Feature Article

E3 2017: Skull And Bones Recaptures The Joy Of Assassin's Creed 4's Pirate Ships

Pirate Killers on the horizon.

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When you start playing Skull and Bones, you're greeted with open seas, rolling waves, beautiful atolls... and about fifteen pirates and pirate hunters bearing down on you to rip your ship apart.

Skull and Bones is Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag's naval combat spun out into its own game. It's been reworked and enhanced, and now you're not just sailing by yourself, but in a crew of five with the goal of taking down another team and escaping with loot. It's exciting, tense, and gorgeous, but a big question mark remains: can it successfully recapture Black Flag's feeling of freedom in a multiplayer format?

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It's impossible to talk about Skull and Bones without comparing it to Black Flag; even on its stage show, Ubisoft said that it's based heavily on the popular naval combat of the fourth Assassin's Creed game. Going hands-on with Skull and Bones, I easily saw the parallels. The controls are all the same, and there are a lot of visual similarities, down to the display icons when you're lining up a cannon shot. Even the scenery evokes the vivid tropics of Assassin's Creed IV.

But Skull and Bones' multiplayer moves away from the heart of the Black Flag naval system. No longer is the game about exploring the Caribbean in a pirate ship; now the core gameplay involves piloting that ship through shifting wind and narrow straits in order to take on other ships and collect loot. In other words, the focus of Skull and Bones rests on how you sail, whereas Black Flag emphasized where you sail.

The sailing mechanics in Skull and Bones are involved and require concentration. The direction of the wind has a significant effect on you. If you sail with the wind, you'll be going at a nice clip of around ten knots; if you choose to go straight into it, you'll be reduced to only about two or three. Although I didn't have a chance to try it out, I would guess that tacking into the wind--moving back and forth perpendicular to its direction--is a better way to sail upwind.

As a result of this, ships feel weightier and harder to move than they did in Black Flag. From my experience, this change was for better and for worse. It made for more strategic and more interesting moment-to-moment navigation, but it also became frustrating as I attempted to regroup with teammates and struggled to slowly make my way over to them. I also slammed into islands and outcroppings when I let my ship drift while I focused on fighting.

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But even while navigation was occasionally a challenge, fighting other ships felt immensely satisfying. You have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal, depending on which class of ship you pick. One has shorter-range, more powerful cannons and a battering ram; another has medium-range cannons; the last is a sniper and has a long-range mortar. They all have special abilities, too, like the ability to lock an enemy ship in place for a few seconds.

In my demo, my favorite moment came when I pursued an enemy ship with a bunch of coins in its hold. I had weakened it before, and I tried my best to get as much speed as possible with the wind in my sails. I moved close enough, turned, and launched a broadside cannon volley against the pirate. Rows of cannons ripped into it, shooting again and again for about thirty seconds. It was a massive attack, and it felt powerful and impactful. It's something that I have rarely felt in shooters before, a power behind the assault that only a warship with dozens of cannons can provide.

As my demo wrapped up with the enemy team just barely outstripping my team in the race to the escape point, I felt exhilarated--but I also felt like a big part of the game was lacking. The world is beautiful, with breaking waves that wash over the sides of your beautifully detailed ship, islands ringed with coral reefs, and jagged rock outcroppings. But I don't want to simply fight against other ships in this lush world. I want to explore it, find new trade routes, and simply inhabit the world with my ship with moments of peace in between battles. Ubisoft has hinted that the game will be playable solo and that there's an open world beyond the 5v5 multiplayer modes, but details are scarce. Hopefully, we will learn more in the coming months about how Skull and Bones will recapture the joy of being an explorer as well as a pirate.

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newhaus1994

Alex Newhouse

I'm a news guy, a student of international relations, and I've put way too many hours into Steep.

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Avatar image for toweee
toweee

It's about Dam Time!!!

Avatar image for chubby170
Chubby170

The naval fighting is what almost killed AC: Black Flag for me. Absolutely hated that part of the game!

Safe to say, this isnt for me lol

Avatar image for slypher9
Slypher9

IF there's a good solo game I'M SOLD... will wait for the review so i can read what it truly offers

Avatar image for merwanor
Merwanor

This game is only about naval combat it seems. So no treasure hunts on long lost islands, no swashbuckling sword fights? Yeah, that is a pass for me. Naval combat is fine and all, but I would never play a game with only naval combat. That is going to get boring fast.

Avatar image for slypher9
Slypher9

@merwanor: don't give them dlc ideas now

Avatar image for khanwashere
KhanWasHere

Oh... there's the Sea of Thieves for grown ups I inquiring about.

Avatar image for Metalnoid
Metalnoid

I've played AC4 only for the pirate gameplay

Avatar image for razrabbit
Razrabbit

Every time I played Black Flag, I wished they would make a game like that but without all the Assassin crap. Well, here we are. :D

Avatar image for ltjohnnyrico
LTJohnnyRico

Looks good and im glad they made it a bit more technical than black flag .. Ubi done good!!

Avatar image for lorddaggeroff
lorddaggeroff

Lies lies lies. It's Assassin's creed 4.5

Avatar image for masterchieflara
masterchieflara

"Ubisoft said that it's based heavily on the popular naval combat of the fourth Assassin's Creed game."

Or, you know, not fourth...whatever.

Avatar image for khelandros
khelandros

@masterchieflara:

Assassins Creed

Assassins Creed II

Assassins Creed: Brotherhood

Assassins Creed: Revelations

Assassins Creed III

Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

Avatar image for Dilandau88
Dilandau88

Looks awesome! Can't wait to see this game reveal more of itself.

Avatar image for siarhei
siarhei

Solo mode? Now we are talking.

Avatar image for matricks_
Matricks_

I'll echo what was said in the last bit of this article. I would've loved this game if it wasn't multiplayer-only. Part of the fun I had with AC: Black Flag wasn't just the naval warfare, but the naval exploration and immersion. Hunting a whale/shark/whatever, pulling into shallow seas and plunging overboard to explore a small island for treasure, and just the fantastic "feeling" of being on my ship in the open seas going wherever I wanted and dodging hurricanes along the way. And let's not forget the sea shanties.

I'd love to get onboard with Skull and Bones, but the focus on multiplayer tells me it's going to be a shallow online game where I'd be dodging foul-mouthed idiots and players who just want to kill me and take my stuff. Honestly, that's not too fun for me.

Avatar image for ltjohnnyrico
LTJohnnyRico

@matricks_: Isnt killing and taking stuff what pirates do ? I suppose you wouldnt be doing any of that in game then ? You just want to sail around doing nothing ?

Avatar image for matricks_
Matricks_

@ltjohnnyrico: Exactly that, sailing around, doing nothing. That's my dream pirate game. #Sarcasm

My point is I want something BEYOND naval battles/killing and taking stuff, and the article at least eludes to the possibilities that it's not the only avenue of gameplay.

Avatar image for ltjohnnyrico
LTJohnnyRico

@matricks_: its a pirate game !!

Avatar image for matricks_
Matricks_

@ltjohnnyrico: Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Avatar image for ltjohnnyrico
LTJohnnyRico

@matricks_: I'm only first mate .. you don't need to call me captain !

Avatar image for tiringpillow
TiringPillow

@matricks_: "I'd be dodging foul-mouthed idiots and players who just want to kill me and take my stuff."

Sounds exactly like real pirates, no? Lol.

Avatar image for Asseen0nTV
Asseen0nTV

@matricks_: Also said "Ubisoft has hinted that the game will be playable solo and that there's an open world beyond the 5v5 multiplayer modes, but details are scarce." Worth keeping an eye on.

Avatar image for matricks_
Matricks_

@Asseen0nTV: It's the "details are scarce" part that has me worried, but I'll hold a hope for something amazing beyond what they've shown.

Avatar image for capocrimeboss
capocrimeboss

@Asseen0nTV: It will probably be forced online for the solo aspect though. F*** that!