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Skull and Bones is full of ship

There are too many Dutch. Six warships are actively engaged with me, lobbing mortars, zipping torpedos, and peppering my vessel with all manner of cannon shot. Along the horizon I count 13 more ships, all hostile. I’ve already plundered a cache of documents from this innocuous seaside lumber camp, so my duty to the rebel cause has been fulfilled. But I got greedy. I wanted more. I’m a pirate dammit! Now it’s time to pay the price. My defenses are shot, the crew is exhausted, my ship is somehow burning down around me while also filling up with water. I called for help from other players, but no one came. A final, thunderous salvo sends me to a watery grave.

I’m back almost instantly. For the price of a few silvers I respawn nearby, and wait until my notoriety with the Dutch drops back to neutral. Then I sail breezily past a dozen warships and pick up my loot in the exact spot where I went down, helpfully marked on my HUD, of course. Skull and Bones’s arcade-y take on a pirate’s life is full of ship-to-ship action like this…and nothing else.

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Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of None

There’s no consequences, not much story, and no fun social hubs for players. There’s no undiscovered islands to explore, no hand-to-hand combat, and no parrots. No factions, no famous pirates, no stats or skills for crew, no swordplay, no musket duels, no peg legs, no hook hands. Your character has no voice, no personality, and no decisions to make. You can’t steal ships. And, in the case of my failed Dutch raid, there’s usually no other players around to help.

In fact, every single time I called for help during one of the many “too big to do alone” PvE encounters, I got no response. Is that on me for having no friends? No, I do. But none of those friends want to drop $70 to take a chance on a decades-long Ubisoft project plagued by PR gaffes and bad press.

There are really two audiences for this title: people who are starved for new pirate games, and everyone else. Whether or not you want to do “boat stuff” is the make-or-break reason for getting on board with Skull and Bones. If you’re the latter, odds are nothing can convince you to give it a try. It’s pricey and has an awful reputation. For the former (c’est moi), then Skull and Bones offers a tantalizing taste of the kind of game we wish we had—but still don’t.

Oceans Are Now Battlefields

I spent most of my time with the Xbox version of Skulls and Bones in pursuit of a better ship. You start small, with a ship ranked 2 or 3 on a scale of 11. Your rank is an aggregate based on your ship’s loadout, which includes weapons, armor, and “furniture” which consists of items that grant different buffs and special effects. (I had a modified forge on my ship that repaired damage over time, for example.)

You get the good stuff as rewards for completing missions, as loot from vanquished ships, and, mostly, from crafting. This means you have to find blueprints and resources to bring to the various vendors in the two main ports. At its best, this can be thrilling. I was so excited when I finally got my hands on a hard-to-find resource or when a random merchant had a blueprint for next-level cannons because it represented a whole new tier of enemies I could fight. It makes for a very tangible sense of progression, and can happen quickly.

The reason you get hooked on new ships and ship upgrades is because naval combat is the star of the show. Tons of weapons and ship configurations let you experiment with everything from long guns to mortars to rockets to torpedos to flamethrowers. Mechanically, everything just feels right. You can pull off amazing shots with so-so aim, navigate tight channels and open seas with ease, and face very little consequence for failure. An absence of collision damage means you can smash and rub your way along the shore when you need to make a tight turn, or take your eyes off the wheel to focus on fighting without worrying about going aground.

Skull and Bones exists to put you on a ship, sail into the ocean, and make things go boom. I don’t think superficial bloat, or attempts to make it more like other AAA games, would help. I don’t need any narrative compulsion to want to go sink big boats with my big guns. I’m glad there’s no platforming or puzzles or any of the other generic action-adventure mechanics often stuffed into games like this. The content is thin, but focused. The pace can be slow, but never tedious. When you’re cruising along the coast spamming the sing-a-shanty button, it seems like Skull and Bones is more of a vibe than a game.

At World’s End

Unfortunately, the open-ocean vibes don’t last long enough to sustain the utter lack of anything else to do. An end-game path starts to open up around a smuggling system called The Helm that tasks players with making illicit goods like rum and opium, then delivering those goods to different customers. The catch is these deliveries are always waylaid by a never-ending stream of rogue pirates, and you can’t use the fast-travel system for shortcuts. Sounds good in theory, but it gets very old, very fast. It feels especially sluggish after the brisk campaign, which includes a variety of challenges ranging from plundering forts to hunting ghost ships.

The PvP and PvE are non-existent in this end game too, at least in my experience. There’s only a few circumstances where you engage in PvP to begin with, all tied to the same cargo-smuggling mechanic. And the PvE events require participation from strangers (unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who don’t want to play Helldivers 2 right now). More often than not, your fellow players won’t answer the call. This puts a big, fat blockade on end-game progression because certain resources can only be acquired through high-level raids that you simply cannot do alone.

The looming question now is support. Is Ubisoft’s roadmap for this game going to generate the kinds of quality content and community excitement needed to sustain a player base? Live-service games are a crapshoot at best, but it’s clear there are things in the works. Speculation runs rampant on reddit that we’ll be getting more dynamic PvE events like monster hunts, and that the really cool stuff is coming. But, like so many other good ideas for Skull and Bones, it doesn’t actually exist yet.

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