Ubisoft is no stranger when it comes to revamping a project already in development. The “Splinter Cell Conviction” that the publisher initially showed was drastically different from the brilliant final product. It seems as though “Skull and Bones” is following the same path.
The project, which was revealed in 2017, came off as a naval combat title that pit two flotillas against each other. It seemed like “Overwatch” using the gameplay from “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.” That vision has transformed over the past years and the “Skull and Bones” launching Nov. 8 is far different.
It’s actually better than what I saw five years ago. The core gameplay still focuses on ship-to-ship combat, but Ubisoft Singapore has built a vibrant world around that. “Skull and Bones” now takes place around the Indian Ocean during the time of pirates. Players take on the role of a shipwreck survivor who washes ashore. Everyone wants the protagonist dead and the only way to survive is to turn to piracy.
A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR MESenior game director Ryan Barnard said players start from the bottom with a spear that fends off wildlife such as sharks and a small ship called a dhow. From there, they have to rise to the top of the seas by taking on contracts, raiding ships and collecting supplies and loot. All of this earns players some resources, boosts their infamy and opens up plans to build bigger and better ships.
“Skull and Bones” looks like a pirate action role-playing game with a focus on the naval combat that made “Black Flag” so beloved. Although the protagonist will be able to leave their ship and visit small towns, a majority of the action revolves around the ship. For example, players will have to keep the crew well fed and happy otherwise they can mutiny.
Feeding the crew is as simple as hunting wildlife such as hippos or gators on islands. Keeping them happy likely means being successful when raiding ships. If players try attacking a bigger opponent and end up sunk, they wake up at the nearest pirate den or outpost. They’ll have some of their resources, but they’ll have to retrieve the rest from their destroyed boat.
INCORPORATING ONLINE PLAYThe big departure from “Black Flag” is that “Skull and Bones” has a major online component. Players can complete the campaign solo, but they can also team up with friends to pillage and take on bigger fleets. If they play online, they should also be prepared to be attacked by other players though. In general, the designers intend on nudging players to take bigger risks by attacking tougher opponents for better rewards. That means if an overpowered player beats down a weaker newcomer, they won’t get much benefit from the encounter.
World producer Vanessa Seow said the map spans from the coasts of Africa to the East Indies. That’s a huge expanse. “Skull and Bones” also features dynamic weather systems and outposts and other locales in between.
One of the missions that the developers showed was a contract, in which players had to raid the Telok Penjarah settlement to obtain jars of oil. This is a different type of mission compared to the naval warfare in other Ubisoft games. In this one, players were supposed to attack the place and stay in a designated area to collect the oil. In the meantime, they faced resistance from the town. To survive the attacks, players can knock down the settlement defenses and support structures. Blasting a rampart could mean fewer cannon attacks. Taking down a tower could cut off a way to signal for reinforcement ships.
The ship in the hands-off demo was beat up and they had to scavenge other wrecks for repair kits. That’s essentially how players can heal themselves during the mission. What’s notable is that playes can take on missions alone or ask a friend for co-op. When taking these missions, it’s also best to choose a ship that’s best for the job.
DIFFERENT SHIPS FOR DIFFERENT JOBS“Skull and Bones” offers a variety of vessels that players can customize with different armors and weapons. They can add Greek fire to the arsenal or wrap the ship in leather armor. Meanwhile when it comes to typing, cargo ships are great at hauling goods, but they’re also slow. High firepower vessels will put up a great defense but they’ll be harder to maneuver. Meanwhile, smaller boats can take to the water like dolphins but they’ll have less armor, making them vulnerable to cannon blasts.
Even if players choose a ship like a Brigantine, a medium-sized navigation vessel, they’ll have to worry about loot slowing them down. Apparently, the more cargo some ships carry the slower it goes. The vessel also becomes a target for other players or privateers.
All of this creates a fascinating dynamic that’s deeper than Ubisoft’s past naval combat games. The way it’s set up it can be an engrossing and visceral pirate simulator. Ultimately though, the game’s success will depend on the mission design and how much players will be able to personalize their own story. I imagine there’ll be plenty of “One Piece” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” fans setting sail with “Bink’s Sake” or “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” in the background, and if the game lets them live out that sea-faring fantasy, it could be an intriguing project indeed.
Expect the game to launch for the PlayStation and Xbox consoles along with PC.