Published on December 21st, 2023 | by Richard Banks

Skull & Bones PS5 Preview

After years in and out of development hell, several shifts in direction and more than a few concerns that it might not materialize at all, Skull & Bones finally appears to be sailing toward a solid release – and I’ve finally had the chance to play it. But, after six hours with the game’s Closed Beta Build, completing all manner of dastardly pirating antics across Skull & Bones’ beautiful Indian Ocean playground, I’m still not sure if this is a worthy successor to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or if it’s more, well, bare-bones.

Following a short introduction to the game’s mechanics, Skull & Bones wastes no time chucking you into the pirate lifestyle, gifting you a very basic dhow and a couple of crew members to keep you company – and after a trip to a renowned Pirate Den – Skull & Bones quickly lets you loose on its seas. There’s plenty of freedom to create your own path, and whether that’s following the game’s narrative or delving into a bounty hunt, that’s up to you.

It made sense to start with the game’s relatively free-flowing storyline, completing tasks for the residents of Sainte Anne, the Pirate Den that takes centre stage of the Red Isles, one of Skull & Bones’ three regions. I mostly found these quests boiled down to one of two types – fetch questions and ship hunting – with the latter the meat and potatoes of Skull & Bones. 

And this is perhaps the area where Skull & Bones will naturally draw the most comparisons to Black Flag, Ubisoft’s highly revered naval combat-focused Assassin’s Creed title. After all, Skull & Bones started as a Black Flag spin-off before becoming a new IP entirely, but with a decade between the two titles, I was surprised just how similar the two’s approach to naval combat were – with one glaring difference.

While the game’s naval combat is incredibly close to Black Flag’s, there are none of the fun swashbuckling aspects that made the former such a joy to play. It’s long been confirmed that Skull & Bones would be ditching land combat to focus solely on water-based battles, and while I admit I was always sceptical that this would work, I didn’t think I’d miss drawing swords with my crew quite this much.

Take boarding enemy ships, for example. Once enemy vessels are weak enough, you can pull aside, fire your harpoons and send your crew on board for some deck-side looting. Unfortunately, as captain of your little group of buccaneers, you sit these boardings out, watching the activity play out through a quick cutscene. 

The same goes for plundering townships. Rather than joining your pirates ashore, you stay on board and defend your crew from sea-based threats. The longer you can keep your cool under pressure from enemy ships, the more loot your crew will plunder, and while it makes for genuinely fun defence missions, I did feel a little left out knowing my pirates were earning all the glory on land.

Spending time elsewhere on land is less of a sore spot – but that’s because there isn’t much land to discover. Again, Skull & Bones’ focus is almost solely on naval exploration and combat, but that means the land-based activities feel a little tacked on. The main purposes for exploring townships, for example, are to visit shops and crafting spots or to take on new jobs from the likes of the local scoundrels that inhabit the Pirate Dens spread across the Indian Ocean. These areas often feel like nothing more than MMO hubs, where, apart from spending your hard-earned loot – or interacting with fellow pirates – there’s very little reason to step off your ship.

Luckily, the time I spent on board my seafaring battle station was, for the most part, an absolute blast. Ubisoft has gone all out in letting you customise your ship, and I spent more time than I’m proud to admit making adjustments to my tiny fleet. It doesn’t take long to unlock your first ‘proper’ ship, and once you do, you can make plenty of changes to play the game just how you want. I focused on a vessel that could terrorise enemies at long distances – with sniper-like cannons that caused fear to spread throughout the seas. I called my ship…The Devour.

I loved this aspect of Skull & Bones. There’s plenty of opportunity to ally with fellow human pirates, but the chance to create an infamous solo storyline for The Devour suited my play style. Completing story missions let me unlock a bunch of cosmetics that let me decorate my terror of the oceans, and it was great to see other players flex their creative skills with their vessels.

Unlocks in Skull & Bones aren’t purely cosmetic, though. Successfully looting materials from enemies or floating flotsam and jetsam allows you to create new weapons and buffs for your ships – and there’s a genuinely impressive amount of choice. As mentioned, I focused The Devour on long-distance cannon fire, but I spent time with fellow pirates whose ships were better suited to ramming enemies or close-up battling. There’s a real sense that this will be where Skull & Bones excels the most, and it’s easy to see how much effort Ubisoft has gone to ensure you can ‘pirate your own way’.

But while creating your naval powerhouse is all well and good, it’s taking to the seas against enemy ships where Skull & Bones flexes its might. As mentioned, except for any sword-fighting action, it plays very similar to Black Flag’s naval combat, with ammo management, weather conditions and your aiming ability under pressure all key to deciding the victor of battles. 

While you can choose to sail in first or third person, the latter fares better during combat, allowing you to evaluate your enemy’s position – and spot if anyone will be coming to their rescue. Likewise, if you find yourself in a tight spot, you can call for aid, sending a signal across the seas for any pirates in the area to aid you in battle, splitting your plunder with those happy to lend a helping hand. 

Overall, combat is satisfying, and watching an enemy ship fall to pieces and sink to the bottom of the sea during a particularly heated battle is exciting stuff. It’s also incredibly challenging, as in typical RPG fashion, enemy levels vary, warning you if you’re getting in over your head. A few times, I wandered too far from the relative safety of Skull & Bones’ starting area, stuck in choppy waters faced with a hugely overpowering enemy, causing me to turn and speed off as fast as possible. 

Despite enjoying naval combat in Skull & Bones, I did find it a little repetitive after a while, especially as this is what most missions involved. Outside of this, Skull & Bones is jam-packed with fetch quests, with resource gathering a tedious affair (made up of bizarre timing mini-games and endlessly tapping to collect floating loot), and it’s difficult to care about anything other than combat missions.

There are things I didn’t get to experience, though, and I’m interested to see what Skull & Bones will do with a couple of mission threads I came across. One involved a whisper of sea monsters, and although I unfortunately ran out of time before I got a chance to see if these rumours were true, I’m excited to see what’s behind the gossiping. There’s also talk of ghost ships somewhere in Skull & Bones’ waters, and while I didn’t experience any throughout my time, it’ll be interesting to find out if these story threads come true.

Regardless of what Skull & Bones gets you doing, there’s no way of faulting how gorgeous it is. I especially enjoyed taking the helm in first-person mode during rough seas, watching my crew hunker for safety as my boat rocked on deadly waves. Equally, the land is brimming with life, with flamingos taking to the skies and animals running into deep forests as you sail by luscious coasts and through swampy wetlands – it’s just a shame you don’t get to explore these places on foot.

Although my time with Skull & Bones is at an end for now, I’m quietly optimistic that Ubisoft might pull this off. There’s still work to do – mission objectives desperately need more variation, and I think the lack of any sword combat will turn a lot of players off – but there’s plenty in Sword & Bones’ naval combat to love. I still have things I want to accomplish; after all, I want to uncover the truth behind these so-called sea monsters, and there’s plenty of new ships and weapon types I haven’t had chance to try out yet, so I’ll personally be returning to Skull & Bones when it releases in February 2024. Whether I’ll be joined on my pirating adventure by a sea of other buccaneers waits to be seen, but all things considered, Skull & Bones might not be sinking down to Davy Jones’ Locker after all.

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