E3 2018 Hands-On Preview: Piracy is Dead, Long Live Skull and Bones
The golden age of pirates is ending. Piracy is dead. The scoundrels of the high seas are hunted by the royal navy, scattered and living in hiding in the Indian Ocean after the Caribbean Ocean has been cleared out. Pirates won’t go that easily, though. Long live piracy.
Back in 2012, Ubisoft tried their hand at naval battles within Assassin’s Creed III. These missions were limited in scope, but they showed a surprising amount of promise. The following year, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag perfected the formula, adding full open-world sailing, naval battles, and other pirate adventures on the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Black Flag may not have been a very good Assassin’s Creed game, but it was a great pirate game, and earned deserved accolades riding on those merits. Fans called for Ubisoft to channel that energy that they had harnessed and create an original pirate adventure. Skull and Bones seems to be that very idea brought to fruition.
At the start of our demo, I was offered the choice of three ships. One was fast, but didn’t hit very hard. One was a behemoth, but slow to move on the water, and another was a good mix of the two, offering decent attack, defense, and speed all around. Even though I had never played Skull and Bones before, my familiarity with Black Flag made piloting the ship easy. This time around, I had more accurized wind simulation to deal with, so I had to choose my routes and angles carefully.
At first I was given a mission to loot merchant ships in the waters around me. I sailed around, easily taking them out and plundering their stores for my own stocks. I was playing with some other real players around me and happened upon a few of them while out on the open waters. Skull and Bones is an online game, so the sea will be populated by other real players, pirates who can either be ally or enemy.
At first I teamed up with another player to take on a new mission challenge: boarding an enemy vessel. Together we were able to tear apart the sails and stop it in its tracks before I pulled up alongside it to board. My friend had been sunk by a nearby ship and had already respawned elsewhere. I continued to scour the area for more ships to take on. One of those ships ended up being yet another player. I was weak from the previous battle (and lots of used-up repair kits), so he easily scuttled my ship and sent me to the bottom of the sea.
Different Ways to Be a Pirate
Dying actually allowed me to play as each of the different ships to get a sense for how they handle both traversal and combat. There was quite a difference among the three offered at E3, and each definitely fits a very particular play style. It will be interesting to see how players effectively team up with different ships to tackle challenges and other roving bands of pirates and how allegiances turn into betrayals when allies want that treasure for themselves.
And yet calling Skull and Bones a pirate game is painfully inaccurate. Pirate-ship game is more along the lines of what you’ll get, as the game is missing anything outside of controlling the ship itself. Even boarding other ships doesn’t result in a swashbuckling third-person assault on the enemy ship. Instead, it just kind of happens. There’s a little cutscene as you successfully board and that’s that. Even rehashing Assassin’s Creed’s fighting and land traversal mechanics could possibly offer some small look into the life of a pirate when he’s not at the helm of his ship. I’m not looking for entire foot-based missions, but no content outside of the ships could leave the game feeling scuttled.
Skull and Bones seems like it’s something difficult to demo in a short period. There’s a very, very low barrier to entry. Sailing around is relatively simple and you really don’t have to ask people twice to engage in ship-to-ship pirate battles. I hope that beyond this demo, the full game really offers a bigger incentive and reason to play. Online piracy (the actual ship-based kind, eye patches, parrots, all that) sounds really fun as a concept, and in practice it works quite well. I’m eager to see what else Ubisoft reveals about Skull and Bones leading up to its release in 2019, recently pushed back from a scheduled 2018 release. The delay will give them more time to continue to polish and give players reasons to play long term.
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