Skull and Bones: Closed Beta Preview

Skull and Bones: Closed Beta Preview

The term “development hell” gets thrown around a lot and it usually isn’t a good sign for the game in said hell. Generally, if the game ever sees the light of day, it is a less-than-stellar experience. But there are examples of games bucking that trend. 2023’s Dead Island 2 had no business being as fun as it was after the absolute horror of its development, so there are shining lights to look towards for games in a similar situation. Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones is one such title and despite numerous delays, years of silent treatment from the dev team and continually lowering expectations from the gaming community at large, it is finally approaching its release date and after taking part in the closed beta, things are looking up. 

For those that don’t know, Skull and Bones is something of a spin-off from Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. Ubisoft has taken the excellent ship combat from that game and woven it into its own game, which is essentially a pirate simulator. You start as a shipwreck survivor with nothing and aim to become the greatest pirate in the Caribbean by plundering the high seas in your ever-expanding fleet of ships. It is a simple premise and one that frankly translates in the world of video games quite well. After all the pirate fantasy is a well-established trope that is surprisingly under-serviced in video games so there is certainly space in the market for some more swashbuckling adventure. 

Skull and Bones is set in a persistent online world (think Destiny) and as such features the many trappings that have come to define these sorts of games. There are in-world events that encourage group participation to take down a particularly tough enemy, co-op focused missions and general open-world shenanigans but in what is good news for players like myself who struggle to get a group together, most of the content seems to be perfectly playable as a singleplayer. I am sure as the game progresses and harder challenges present themselves, getting a fleet of friends together will be needed at some point, but in the first six hours of the game, it was fine to go it alone. 

The star of the game is the combat and it has been pretty much transported from Black Flag intact. That isn’t to say things haven’t been improved though, because while the combat basics are pretty much the same, the ability to change your ship’s weapon loadout, manage the wind and stamina of your crew and make adjustments to your ship’s maneuverability gives the combat plenty of depth to go along with the classic feel. Engaging in ship-to-ship combat is a blast and it really is the star of the show here. That isn’t to say that sailing the world and exploring what is quite a stunning map isn’t fun, because it is, but combat is the reason you are here, plain and simple.

The rest of the game shares a lot in common with games like Ark or Conan Exiles in that crafting, resource gathering and upgrading parts plays a huge part in the game. Players will need to loot, steal, plunder or find the materials needed to upgrade all facets of their ship or even build new ships. Armour, weapons, cargo hold, furniture and appearance can all be changed, upgraded and improved by first gaining the required blueprint and then using the appropriate tradesman at the pirate home base. It is here that I have some concern, because reasonably early on I hit a mission that was well above my ship level, so I had to spend some time hunting and gathering the material needed to upgrade my ship enough to be able to take on the mission. I worry that later in the game, this gear grinding may become obnoxious, but hopefully Ubisoft gets the balance right. 

For a game that has come from such a troubled development, it runs really well on PC. Even though this was a beta, I barely ran across any glitches or tech issues. There were some very occasional instances of pop-in but apart from that, things ran as smooth as silk. Using a controller to play is a must, however. I found the keyboard controls to be a little unintuitive and clumsy, but that could easily just be me and my history with AC Black Flag pushing my preference for a controller. I also didn’t notice any network-related issues, with connections seemingly stable and lag-free. From a tech standpoint, Skull and Bones is showing that all the delays have been used wisely. 

Perhaps my biggest concern for the game is longevity. Sure I had a blast for the 6 hours of game time the beta allowed for, but I worry that I have already seen the entire gameplay loop. 6 hours of fun doesn’t mean that 16, 36 or 66 hours will be just as fun. I really hope there are some surprises in store to mix up the gameplay over what I expect to be a hefty campaign, otherwise, I can see the player count dropping fairly dramatically soon after launch. 

In all, my time with Skull and Bones was quite a surprise. I really didn’t think the game was going to come together after such a troubled development, but it appears I was wrong. The combat is familiar to Black Flag fans but has added depth and the world is a beautiful one to explore. I worry that there is going to be some serious late-game grinding and that there will be a lack of variety over the length of the game but for now I am quite positive on my time in this pirate wonderland. If Ubisoft can get the balance right in regards to the loot grind and adding new events this is a game I can see myself playing on and off again for a long period of time. I guess we will all know for sure when Skull and Bones finally lands on the 13th of Feb on the PS5, Xbox Series and PC. 

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