When you start playing Skull and Bones, you’re greeted with open seas, rolling waves, beautiful atolls… and about fifteen pirates and pirate hunters bearing down on you to rip your ship apart.
Skull and Bones is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag‘s naval combat spun out into its own game. It’s been reworked and enhanced, and now you’re not just sailing by yourself, but in a crew of five with the goal of taking down another team and escaping with loot. It’s exciting, tense, and gorgeous, but a big question mark remains: can it successfully recapture Black Flag’s feeling of freedom in a multiplayer format?
It’s impossible to talk about Skull and Bones without comparing it to Black Flag; even on its stage show, Ubisoft said that it’s based heavily on the popular naval combat of the fourth Assassin’s Creed game. Going hands-on with Skull and Bones, I easily saw the parallels. The controls are all the same, and there are a lot of visual similarities, down to the display icons when you’re lining up a cannon shot. Even the scenery evokes the vivid tropics of Assassin’s Creed IV.
But Skull and Bones’ multiplayer moves away from the heart of the Black Flag naval system. No longer is the game about exploring the Caribbean in a pirate ship; now the core gameplay involves piloting that ship through shifting wind and narrow straits in order to take on other ships and collect loot. In other words, the focus of Skull and Bones rests on how you sail, whereas Black Flag emphasized where you sail.
The sailing mechanics in Skull and Bones are involved and require concentration. The direction of the wind has a significant effect on you. If you sail with the wind, you’ll be going at a nice clip of around ten knots; if you choose to go straight into it, you’ll be reduced to only about two or three. Although I didn’t have a chance to try it out, I would guess that tacking into the wind–moving back and forth perpendicular to its direction–is a better way to sail upwind.
As a result of this, ships feel weightier and harder to move than they did in Black Flag. From my experience, this change was for better and for worse. It made for more strategic and more interesting moment-to-moment navigation, but it also became frustrating as I attempted to regroup with teammates and struggled to slowly make my way over to them. I also slammed into islands and outcroppings when I let my ship drift while I focused on fighting.
But even while navigation was occasionally a challenge, fighting other ships felt immensely satisfying. You have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal, depending on which class of ship you pick. One has shorter-range, more powerful cannons and a battering ram; another has medium-range cannons; the last is a sniper and has a long-range mortar. They all have special abilities, too, like the ability to lock an enemy ship in place for a few seconds.
In my demo, my favorite moment came when I pursued an enemy ship with a bunch of coins in its hold. I had weakened it before, and I tried my best to get as much speed as possible with the wind in my sails. I moved close enough, turned, and launched a broadside cannon volley against the pirate. Rows of cannons ripped into it, shooting again and again for about thirty seconds. It was a massive attack, and it felt powerful and impactful. It’s something that I have rarely felt in shooters before, a power behind the assault that only a warship with dozens of cannons can provide.
As my demo wrapped up with the enemy team just barely outstripping my team in the race to the escape point, I felt exhilarated–but I also felt like a big part of the game was lacking. The world is beautiful, with breaking waves that wash over the sides of your beautifully detailed ship, islands ringed with coral reefs, and jagged rock outcroppings. But I don’t want to simply fight against other ships in this lush world. I want to explore it, find new trade routes, and simply inhabit the world with my ship with moments of peace in between battles. Ubisoft has hinted that the game will be playable solo and that there’s an open world beyond the 5v5 multiplayer modes, but details are scarce. Hopefully, we will learn more in the coming months about how Skull and Bones will recapture the joy of being an explorer as well as a pirate.