Platform: Xbox One
Skull and Bones Preview - E3 2017
We sail the high seas and plunder some loot from the other team
There’s a question in the Q&A press sheet for Skull & Bones that posits: What is the main difference between this title and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag? Fair point. I remember a lot of people praising the naval combat of Black Flag, and I think it served as a nice interlude between land-based skulduggery. The shanties were great too. And it seems like someone at Ubisoft loved it so much they decided to base a game around it.
Skull & Bones is set in an online naval open world, and combat is exclusively confined to the sea. You are the captain of a pirate ship, whose mission it is to go forth and plunder. Developed by Ubisoft Singapore, the action is set in the Indian Ocean during the Golden Age of Piracy. There’s a story in there somewhere, but I checked out the multiplayer demo of the game instead.
I stood in a hot and crowded room, surrounded by men from across the world, so my experience of sea life was off to an authentic start. Now, in the past, I haven’t had much luck testing multiplayer experiences from Ubisoft at E3. My last game was The Division, in which I became so angry with a teammate I nearly left the booth. This time, I faired a little better.
The setup was 5-vs-5, and we each had three classes of ship to choose from: a frigate (a heavy ship), brigantine (all-round), and the Sloop-of-War (long range). There was a brief tutorial at the beginning so we could get our sea legs. I found the controls and game itself really intuitive. You could pick this thing up and be playing in a few minutes. You trim the sails with “A”; get the wind behind you and you get a boost. Use the stick to aim, and depending if you’re at the bow, port, or starboard, you’ll fire chain shot for the former, and canon fire for the two latter. Point and shoot. You also have special abilities. For me, I had rockets and an AoE explosive attack. The best way to engage an enemy is, as you’d probably guess: circle around them, firing your cannons, and be wary of friendly/enemy vessels on your minimap.
All in all, really simple. Except if you were the guy next to me, who alternated between trying to kill an island with the bowsprit of his ship, and trying to chase the horizon until the game warned him it would force him back.
I didn’t hold out much hope.
After our crash course, we headed into battle. I decided to stick with what I knew, which was the all-around balanced brigantine. Some of the other teammates went for frigate, and one poor, lone soul went for the dreaded Sloop-of-War. This meant he just hung out, like, a mile from the action and occasionally hit an enemy vessel.
The multiplayer mode we tested was divided into three stages. First, there are fodder ships that appear on the waters. You destroy them and grab their loot. There’s also a high value target, which has a bit more health, but gives you greater rewards and also marks you as a high value target. While all this booty looting is going on, the enemy team is busy doing the same thing. Then, after a couple of minutes, it’s time to engage. You want to destroy the enemy, take their gold. If you get blown up, you respawn, but lose some of your hard-earned cash.
The battles were more enjoyable than I expected. Rounds are around 10 minutes long and that time flew by. It was fun to swiftly circle around targets and unleash your cannons. Hammering out a volley or rockets was pretty satisfying. The gameplay pace is a lot different to what you would expect for most multiplayer games: you’re in a ship, so planning ahead is key to victory.
Not to mention, you need to keep an eye on your surroundings. Teamwork is key, and so was communication. Chasing down foes as they attempted to flee proved a lot fun. Seeing yourself climb the ranks with the most gold also provided a nice sense of accomplishment. Getting stuck right into the fray and unleashing your AoE attack, or teaming up with another pirate as you unleash hell on some poor vessel gave me a bit of a rush. And you can also board an enemy ship if you’re close enough, though I never had the opportunity, unfortunately.
When most ships have been destroyed and your coffers are full to bursting, it’s time to flee. You and your teammates have to make it to the extraction point before the other team catch you. It turns into a mad dash of trimming your sails and making good use of the “crow’s nest” viewpoint, as if you’re perched atop the tallest mast.
The both battles that I had passed extremely quickly. We won one, lost the other. It was miracle, to be honest, because that one guy on our team looked like someone had blindfolded him and left him in a paddle boat. If he’d gotten some gold instead of zoning out, we could have brought it home in both matches. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Funnily enough, Skull & Bones seems like it would work as a free-to-play model. It’s a ballsy risk; a full priced, slow-paced multiplayer game can be a very hard sell, especially with ships. However, if more classes make their way into the game, in addition to PvE and other PvP modes, not to mention a single-player campaign, maybe it can transform what, ironically, seems like a game without a great deal of mechanical depth just at the moment. If nothing else, Skull & Bones was a surprisingly fun 30 minutes, so who knows what it will bring when the game releases in Fall 2018.