Skull and Bones isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, either – Review – WGB

By admin Feb27,2024

Once you take the full context of its existence into account Skull and Bones suffers. Not only has it been in development for over a decade and reportedly cost Ubisoft $200 million to make, but it’s not even as good as Assassin’s Creed: IV: Black Flag, the inspiration for its creation. Skull and Bones originally began life as a multiplayer expansion designed to build upon the excellent naval combat in Black Flag, but throughout its long life was reimagined several times. The only somewhat consistent idea was that it was going to build on the ship-to-ship battles of Black Flag, eventually morphing into what we have now: a live-service, kind-of-multiplayer title that was recently described by Ubisoft’s CEO as being the quadruple A videogame. You did a good job of setting expectations there. But there’s some good news: Skull and Bones is better than you probably thought it would be.

The game tries to open with an engaging hook by sticking you in command of a bigger ship bristling with guns and dropping you into combat against an armada. It’s a battle you are meant to lose, a taste of what’s to come. In reality, it’s like being handed the keys to a Porsche and then being told you’ll get them back in 15-20 hours, once you’ve spent at least 5-10 of those dossing about in a Fiesta that’s seen better days. First, you get a little dhow which is basically a slightly fancier raft and are introduced to John Scurlock, the pirate kingpin of the local area who takes you in as his second mate. Once you’ve got a few missions under your belt and plundered a few resources you’ll finally get something that resembles an actual ship with cannons, though it looks and feels small enough to have come out of a Kinder Surprise.

There is, in theory, a story in Skull and Bones but frankly, I’ll be buggered if I know what it is. Forgettable writing, iffy performances from the cast and a lack of interesting characters do it no favours, nor does the never-ending parade of contracts that blur together. Honestly, most of the time I had very little idea what I was doing, why I was doing it or for whom. I simply sailed from location to location, from little outpost to the occasional bigger area I could walk around, and completed tasks, not to advance the story but purely because I wanted a better ship bristling with guns.

Available On: PC, Xbox Series S/X, PS5
Reviewed On: PC
Developed by: Ubisoft Singapore
Published by: Ubisoft

Review key provided by Ubisoft

For me, the biggest issue is one of structure. Black Flag did not just stick to ship-based gameplay, it let you roam the land, stab people, get in a swordfight and board enemy ships by swinging across like a deranged monkey wearing an eyepatch. Skull and Bones strips that stuff away in order to focus primarily on the pirate ship, and for most of the game, you are essentially a ship rather than a person. Only occasionally can you venture onto dry land, and when you do there’s absolutely nothing to do except buy a few things and maybe dig up a treasure chest. There’s no sword fighting, duelling with pistols or getting into a fistfight over who spilt the last of the rum, and there are definitely no dramatic boarding sequences where you swing across and lay waste to the enemy crew.

Limiting the gameplay to sailing and ship-to-ship combat creates a very small range of mission types and its clear that the development team couldn’t find ways to spice up the objectives. The result is a game that feels like a giant, never-ending fetch quest punctuated by blowing some shit up. I wish I could say I was exaggerating but I’m really not: the vast majority of quests involve sailing a distance (made worse by a stamina bar that stops you from going full speed even outside of combat) and then gathering up some stuff, often by blowing up a ship, and then sailing back to hand in the results before repeating the process.

image credit Ubisoft

The vast distances you cover (unless you opt to fast-travel which costs silver) are a chore because very little tends to happen aside from occasionally running into an AI privateer who tries to hunt you down. Most of the time you’ll just point the ship in the right direction and set the fastest speed possible while shovelling chicken and other snacks in your crew’s mouth so that the stamina meter doesn’t drain. Yes, there’s a stamina meter, and yes, it’s active even outside of combat. The ocean is not a foe that must be wrangled like a bucking bronco, your ship passes over it effortlessly with the only exception being the open sea, although even that offers little resistance. The only thing you have to do is occasionally trim the sails. Skull and Bones makes the act of sailing dull, something which Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag never did, and thus any time I had to travel a long distance to some new marker or location I wound up watching something on my phone, taking the occasional peek to make sure I wasn’t going to sail straight into a cliff.

It makes the game feel like even more of a grind, which is not good considering Skull and Bones already involves an awful lot of grinding for the resources needed to upgrade your ship with powerful, colour-coded weaponry or build a new one. Most of the early game is exactly that, hunting down the wood and metal you need to get some better cannons or to construct the next level of ship. A lot of those resources can be gained by proper piracy, either through attacking ships or plundering towns, though the latter is far less exciting than it sounds. The worst way of getting resources to actually harvest and mine them by sailing up to them and then engaging in a daft little mini-game where you tap a button. It’s actually kind of hilarious to saw down trees by parking a ship in front of them and then watch them get magically sucked up.

image credit Ubisoft

Black Flag’s naval combat had a lot of good things going for it, starting with the size and weight of your ship. Your vessel was not an agile thing, it was a wooden beast brimming with guns and manoeuvring it took planning. Sometimes it would carve through the ocean, and other times it would hit a wave and slam down the other side like a cannonball dropped from the top of a skyscraper. It lent the ship a sense of weight and power that had to be muscled into position. Unleashing a full broadside of cannon fire was just as satisfying because you had to aim using an arc, and the seas were often so rough that they created walls of water that would block shots. Often, nailing an attack meant patiently holding off on firing under the swell over the water carried you back up, waiting for that moment when you could spy the enemy vessel on the other side of the wave.

Skull and Bones, on the other hand, aims for a quicker, arcadey feel to its combat. Ships are more manoeuvrable, and aiming cannons is now done using a shotgun reticle and a generous amount of side-to-side movement that speaks to how looser the combat is. Hitting a full broadside is no longer a fist-pumping achievement, it’s a perfunctory thing you do due to how easy it is. The ships have lost the sense of weight and power, while the sea is a more forgiving mistress, too. As a result, one-on-one fights feel clinical, lacking in the sense of drama and epicenes that Black Flags battles once had.

There’s not a lot of room for skill, either. Your ship can typically have guns and other weapons assigned to the front, sides and rear, with the bigger ships having room for things like mortars, and most fights boil down to sailing around in circles waiting for guns to reload. The closest thing to strategy is learning to rotate your ship so that you can unleash a steady barrage of fire, but as gameplay goes it’s hardly exciting. It makes the one-on-one fights pretty dull, but the multi-ship battles are vastly more entertaining simply because they are chaotic. Cannonballs are flying through the air, ships are on fire and for a brief moment in time you know what it must be like to be Jack Sparrow in his prime. With enemies on all sides, positioning your ship becomes vital. In these moments, carefully weaving around a rocky outcropping and unleashing a volley, Skull and Bones is quite fun.

There is the chance to board an enemy vessel for loot, immediately calling to mind the classic image of pirates swinging above the ocean with cutlasses bared in their teeth. Skull and Bones though, takes the boring route of a very brief cutscene showing your crew getting ready and then fading to black. When you come back, the looting is done. Oh. How anti-climatic.

image credit Ubisoft

You do get to attack land-based targets, too, either in the form of towers and forts or plundering a town. Plundering boils down to fending off incoming ships and wiping out defences while a little dinghy is slowly filled with valuables. I’m not sure why the developers opted to do it like this, but it does create a funny visual of you and your massive ship valiantly protecting a small dinghy with a single chest on it.

You aren’t the only pirate sailing the Indian Ocean. There are plenty of AI ships carrying all sorts of items worth stealing, but other players are also cruising around, taking on contracts and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Given the historical context that pirates are not the most trustworthy people it would make thematic sense to allow players to raid each other, but player-versus-player battling is actually limited to just three types of event, two of which also include AI ships as well. If you attempt to broadside another player outside of these, no damage will be done. On the one hand, it makes the seas a safe place to putter around in with no risk of losing your hard-earned cargo except for occasionally running into a big AI threat. On the other hand, it does take away from the whole pirate vibe a little.

Aside from PvP, there are a handful of co-op events based on hunting giant sea monsters, raiding AI convoys or taking on high-value captains. Of course, other players can stop by and help you out in the world without these events, but they are the focus when it comes to teaming up, which is why it’s strange how lacking they are in basic quality-of-life features. When you decide to tackle a world event or bounty you can send out a call for help, but players can’t actually answer it. They can’t, for example, confirm that they are going to join you or hit a button to teleport to the event or to your current location. It means you have to head to a co-op event completely unaware if anyone else is going to be there, especially because the in-game chat still isn’t functioning, at least on PC. About half-a-dozen times I put out a call and sailed for five minutes to reach the destination only to find out nobody else was coming, and it was impossible to complete on my own. Other times, I’d “answer” a call by reaching the target only to find that the other person had given up and left already because they didn’t know help was coming.

There are also some other weird multiplayer issues, too. For example, during certain events, you’ll be hunted down by AI ships that will chase you across the sea while you attempt to deliver cargo. This is a single-player mission type, but other players can actually find themselves being attacked by those same AI ships, which is a problem when said ships are several levels above them. This actually happened to be quite early on: I headed out of port and suddenly found myself in the middle of a pitched battle where a single broadside from one of these AI ships destroyed my puny little boat. It won’t happen often, but it’s a good example of how many rough edges exist within the hull of Skull and Bones.

image credit Ubisoft

There’s also a weird one where people who aren’t engaged in a PvP event can damage players who are in the event but cannot be damaged in return. In one instance I found a group using this to their advantage by having a friend stay out of the event and attacking everyone else in the event to help out their pal. That’s a pretty big oversight.

As we near the end of this review there’s one thing left to discuss and that’s Skull and Bones endgame content and its live-service aspirations. First, that means talking about the pricing: this is a full $70 game that also has microtransactions, a tough pill to swallow when you consider Helldivers 2’s much lower RRP and its far more generous store prices. Thankfully, at least for now, the microtransactions are for cosmetics and don’t offer any in-game advantages, but they are also on the expensive side, too.

There’s one year of free content planned for the game and the basic roadmap is available on the official website. It seems to be offering more of what’s already in the game: more legendary pirates to hunt down, more world events, a few new mission types and an expansion of the existing end-game content.

Speaking of which, about halfway through the game The Helm is introduced, a black market that also deals in shipping the highest quality rum and opium. It’s The Helm that forms the basis of the end-game. At the most basic level, you’ll gather raw ingredients like sugar cane by either buying it or hunting down special convoys and then use a refinery to turn it into rum. You then have to fulfill orders for the product with the twist being that fast-travel is disabled and a bunch of high-level AI ships will chase your pirate-ass across the sea. Later on, you also get to battle over control of manufactories, take on powerful pirates and compete for a higher leaderboard position. This feeds into the seasons, which will reset a lot of your progress such as the manufactories you control.

Honestly, while I found the end-game content fairly uninspiring and dull, there is actually a lot to do. In fact, I think Skull and Bones might be one of the most content-rich live-service games to have launched, offering a solid amount of stuff to progress through from day 1, unlike another recent live-service example like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League.

For me, the gameplay itself just isn’t good enough to warrant me sticking around like I am with Helldivers 2 though, and I’m unsure if Ubisoft Singapore are going to be able to solve that issue through the roadmap they’ve put out. More mission variety will surely help, but it isn’t going to fix the sailing and combat, both of which are fun but lose their lustre after a dozen or so hours. Still, I think I’ll probably check in 6 months down the line and see what’s going on.

Let’s give Skull and Bones some credit: the fact that over a decade of developmental hell resulted in anything less than an unmitigated disaster is actually impressive. Having been rebooted numerous times, I kind of expected Skull and Bones to be a dumpster fire shoved out of the door after Ubisoft finally got tired of trying to put it out. While it’s certainly nothing special, Skull and Bones manages to deliver some fun in its hectic combat and some moments of camaraderie as you and a few strangers team up to sink a high-level ship that just minutes ago was laying waste your ship.

But it’s also a game that lives in the shadow of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s sails. Compared to that 11-year-old game, Skull and Bones comes out worse in almost every regard, including the most crucial areas: sailing and naval combat. It also suffers from something of an identity crisis, a cumbersome mashup of single-player, multiplayer, co-op, PVP and live service, none of which comes together properly. Most of the time it feels like a solo adventure with a few clunky multiplayer components scattered throughout, and then there’s a live-service element tacked on the back of it.

I think if Skull and Bones had been released at a more budget-friendly price, that would have helped. But given the huge amounts of money Ubisoft has put into it, and reportedly don’t expect to fully get back, it isn’t surprising that they wanted to charge full price.

In the end, Skull and Bones is a decent pirate adventure that will probably appeal to quite a few people out there, maybe even enough to keep them around for the upcoming year of free content. There’s definitely some fun to have blowing holes in ships, plundering towns and upgrading your ship. For the vast majority of scallywags though, I think Skull and Bones will only feel worth it when the price drops.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

By admin

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