Skull And Bones Review – Dead In The Water

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Skull And Bones Review – Dead In The Water


Skull and Bones doesn’t make a good first impression. Given its troubled development, this isn’t the least bit surprising; it’s tough to approach Ubisoft’s latest without a heavy dose of trepidation. Nonetheless, after six separate delays, several scrapped concepts, and 11 years in development hell, the game’s opening hours fail to put Skull and Bones’ best foot forward, instead indulging in its very worst aspects. The gradual prevalence of combat does marginally improve things, particularly once your options open up and you’re able to tinker with your ship and its various weaponry, but this isn’t enough to save it from the dregs of mediocrity. Forget about scurvy; this swashbuckling adventure is beset with a severe case of live-service insipidity.

Skull and Bones’ tutorial preamble kicks things off by making sure you know how to talk to NPCs and cut down trees. If your idea of pirating on the high seas revolves around the kind of resource-gathering found in most survival games, then you’re in luck. In truth, this aspect isn’t quite as egregious as it sounds, even if mining rocks and chopping down trees makes little sense when you’re confined to the deck of a pirate ship. The main issue is that this is the first example of the game’s insistence on making you perform menial busywork. There is some on-foot stuff, but landlubbers be damned, this simply amounts to chatting to vendors and quest-givers, with the occasional buried treasure thrown in for good measure. Skull and Bones might exist because of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but the only similarities between the two pirating games occur in their naval combat.

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It’s difficult to discuss this aspect of the game without delving into comparisons with Black Flag, despite the 11-year gap between the two titles. Unleashing a volley of cannonballs into the starboard of an enemy ship is the strongest part of Skull and Bones’ seafaring ventures, but it still strips away much of what made Black Flag such a fantastic experience. That game was a power fantasy with a kinetic rhythm to its combat. There was never a moment of downtime as you utilized your ship’s broadside cannons, mortar, flaming barrels, and swivel cannons to pepper the enemy with a constant barrage of naval fireworks, outmaneuvering towering Man O’ Wars by dropping and raising the sails on a dime to produce some exhilarating moments. Skull and Bones contains more depth than Black Flag, with multiple ships to sail and a bevy of customization options letting you outfit your vessel with rockets, ballistas, fire-spewing contraptions, and more, but it’s nowhere near as fun.

There’s simply no flow to Skull and Bones’ combat. After discharging a salvo of cannon fire, you’re left waiting for a lengthy cooldown timer to tick by before being able to fire again. You can maneuver your ship to fire the bow or stern cannons, but ship movement is slow and plodding, and raising and lowering the sails is so sluggish that it completely kills the pace of battle. You could argue that this decrease in speed is more realistic, but considering the ghost ships and giant sea monsters roaming the waters–not to mention the cannons that can heal other players–I don’t think realism was on the table. Once an enemy ship is on its last legs, you can also get beside it and board the upper deck, resulting in a quick cutscene of your crew getting ready to pounce. This earns you extra loot but is a completely automated process, so don’t expect to hop aboard and engage in melee fisticuffs yourself. It’s understandable why, considering this is a multiplayer game where boarding would render you a sitting duck, but it does lose that exciting element. On the whole, combat isn’t atrocious and can be compelling at times, but it’s a step back compared to an 11-year-old game, and it doesn’t take long for repetition to kick in.

Even sailing the open waters is frequently a chore. Your ship has a stamina bar that limits you from going full pelt unless you have a stockade of food on hand to consistently replenish it. This seemingly exists just to justify the most basic survival mechanics, forcing you to intermittently gather and cook food. You also have to contend with the wind, which grants you one or two extra knots when behind your sails but reduces your speed by about four knots when blowing against them. This might not sound like a big deal, but it creates an imbalance that favors irritation over joy, ensuring that traversal is often a slog. So much of my time was spent fighting against the wind that I really could’ve done with a Wind Waker.

Before you can reach this point, however, you need to gather enough resources to upgrade from the starting Dhow to an actual sea-faring ship. This is easy enough: Cut down enough acacia trees and you can construct your first vessel. From here on out, a significant percentage of your playtime will be spent accumulating various resources to upgrade your ship. If you want a new cannon, for instance, you need to purchase the blueprint from wherever it’s being sold, then fill out a checklist of required materials, attaining them by sinking merchant ships, gathering them from the land itself, or purchasing them from specific vendors. The general location of each material is marked on your map, which is a nice touch, but the entire process is glacial and repetitive, especially when you have to repeat it dozens and dozens of times just to increase your damage numbers.

The only resistance you might encounter comes from other players, though not in the way you would expect. Skull and Bones is an always-online open-world game. You can play solo or with up to two other players, and you’ll occasionally see like-minded pirates when sailing across the Indian Ocean–as denoted by the usernames floating above their sails. Engaging with these ships is out of the question unless you’re in a designated PvP event, but you do have the opportunity to assist your fellow pirates in sinking enemy vessels, and you both gain the loot. Coming across someone in the midst of battle, lending a helping hand, and then shooting off a complementary firework is the only example I can give of a fun emergent moment occurring on the high seas.

The only other interaction, of sorts, happens when gathering resources. The availability of resources is tied to the game’s servers rather than your character, so it’s possible to arrive at an area and find the land barren because another player has already picked it clean. This might only happen to you three or four times throughout the entire game, and the respawn timer on these resources has recently been reduced from an agonizing 60 seconds to a slightly more palatable 30 seconds. As nitpicky as that sounds, this design choice speaks to one of the ways in which Skull and Bones’ online elements are underbaked and often frustrating.

One such example is World Events, which are co-op activities that occasionally appear on the map, usually involving a fleet of enemy ships or a particularly tough vessel you need to destroy to earn unique rewards. You can call for help during these events, sending a message to every other player on the server, but there’s no way for anyone to actually respond, other than by physically traveling to where the event is taking place. You can fast travel, but you need to be on land to do so, then hope you’ve unlocked a fast travel point close enough to the event. Co-op would be more prevalent if players could instantly respond to a distress call and jump into the thick of the action, but in its current state, all of my pleas for help fell on deaf ears. The co-op aspect just feels disconnected.

Cutthroat Cargo Hunt runs into similar issues with Skull and Bones’ misguided multiplayer approach. This is a PvP event in which players fight to steal precious cargo from a merchant ship and then deliver it to a designated outpost. What initially starts as a small-scale battle to sink the merchant and snatch their goods quickly evolves into a frantic cat-and-mouse race as one player attempts to outrun the rest. It’s a decent idea for a snappy PvP mode, although the first time I tried it, I was killed by AI ships from a completely separate event that happened to pass by at the same time. Once I respawned, the rest of the players were so far ahead of me that I had no chance of catching up.

My next attempt revealed an even more glaring issue that’s tied to how groups work. If you’re in a group with other players, joining a PvP event doesn’t automatically bring your teammates with you. Usually, this would just be an irritating oversight, but in Skull of Bones, these other players are still able to interfere. I came up against a twosome–one player who was part of the event and one who wasn’t–who worked together to achieve victory. The player who wasn’t in the event could still ram other players off course and use healing items to keep their friend alive, and there was nothing anyone could do about it because players outside of PvP events are immune to damage. This is an overlooked loophole that renders the whole mode hopeless if you’re playing against people willing to exploit it.

Helm missions, on the other hand, are introduced partway through the campaign and involve contraband delivery. By acquiring sugar cane and poppy from liaisons or by sinking Rogue faction ships, you can manufacture both rum and opium to sell for Pieces of Eight–a separate endgame currency that differs from the regular silver you accrue from defeating enemies and completing quests. In order to sell these illicit goods, you need to deliver them to outposts, which deactivates fast travel and spawns dozens of Rogue faction ships that will chase you down in an attempt to steal the goods for themselves.

The problem this creates is that these gangs of high-level ships attack every player, not just the one with a delivery contract. This makes getting anywhere more frustrating than it should be, especially when you can’t dock because you’re locked into combat, forcing you to destroy every enemy or die trying. This is a particular problem for new players, with some unable to exit the starting outpost without getting blown to smithereens. Fortunately, Ubisoft says it’s working on a patch to fix this issue, but it’s a debilitating problem for the game at the time of writing.

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The main campaign consists of quests where you’re tasked with either destroying specific enemy ships or attaining resources and delivering them to different outposts. Occasionally, you’ll be asked to attack a fort or settlement, which involves shooting at tanky guard towers and waves of ships, but there isn’t much more to the unimaginative mission design than this. Once you’ve completed all of these quests, the Helm becomes your hub for Skull and Bones’ endgame loop. The entire premise of this is to attain enough Pieces of Eight to purchase high-end gear, but the whole process is an exercise in time management. After taking over various manufacturers, you need to continue fulfilling delivery orders every hour, then spend roughly 40 minutes sailing around the map to collect your Coins of Eight every three to six hours in real-world time. It’s a lot to juggle, and all of it is mundane busywork with little payoff. Maybe this will improve once new seasonal content launches, but right now, the endgame is as dull as everything that preceded it.

Skull and Bones has its moments, but these brief snapshots don’t encompass even half of the full experience. Everything that was great about Black Flag has been ripped out to accommodate tedious live-service elements and a half-baked multiplayer that makes you feel disconnected from other players. Some of its more egregious issues will hopefully be fixed in future updates, but it would still take an entire overhaul to salvage the game’s core mechanics and overreliance on banal, repetitive activities. It’s disappointing that this is the outcome after an 11-year wait, but Skull and Bones is teetering on the edge of confinement in Davy Jones’s Locker.



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