After years of waiting, Ubisoft's open-world game of high seas piracy Skull and Bones is just about ready to set sail. We got our first proper look at it during today's Ubisoft Forward event, and more importantly we have a release date too: November 8 is when it finally arrives.
Skull and Bones is set in the Indian Ocean at the end of the 17th century, during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy. From humble beginnings at a small pirate outpost, players will set out to build their empires and legends by taking contracts, earning treasure, and expanding their fleets in "visceral, fast-paced, rewarding" PvE and optional PvP combat, according to Ubisoft. The only currency that really matters, though, is reputation: As a player's infamy grows, access to new ships, weapons, armor, and other equipment will become available, as will more lucrative—and more dangerous—opportunities.
Players who prefer a life of solitary plunder can take on Skull and Bones solo, but it's built with a focus on co-op play. Each server can handle up to 20 players, who can team up in groups of two or three to attack convoys, plunder outposts, or square off against others who have opted into PvP battles. And yes, it's a live game: Ubisoft plans regular updates with new content, activities, and challenges "for many years to come."
For as long as Ubisoft has been working on Skull and Bones, I'm not entirely convinced it looks fun. It's essentially a spinoff of the naval exploration and combat in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, which came out in 2013, and it shows: I may be spoiled by Sea of Thieves, but the first thing I looked at in the live Skull and Bones gameplay presentation was the water, and it just does not compare. Neither does the movement of ships, which to my eye seem to handle like something you'd jack in a Far Cry game.
Gameplay didn't really knock my socks off either. Plundering ports is completed by entering a specific area of water and waiting for a progress bar to fill up, which isn't what I'd call the height of excitement, especially compared to (again, sorry) Sea of Thieves, where if you want the treasure you actually have to get off your ship to go get it. And there are no player-controlled crews, either: Each ship in Skull and Bones is controlled by a single player, while crews are made up entirely of NPCs. That might be better for workplace safety—you won't have your whole damn ship and crew blown up because Dread Pirate Wes was horsing around in the captain's quarters—but getting up to shenanigans with the gang is what made Sea of Thieves so much fun for me.
I can only judge so much based on a video, and maybe Skull and Bones will play better than it looks. But I'm not convinced that a "darker and grittier approach" to piracy, as Ubisoft put it, with a greater focus on grinding than on goofing around, is all that interesting an idea in the first place, and what Ubisoft showed here today isn't changing my mind.
Skull and Bones will be available on PC through Epic Games Store and Ubisoft Store, and will feature crossplay and cross-progression on other platforms including the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X-S, and Stadia. Pricing has not been announced.