When Assassin’s Creed 3 introduced shipbound naval combat to the series in 2012, some said it was the best part of an otherwise somewhat lackluster game. When Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag cast a pirate as its protagonist and made seafaring gameplay its focus, few were surprised. And when Ubisoft unveiled Skull and Bones during its E3 2017 presentation, it made perfect sense. The company’s Singapore studio, which created the ship gameplay for AC 3 in the first place, has been given free reign to do what they do best, and they’re making a full pirate game without the baggage or requirements of any other series weighing them down.
What they’ve built is another “shared world” game, meaning you’ll sail around in an online ocean and encounter ships captained by other players. Ubisoft has said you’ll be free to set out as a solo pirate, but their focus at E3 was showing off Skull and Bones‘ player-versus-player multiplayer.
After a brief tutorial that introduced sailing, looting and combat, my teammates and I selected from among three ship classes — a bruiser for all-out attacking, a marksman for quick long-distance combat, and a frigate with great defense but poor maneuverability — and we jumped into our first match.
It’s a pirate’s life
It’s instantly apparent that Skull and Bones nails the pirate aesthetic and tone. As you sail, you can watch your crew move realistically around the ship. You can even check in periodically with the crow’s nest atop the main mast, just to get a better view of the battlefield.
Anyone familiar with the ship gameplay in either Assassin’s Creed game will instantly feel comfortable controlling Skull and Bones‘ vessels. You use the face buttons to control your speed, which also affects your turning radius, and the dance of combat usually involves trying to point your broadside cannons in the general direction of a foe. These massive ships don’t turn on a dime, and there’s a high learning curve to maneuvering. Winning is mostly about putting an opponent in your firing arc without also finding yourself in his, though some of the ships other tactics — or simply ram head-on into opponents.
Skull and Crossbones will have an emphasis on ship customization, and the ships we saw during the demo had primary and secondary weapons (like cannons plus a long-distance mortar) as well as unique abilities like a “war cry” that weakens nearby enemy ships. Presumably that customization will extend farther, including cosmetic options.
Cannon combat isn’t the only area Ubisoft Singapore has expanded on the gameplay. Your ship now has two health bars, one for each side. If either gets too low, a ship becomes vulnerable to boarding, which happens automatically (unlike in Assassin’s Creed, you’ll never leave your ship in Skull and Bones). If either health bar is depleted, you sink, dropping whatever loot you’re carrying and leaving it for others to pick up.
We’re ready to sail the high seas
It all adds up to an experience that feels more robust than you might expect. In our matches we spawned in a group and attempted to organize attacks against the opposing team, who entered the fray some distance away, with several small islands in between us.
That proved difficult, though, since a ship’s sluggish movement can be so unforgiving. It’s hard to catch up with teammates once you fall behind, and equally difficult to escape once an enemy ship has you in attacking range. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it takes skilled sailing and communication with your teammates.
The goal of the game mode we played was to destroy enemy players’ ships, capture the loot they drop, and hang onto it without letting your own ship get destroyed. As the carnage came to a close several deadly pirate-hunters spawned around the edges, and a countdown gave us two minutes to escape to a distant objective marker.
That’s where the match was decided, as two minutes was just long enough to organize one final plunder and still escape. My team won our first match, and lost the second, after attempting just such a last-minute play. The finale served as a tense climax, where one brilliant play, or severe mistake, can turn the tide.
Skull and Bones will of course need more game modes and more ships to anchor players for any extended amount of time, but what we played at E3 was enough to hook us. Alas, we’ll have to be patient — the game is set for release in fall of 2018 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.