Skull & Bones sends you to sea on pirate ships with ultimate abilities

Most of my recent pirate adventures are the result of teaming up with Tyler and James in Sea of Thieves, and having a leisurely but enjoyable freeform sail across its open world waters. It can take long minutes, even a half-hour sometimes, to spot another ship, and often quite some time to reach them and engage in combat.

Ubisoft's Skull & Bones, due out in 2019, appears to be a pirate game of another feather. I played a fifteen-minute work-in-progress demo at E3, and that fifteen minutes was comprised almost entirely of non-stop naval combat. My fights were all with NPC ships, because although there were other human players sailing around during the demo, I simply never had the chance to find them and engage them. I was too busy hunting down and sinking the numerous AI ships, and using more than just cannons to do it.

There were three ships to choose from in the demo, each with various attributes plus its own special ability that functions like an ult, a dreadfully powerful attack that requires a cooldown period before it can be used again. 

The first ship is the Royal Fortune, which is basically a floating tank: not that fast or maneuverable, but plenty of firepower and an ability that lets it quickly anchor in place while rapidly blasting and reloading its cannons. Then there's the Jaeger, a fast and nimble ship that sacrifices firepower for extra speed, though it has a devastating forward cannon attack as its special ability.

I chose the Black Horn, though, because frankly there's nothing better when you're a pirate than ramming another ship, and Black Horn's ult is a high-speed ramming move that rockets your ship through the water and causes extra damage if you hit someone else. I found it useful on more than one occasion, and for more than just dealing damage.

The weapons aboard your ship aren't just broadside cannons but forward-facing guns, chain-shots for wrecking masts, and even rapid-fire rockets. If you're played Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag or the handful of ship combat sections of Assassin's Creed Origins, much of the sailing and combat will feel familiar. It's slick and speedy, with ships capable of making sharp turns, reaching full speed within a few seconds, raising and lowering sails in an instant, and the arc of your projectiles displayed on your screen while aiming. During incoming barrages you can take cover by ducking down, lessening the damage you'll take, and if you've damaged another ship badly enough you can pull close and board, quickly ending the battle and hauling away whatever loot the ship had.

After trading cannon fire with an NPC ship of about the same level as me, I finally tried out my ramming ult. It sent my ship blazing across the waves, like a charge attack, until I rammed the side of the other ship. The enemy took a huge amount of damage and I was able to board a moment later, ending the battle.

From then on, I used my ult as an opener to battle, ducking to take cover from cannon fire until I was close, then blasting across the waves and slamming into my enemy's hull. A couple times, facing a ship a few levels lower than mine, one ramming ult was all it took. I didn't even have to stop to board, I just tore lesser ships in half without breaking stride. I even found it useful when a red circle appeared around my ship, indicating I was about to be bombarded. The steering is nimble enough that you can turn and escape an incoming attack, but I found it easier to just employ my ult. Just because I wasn't using it to ram someone didn't mean I couldn't use it to escape.

The Skull & Bones demo was fast and furious, with so much combat and so many ships crammed into the small patch of sea I explored it was a bit ridiculous. I enjoyed what I played of Skull & Bones, which isn't a surprise since I really liked the naval combat of Black Flag and Origins, too. And if you're wondering, your pirates in Skull & Bones do sing sea shanties while you're sailing, though there were so many ships to battle I don't think they got through more than a few bars before we were dodging cannons (and rockets) and getting ready to ram our way to victory.

I still have a lot of questions about Skull & Bones and hope to get some more answers during E3. I'd love to know if boarding other ships, currently shown as a brief animation, will be expanded upon in the final game. And I'd like to know more about the open world and what sort of things you can do in it besides sinking every ship you come across. The naval combat though, so far, is just as much fun as it was in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games, and I'm itching to raise my sails and do some more ramming.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.