Hands-on: Skull & Bones is an online shared world pirate battle simulator

Skull & Bones seemingly came out of nowhere last year at Ubisoft’s press conference as an exciting naval battle-focused ship combat game and then after the show was over, it pretty much vanished just as quickly as it appeared. I went hands-on with the game a year ago, but we’ve barely heard anything about it in all that time. Until now.

Monday night at an invite-only Ubisoft pre-E3 lounge, I got the chance to go hands-on with Skull &Bones once again to put my naval battle skills to the test. This time, instead of team-based battles, a group of about ten journalists all ventured out to sea in an open world map mixed with players and NPCs alike.

Prepare for Battle

In my demo, I got to pick from one of three different ships. Since I only died once and played for a solid 20 or so minutes, I didn’t even get to try them all. The first ship I tried had a special ramming ability that let it slam into other ships for massive damage. The second ship trades the battering ram for a massive group of canons on the front.

With a beautiful presentation, gorgeous graphical fidelity, and tight controls Skull & Bones absolutely maintains the high degree of polish I’ve come to expect from major Ubisoft titles. If you were a fan of the ship combat in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, then chances are that this is going to have something for you.

Navigating the map is difficult and frustrating at times since you’re pretty much entirely dependent on which direction the wind is blowing. Trying to sail into the wind is nearly impossible, so if you’re being chased and the wind isn’t cooperating, you could be screwed.

Last time when I played Skull and Bones I was with a small group of other journalists and members of the press at the same pre-E3 preview lounge as this year, so the environment hasn’t changed much. It’s a bit like deja vu, except this time it was all in one big open world.

Ahoy, Maties

The team at Ubisoft is being super tight-lipped about Skull & Bones, which feels a little odd, but since it’s releasing in 2019 there is still time. As a shared open world environment, we’ve been told Skull & Bones will be an “always online” type of game. Meaning that while you’re out sailing you’ll see a mixture of NPCs ships and player ships at all times.

One of the developers explained that this will lead to moments where you will have to decide whether or not to try and be friendly, grouping up with players you run across, or taking them out and looting all of their sweet, sweet booty.

In my demo, naturally, I was a ruthless pirate. I took out about a half dozen ships total in my demo, two of which were players. All ships had a variety of ways to attack, such as a ball and chain attack that’s used to shred sails and force ships to get stuck. There’s nothing more deadly in Skull and Bones than getting stuck in a single spot and making yourself a target. Getting rammed in the side can sometimes result in a one-hit KO.

Each ship has missiles it can shoot at long-range as well to target hulls, and side cannons for short range blasts. If you damage a single side enough you can even pull up right beside them and board a ship, which plays a cinematic of your crew jumping aboard and beating the snot out of their crew. It’s pretty satisfying.

If you take heavy damage you can perform repairs, which plays a short cutscene and takes control away from you. You only have a limited number of repairs, but you can find more repair kits when looting ships sometimes.

Even though the bulk of the game takes place on the ocean, I’ve been told that some portions will let you walk around on land back at your base. Before my demo, a cinematic trailer played with some impressive visuals and face capture on characters, so it’s nice to see some care put into that section of the game even if you’re not going to spend a lot of time there.

Skull & Bones is gearing up to be one of the best, most eye-catching, and fun to play naval battle games around. The pirate-aesthetic is definitely appealing nowadays and it does a great job of etching out an identity all its own.

Skull & Bones is coming sometime in 2019, but we don’t know a specific timeframe quite yet.

Follow along with our full E3 2018 coverage