thinking Skull and Bones would be my cup of tea. I was wrong. Part of the fun definitely came from being surrounded by my teammates in person as we all enthusiastically communicated and celebrated every step of the way, but the core mechanics were strong enough to be inherently entertaining in ways most games aren’t.

For starters, naval combat is the type of thing that’s just a joy to watch. The water physics in Skull and Bones are fantastic as waves slosh around in the ocean and slam into the sides of ships. Each type of boat looks distinct, even from a distance, and controls very differently. The type of person that plays a long-range sniping-type ship is very different from the type of person that enjoys converting their vessel into a bat-out-of-hell style battering ram.

The game mode we got the chance to try was all about collecting as much loot as possible because, you see, we are pirates. My team had to collect the loot and then evacuate the area before the timer was about to run out. Whichever team had the most loot at the end won. Simple enough, right?

Plunder and Pillage

Spread around the waters we’d find little caches of gold that could be looted just by sailing over them. All ships, even the enemy’s, would display how much loot they had over the top of the vessel, which made it easier to focus on the high-value targets. That’s an important tactic because when you die all of your loot is lost in your wreckage and ready to be picked up by the opposing team.

Coordinating as a team was extremely important because the longer-range ships needed to naturally stay far away from the enemy while the mid-range and battering ram ships worked better up close. Each class featured a variety of different weapons that complimented their play style and fit into team compositions well. For example, the battering ram ship could fire off chains that would slow down whoever they were chasing, making it easier to line up a ram directly into the side. Each side of the ship has its own health bar, so focusing fire on a single side always yields the best results. When you’re in pursuit, lining up the perfect ram could be the difference between taking out a ship and opening yourself up to a nasty counterattack.

Other ships featured area-targeted weapons like mortars that were fun to use because they required you to predict where the enemy would be by the time the mortar landed. That’s easier said than done at high sailing speeds and the constant redirection most players employ.

Sail Away

Just the simple act of sailing in Skull and Bones is a heavy consideration because you have to actually pay attention to the wind’s direction. If the wind is filling your sails and you unfurl properly then you will fly across the water with ease, but if you get off course or don’t follow the wind’s changes then you could be a sitting duck just waiting to get rammed.

When combat in Skull and Bones worked well it was absolutely incredible. Firing off cannons, weaving between enemy ships, and slamming into them for massive damage felt insanely satisfying and it all erupts as a symphony of action on the screen. But when you’re stuck with the wind in your face or accidentally slam into an island while fighting the controls it can get frustrating. Having to learn the game in a frantic demo setting wasn’t ideal, but it did seem like there was some rust that needs polishing before they take this into beta or release.

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Skull and Bones has the potential to scratch a very specific itch. It doesn’t have the open-world exploration of games like Sea of Thieves and, even though Ubisoft claims it will have a single-player narrative, the real focus is clearly on competitive multiplayer naval warfare. I just hope people are willing to give it a chance like I did, because you might be surprised by how much fun you’ll end up having.