Skull and Bones – Hands-on Impressions

Skull and Bones Standard Edition

It all began with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the thrill of sailing ships through the sea, jumping onto enemy ships, and taking them on in sword fights. The pirate life has never been this fun, and here we are; we finally got a pirate game developed under the same publisher of the famous Black Flag, Ubisoft.

With Skull and Bones numerous delays since its announcement in 2017, does it hold up? In a recent media event held by the leading team of the project, Ubisoft Singapore, we were invited to play parts of the closed beta build of the game just before the open beta starts and its official launch date on February 16, 2024. With what I’ve experienced in my playthrough of Skull and Bones, it’s impressive for the most part, but it’s also lacking.

Skull and Bones is a live-service pirate game with main campaign contracts that are playable alone (or with a friend), additional side contracts, and endgame content. Ubisoft Singapore aims to make a game that will last for years by adding more content and a battle pass. It features a shared world where mainly it’s all about cooperative play until you unlock the later parts of the game that enable player versus player modes.

The intro puts you into the shoes of a voiceless character you can customize. This nobody pirate survived a massive battle against the British fleet and was immediately crowned captain by two strangers. You’re set to do looting missions until you get to build your ship a few missions later.

By then, you get to explore the Indian Ocean, take on contracts, and slowly climb the ladder of being the most notorious pirate in the region. While that sounds exciting, the story, unfortunately, falls flat during the first few hours. Everything feels convenient and predictable, but that’s probably just the first few missions. I’m hoping there will be twists and surprises along the way, but with what I’ve experienced in the closed beta build, it’s disappointingly dull.

The story might just be the tip of the iceberg; where Skull and Bones shines most is its naval combat and on-ship exploration and ship vanities. Sailing ships through the open, listening to your crew sing sea shanties, and sinking ships with your canons have never been so fun. I’ve spent more time doing pirate stuff like taking down merchant ships and looting their cargo for my benefit and taking on contacts with a friend.

However, with a person like me who played Black Flag and Sea of Thieves, Skull and Bones’ fun factor immediately plummets after I discovered that I couldn’t get off my ship and swim into the sea; there’s a split-second black screen shift when you dock into a port and when you also get back onto your ship. You can explore a limited part of some islands with what I’ve played. There was also no ground combat gameplay — like shooting enemies on land. It’s probably there, and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but it felt like it didn’t exist. What’s even more disappointing is that I can’t explore my entire ship; I can’t even board another boat and hijack it, or just chill on a friend’s boat. Nothing. It’s purely naval combat. So, if you expect this to be a glorified pirate game with all the things you got from Black Flag and Sea of Thieves, you won’t.

What made Skull and Bones bearable was the co-op. Franz from ClutchPoint and I got into a party during the event and completed a few missions together. It made the experience much better and enjoyable. Circling around enemies together can be exciting, and being able to support your allies during combat and healing them with an amusing “healing canon” is also cool.

Skull and Bones isn’t all too bad. I managed to play the endgame content. If you look past the things that made it lacking, the game can be fun at times. You get to encounter ghost ships and sea monsters; taking them down will yield better rewards, and the PVP aspect can be entertaining. With the content planned for these coming months post-launch, I highly bet it’ll make Skull and Bones engaging.

I came into this hands-on event expecting it to be similar to Black Flag, or at least take most of what’s great about the game and improve on what was not. So I believe Skull and Bones might just be a decent pirate naval experience without expecting it to be similar to Sea of Thieves or Black Flag. I had fun, but I won’t lie and say it’s a great game. Let’s see how the game goes into full sail when I play the final build.

Skull and Bones open beta starts today, February 8, 2024, with the full launch on February 16 (and early access on February 13) for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.