Ubisoft’s Skull & Bones was a surprise announcement at this year’s E3, but we recognized its mechanics from another Ubisoft game: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Black Flag was successful because of its naval combat, which was something we hadn’t seen in a game for a long time. Ubisoft Singapore, the studio behind the game, is hoping that lightning strikes in the same place twice with Skull & Bones.
The game mode we played at E3 was called Loot Hunt. Both teams, which were called the Cutthroats and Raiders, had to sink a passing convoy, steal as much loot as possible, and escape the area without being sunk themselves. After a brief tutorial, we had to choose from one of three ships: the slow-yet-powerful Enforcer, the fast-moving Bruiser, or the long-ranged Marksman. Depending on the ship you choose, you’ll have to work together with your team to not just take the loot, but also to make sure your opponents leave without any of the spoils.
If you played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, then you already know how to play Skull & Bones. With a few presses of a button, you can command your crew to unfurl the sails when the wind’s in your favor or fold it up if you need to make a quick turn. With the right analog stick (the demo was on the Xbox One), we could turn the camera left or right so we could use the side cannons. There was also a pair of front-facing cannons in case we wanted to attack head-on, and a tertiary cannon that could launch projectiles at long distances. Each ship also had its own special ability, but due to the chaotic nature of the game, we didn’t get to use it during the match.
When Loot Hunt started, it took some time for the convoy to show up on the map. During that time, our team had to get in position, but there were also some smaller ships that carried loot. If we took out one side of any ship, it would sink, and these stray ships didn’t have much in the way of defenses, so it was easy loot at the beginning of the game. As a Bruiser, we could quickly move through the sea, but our firepower wasn’t as strong so we needed assistance from the Enforcer and Marksman to make an impact on larger ships. We tried out this strategy when the convoy came out. Together with another player, who was playing an Enforcer, we isolated one ship from the convoy and easily took it down after a few broadside passes. To collect loot, all we had to do was steer the ship into the sinking ship’s general area and collect its cargo.
For the rest of the match, we were lucky to collect even more loot. We worked together with teammates to take out more ships from the convoy, and we even managed to steal cargo from a ship that was initially destroyed by the other team. Those who collect the most loot are considered to be a high-value mark, which puts a massive target on your back for any opponent looking to turn the tide of battle in their favor.
For a majority of the game, the sinking of your ship wasn’t permanent, and you could respawn with a new vessel and try again. However, the late game portion of the Loot Hunt brought on a horde of other pirates that had massive ships that moved quickly through the waves. There were no respawns during this time, and we had to reach the escape point to safely bank our loot. The strategy here, at least for our vessel full of riches, was to make it to the escape point as fast possible. We barely made it out of the area--and we only managed that because an Enforcer ship on our team distracted an opponent. With the loot squarely in our column, we patiently waited for the rest of our team to reach the escape point intact. At the end of the match, we easily won by over 1,000 points.
Despite its similarities to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Skull & Bones is still an enjoyable game. There was an exciting tension that built as we hunted ships and collected loot, and then it got even more intense as we navigated the seas and traded cannon fire with opponents. We played a total of two matches, which took 30 minutes, but it went by so fast that we wanted to play more. Alas, a long line of other people wanted to try the game.
As fun as it was to play with and against other people, our lingering question was on additional content, specifically in terms of the single-player experience. Arnaud Vaudour, a producer from Ubisoft Singapore, told us that there will be an open, yet shared, world for the single-player campaign. As you explore the seas for riches and combat, you’ll also encounter other players. He also said even though the Loot Hunt game had three ship types, the main game will have more types available. You’ll also be able to customize multiple parts of the ship to specialize in multiple areas such as speed, power, or defense. In addition, you’ll also have some cosmetic parts you can use to give your ship a unique flair.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the single-player section at the show, but Loot Hunt was convincing enough that Ubisoft Singapore might be onto something with Skull & Bones. For years fans praised the naval action in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and now it’s finally back under another name. One can only hope that the developers have more than enough content to add to the final product so we’ll keep wanting to come back and roam the seas. Otherwise, the gameplay might turn stale within a matter of months.