After all the delays, trailers, and start-and-stop hype cycles, Ubisoft’s highly(?) anticipated pirate sim Skull and Bones is in beta. The game was meant to release in 2018, then 2019, but at least now there’s an open beta and your progress will carry over into Skull and Bones when it launches on February 16. So, while this isn’t technically the actual retail game, it’s a good way to see just what all those years of development have made. I want to tell you that this epic saga ends happily. Alas…
Skull and Bones was announced back in 2017 with a 2018 release date. The story of this game, its many delays, and its troubled development has been well documented on Kotaku and elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it too much. But basically, this game started as a DLC/spin-off of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (aka the pirate one). Then it morphed into a standalone game that took nearly a decade to complete. Now, in February 2024, I can confidently tell you what Skull and Bones actually is: The Division with pirate ships.
Okay, that’s a bit reductive, but truthfully, if you’ve played open-world MMO-looter-shooter The Division or its DC-based sequel, you’ll be familiar with Skull and Bones and its core gameplay loop. You make a character, start off in a small, enclosed area, learn the basics, walk around a public hub populated by other players, do some quests, leave that starting area, and enter the main world—which uses the same basic formula, but on a bigger scale with more systems.
Just like The Division, this public hub is a safe zone where you can’t hurt anyone, which is weird in a game about pirates who we are told are dangerous, but who act a lot more like teenagers in high school—insulting and laughing at you when you initially arrive at the game’s first major port. At one point an NPC threatened to gut me like a fish, but buddy, you can’t even jump in these on-foot areas. I’m not worried about a stabbing.
Sailing the seas and chopping some wood in Skull and Bones
The on-foot stuff isn’t why anybody is here. Outside these safe zones there are NPC ships you can attack and board using combat that feels ripped out of Black Flag—which is fine as the ship fighting in that game was excellent. This is what folks wanted! A whole game based on the pirate ship action in that popular Assassin’s Creed sequel. That’s the whole reason this game even exists, to fulfill that demand. You are all here to become pirates! To sail the seas and conquer enemy vessels, plundering loot and riches as you crash through the ocean waves. Well, sorry, you need to go cut down some trees first.
Yeah, Skull and Bones is mainly a game—at least in the first few hours—about collecting resources, cutting down trees, and crafting stuff. And you don’t cut down trees or collect coconuts by walking up to them and punching; instead, you pull your ship up to the shore and a weird mini-game starts. You then have to nail the timing on a moving cursor as it crosses colored zones on a meter. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t really make sense. And it definitely doesn’t deliver on the promise of living the life of a pirate. At one point, I cut down one too many acacia trees and my crew yelled at me that the ship was over-encumbered. I don’t remember that in any of my favorite pirate films…
Once I got through some of the fetch quests and built up a small but tough vessel with cannons—I named her The Pimple—I set out to board some ships to complete a contract. Exciting! This is the pirate action I wanted. I found a medium-sized vessel, shot it with some cannon balls, and saw a prompt telling me to board the ship. I hit the button and my crew chucked hooks at the enemy ship. They connected! A cutscene played and I pulled the ship into my ship and then…I got some coconuts, a few chunks of iron, some silver, and a couple of mechanical cogs.
I didn’t get to fight. I didn’t have any impact on the boarding. Just a short cutscene and some resources that I’ll use to craft more stuff back at town, once I find which of the 20 vendors there can make what I need.
Was Skull and Bones worth the wait?
Maybe I could excuse this dull resource management and the lack of exciting pirate gameplay if the game looked gorgeous and had some impressive digital water. But even the ocean in Skull and Bones isn’t much to write home about; a shame since you spend a lot of time looking at it. Compared to Sea of Thieves and its beautiful water that looks good enough to drink (Editor’s note: don’t drink sea water), Skull and Bones’ H20 is a dirty mess. Visual artifacts dot these waters and pop-in is an issue, too, with trees and rocks looking like they were pulled out of a PS2 game until you get close enough to (sigh) cut them down.
At one point I did a quest for a blacksmith. He asked me to buy some clothes to look more like a pirate. I did that. Then I returned to him and was rewarded with a monkey that I could put on my ship and enough “infamy” points—a system that tracks how well-known you are in the world—to be popular among the city’s pirates. (Where did he get the monkey? I don’t know.)
When I walked back to my ship to bring my new ape reward on board, the salty clique that had insulted me earlier was now cheering my name. All I had done was cut some trees down, sunk a few small ships, and put on a hat. Yet they were pumped. Me…not so much.
I’m happy to have finally played Skull and Bones after all this time. It’s good to have closure. To see the body, as they say. But I’m not sure how much time I’ll be spending on its open seas when it arrives on February 16.