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November 2018

Skull & Bones

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 2019/2020


PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'Skull & Bones'

by Redmond Carolipio on June 14, 2018 @ 12:45 a.m. PDT

In Skull & Bones you will take command of their own warship to live the ultimate pirate experience alongside their friends and become a legend of the open-ocean.

Pre-order Skull & Bones

The idea of ships blasting each other into clouds of flying wood and screams in the name of honest piracy has always conjured images that never seem to get old. We love our pirates, and we love the hurricane of action they bring, whether it's getting into bar fights in Tortuga or raiding helpless ships, ornate flags and sails undulating at the mercy of the wind while rum-fueled dudes sing some kind of yo-ho seafaring tune.

It makes for a distinct kind of action drama, and for many of today's gamers, that taste of high-end pirate hijinks came with the ship combat in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, a title that dared to offer an answer to the age-old ninjas-versus-pirates debate by actually combining the two. You can be a pirate and an assassin? Who does that? It also sparked the idea of … can you make a game founded on hunting down grand ships and seeing if you can reduce them into scattered archipelagos of debris?

Ubisoft is attempting to answer that question with Skull & Bones, which has taken the spark created from AC: Black Flag and branched it into a full-blown universe of nautical ass-kickery that makes stars of the ships you can sail and legends of the captains whose boots you fill in the pursuit of pirate glory. Its atmosphere is the kind of bombastic, dirt-under-the-fingernails flavor that flies in the face of the fun, cartoonish whimsy of something like Sea of Thieves. If Sea of Thieves is Captain Jack Sparrow, then Skull & Bones is Captain Flint of "Black Sails."

Our hands-on session at E3 2018 involved nine other players and a very loose set of rules: You can play the demo as you wish, and even together, but know that there is no honor among thieves. As Captain Barbosa from "Pirates of the Caribbean" might say, any set of codes or rules are really more like "guidelines," anyway.

The first thing that struck me was how intuitive the controls were for handling a ship with so many roles and responsibilities. A quick press of the Y button (we were on Xbox controllers) zoomed players to a view from the crow's nest, where one could locate their objectives and targets from afar, not unlike the view one would get in Assassin's Creed if they were synchronizing from a highly elevated point in some ancient city. Another nifty trick is the use of the spyglass, which serves as an information-gathering tool to scout other ships in the area, giving you not only a closer view of its aesthetics but also its capabilities – warships vs merchants, that sort of thing.  Anyone who has had experience with Assassin's Creed-style ship combat will be familiar with the concept of bracing for impact when other ships fire upon them, along with the art of aiming mortars or other weaponry on the watery battlefield.

Our demo placed us in the Indian Ocean under the umbrella of the "Favorable Winds" mission, though "missions" in Skull & Bones seem to actually be called "fortunes." You ARE pirates, after all. This being Ubisoft, cinematics are part of the experience, as I was treated to a scene of a shaman informing me about some kind of fortune that was forthcoming. The start of the "fortune" for this demo came with a quick scouting report of sorts that outlined what kind of winds we were dealing with, how much wealth — meaning pillage-able merchants — was available in the area, along with how much possible loot was lying around to be taken. I also caught mention of a rival captain in the area.

With that knowledge, we moved on to a selection screen, where one can select which customizable ship to take out onto to the high seas. Each has varying strengths and weaknesses that address things like firepower and maneuverability, but I naturally rolled with the Royal Fortune, which is the game's equivalent of a tank:  big on firepower, but has the speed and agility of a sloth.

One of the first things I noticed on the sea were the array of intuitive sailing mechanics a player has to take into account. At the lower right corner was a graphic depicting the ship's position and the direction of the wind. Unlike other games, where you could sail where you want, wind be damned, you will not move an inch if you try to sail head-on against the wind in Skull & Bones. The HUD at the bottom right features colored zones that indicate how much resistance you'll get in a given direction. With this in mind, if an objective requires you to sail against the wind, it's best to sail around and circuitously into more favorable directions and work your way toward your goal. Since I had a big-ass ship loaded with death-dealing firepower but tank-like flexibility (even when I would pull the right trigger to "trim" the sails in hopes of moving faster), moving to my goals proved to be an exercise in patience.

However, more instant gratification came when it was time to trade blows with other ships (and fellow players) that chose to fire upon us. Depending on what position the enemy is in, you can aim with the left trigger and fire off bolo-style artillery or let loose with a volley of cannon fire if your opponent is on one of your flanks. There's also an amiable mortar one can set up with a press of a shoulder button and the timely pull of a trigger. You can see the level and damage meter of every ship you target.

Where the real chills might come is when you set off your ship's special ability. In the case of my Royal Fortune tank ship, it's "siege mode," which has been witnessed in trailers, but has to be experienced to appreciate its full power. Siege mode anchors the Royal Fortune in one spot and then offers unlimited, unrelenting cannon fire from the side guns. If this is done at the right time, you can blanket a ship under a death veil of cannonball fire until there is nothing left. Yes, you can board a ship when its health is down long enough and collect loots and other goodies, but sometimes, you've just had enough of another ship's crap. Siege mode handles that.  If you're feeling friendlier, you can also invite any buddies (or other players) to sail with you, which is especially handy if you're going to tackle a formidable ship — or ships.

A final note has to deal with the visuals and atmosphere. Yes, the sea moves wonderfully, and everything is lit to near perfection, but I noticed that as my heavily detailed captain turned the wheel and my just-as-detailed first-mate barked out situations, a full crew of what appeared to be a dozen sailors were running around and performing their jobs on deck. Everyone had a movement and purpose on the ship, whether it was maintaining the sails or keeping things tied down. That kind of visual life made me more invested in being a good captain, and when the crew started singing, it makes me want to be a better pirate. I'm curious to see what else lies in store when Skull & Bones comes out later this year.

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