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Skull and Bones wants to be the "best open world pirate experience" out there – can it topple Sea of Thieves?

Ubisoft's beleaguered pirate sim is finally coming. But will it be worth the wait? The jury's out.

It’s funny that Ubisoft is using “long live pirates” as the tagline for Skull and Bones, given that once upon a time the boss of the developer/publisher revealed that a miniscule 5-7% of players on PC actually paid for the company’s products. Whilst I’m sure those figures are better now – DRM does its job, for better or worse – the company still has a long history (and plenty of missing profits) thanks to piracy. So to see the studio knowingly wink and say “long live piracy” is funny.

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But that’s probably not Skull and Bones’ biggest problem. The game – which was supposed to launch in 2018, then again in 2019, then again in Ubisoft’s 2020/2021 fiscal year – has had a very difficult development period. And it’s all been fairly public, too. But, gritting their teeth, raising the sails and determined not to be hoisted by their own petards, the staff at Ubisoft Singapore and the publisher at large have persevered and finally got something with the Skull and Bones label ready to play.

In an press-exclusive preview of the game at the tail-end of June, it’s clear that this is not the game that was shown off way back at E3 2017. I played that game; a facsimile of the sailing sections from Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and Rogue, taken out and given some more meat, and wrangled into a multiplayer server. That game was fine. The sort of thing that’d come out, get talked about for a few weeks, then go away.

Skull and Bones 2022 is different. Vanessa Seow, associate producer at Ubisoft Singapore, told us in a briefing to “forget everything we know about the traditional pirate fantasy” because “this is a dark new take on the genre,” apparently.

Is the game ready to ship? Get it? Ship?

“This is a world where everything and everyone wants you dead,” she explained. “Once you’ve chosen the life of piracy, there’s no turning back.” The developers of the game then went on to add some colour to the world we’ll be playing in – a world set during the Golden Age of Piracy, taking us on adventures out on the Indian Ocean, covering the coast of Africa over to the East Indies. It is, as history will tell you, a ruthless world – one teeming with storms, crocodiles, mutiny, Privateer pirate hunters, scurvy and, um, hippos.

It’s a different world from its main competitor, Sea of Thieves. This one seems to root itself more solidly in historical fact – not the pulp-y, TV serial-inspired one that Rare’s neo-classic does. Ubisoft’s is also a bit more serious; it all starts in a pretty grimdark way. You survive a shipwreck, and begin an adventure from St. Anne, a massive pirate hub. You’ll only be able to get a small ship, a Dhow, and a meager crew. To grow your reputation and get a better ship, you’ll need to pick up contacts, go shopping, and soicalise with other pirates.

Why don't pirates know the alphabet? They think there are seven Cs.

From there, it’s pretty much what you’d expect: collect resources in the world, take on contracts, grow your infamy. Different weapons and armours will allow you to rule the seas and build your fleet in different ways, and as you gain infamy, you get offered more and more dangerous jobs – and better payouts. It’s all about having a name, as is the pirating way; make a name for yourself, become infamous.

You will gain experience and the wares you need to expand your ship through exploration, treasure hunts, dynamic events, and more, per the briefing we saw. But the quickest way is to pick up contracts from St. Anne and go out and fulfill them (usually by raiding merchant vessels, or taking down Privateers, it seems). You get small Infamy gains if you succeed your contracts and huge losses if you fail – so you’re going to want to make sure you’re confident in the tasks you accept before undertaking them, or you’ll be humiliated in front of the assembled pirates of the world – and you don’t want that, do you?

Why else don't pirates know the alphabet? They always get stuck at Rrrr.

If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, Rogue, or Odyssey, none of this will be new to you; it’s been dressed up a bit, but it’s still built on the same tech, and the same idea is at the forefront as it was in the glorified mini-games in past major titles. For each encounter, you’ll want to use your spyglass to scope out trade routes and merchant ships, plan out an attack based on its defenses and fleet, and try to get in close to take them out and get more booty.

Ubisoft made a lot of noise about how it wants naval combat to be comfortably at the core of the experience. It wants to be “best in class” when it comes to combat on the open seas. The briefing was hands off, so as much as I heard the words “visceral, fast-paced, rewarding” thrown about, I can’t verify if any of those things are actually true.

I can confirm that there’s a wide variety of weapon choices (unlocked via Infamy), though: mortars, bombards, cannons, Greek fire. If you combine ship type, weapon type, and armour type creatively, you’ll open up more ways to take down other ships (and, indeed, other players). If you’re wearing leather armour, for example, you’ll be better equipped to set fire to and burn down other fleets because you’ll be less susceptible to fire.

Will this world be as interesting as Rare's pirate fantasy?

It all seems a bit rock-paper-scissors from this view – maybe that’ll change when we actually get invited to play it. But what’s the hook? Why should we care about this game now, some five years after it was first announced? Perhaps – like Sea of Thieves – it’ll be the social element. Though you can enjoy the game fully solo, the developer envisages it mostly as a “social game,” at its core. “The best way to play is to have players with you to watch your back,” said one of the developers in our briefing.

Quest director, Terry Han, followed that up by saying Skull and Bones is a live service multiplayer game that wants to be “the best open world pirate experience” out there. So, really, its only rival is Sea of Thieves, right? The difference here is that there's very little of the game that takes place off the ship – you've got your social hub (think Destiny's Tower) and that's about it. Otherwise you're confined to your old, creaking vessel.

Similarly to its now four-year-old rival, though, Ubisoft wants to eke out fresh new content over the coming months and “many years to come” – and all of it will be free for all players. But can it topple the Xbox exclusive, and harvest its ferociously loyal fanbase? 25 million people think it's worth playing, after all. Do people really want to experience a darker, more combat-heavy, experience like this, when all the fun and levity of Sea of Thieves seems to be what makes it stand out from the pack?

I do very much like this concept art.

It remains to be seen. I think Skull and Bones has got a lot to prove, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be clear sailing for the Ubisoft greenhorn in the months to come. Maybe there’ll be enough elbow room for two sloops to battle it out in the ‘open world pirate’ genre, maybe there won’t. Maybe this will become something of a PlayStation darling, given Sea of Thieves’ exclusive status on Xbox.

Or maybe the two will simply pass like ships in the night, as Sea of Thieves continues on its miraculous voyage and Skull and Bones fades into the fog of obscurity. It’s going to be an interesting November.

Skull and Bones will launch on November 8, 2022. It will come to PC, PS5, Stadia, and Xbox Series X/S.

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