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Skull and Bones review – a bad pirate game 11 years in the making

Ubisoft's Skull and Bones has finally arrived after 11 years in development, but it falls short of almost everything it promised to be.

A ship with black sails heads east under a blue sky

Our Verdict

Skull and Bones promises the pirate adventure of our dreams and falls far short thanks to a sparse storyline, lack of personality, and gameplay that oscillates between frustrating and boring.

Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones has been in the works for 11 years. Reportedly starting life as an expansion for the beloved Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag before shifting into an MMO, then gradually turning into the multiplayer action game we see today, it’s fair to say such a protracted development is seldom a good sign. Yet I held out hope that this could be the seafaring simulator of my dreams. I’d envisaged venturing the seven seas, meeting and recruiting memorable crewmates, maybe even participating in pirate politics, and growing attached to – and immersed in – this time period. Sadly, the result of all these efforts is a frustrating and often boring sailing game that is devoid of personality. By the time I reached the endgame, I’d forgotten I was meant to be a pirate at all.

The strongest reminder that I am, in fact, a pirate is my new boss, John Scurlock. The foul-mouthed leader of the Sainte-Anne pirate den is riddled with daddy issues that manifest in an insistence that we screw over anyone we come into contact with, mostly the French Compagnie. The extent of said screwing-over extends to a handful of jaunts across the ocean to sling cannonballs into enemy ships, maybe steal some items or treasure maps, and then return to enjoy Scurlock’s inevitable praise. I’d love to say there’s more of a story to Skull and Bones, but it seems that any inkling of a meaningful narrative or solid structure has been washed away with the years.

Skull and Bones review: john scurlock is dressed in long black pirate garms with white trim

The most obvious example of Skull and Bones’ missing personality is its soulless protagonist. While the customization options extend far beyond the initial character creation screen, with vendors selling outfits and plenty of collectible accessories up for grabs, my backstory is non-existent, and therefore so is my grounding in this world. This blank slate approach does occasionally lend itself well to unpredictability, such as the prologue leading me to become an impromptu captain of two shipwrecked sailors. With my new, totally unearned title, we board my battered boat and head for the Sainte-Anne pirate den to earn Scurlock’s trust, which he bestows upon me a little too easily. A short while later, I’m deemed worthy of a larger ship, but not before I check off some inane tasks to harvest specific materials that take an age to respawn if another player gets to them first.

Skull and bones review: the customized character has black hair and eyebrows and is looking at their reflection in a puddle

The frustrating inconveniences don’t stop there. Despite the game’s early warnings that you should play nice and not sling cannonballs into one another, players making a beeline for your ship is a regular occurrence. Yes, true PvP combat is reserved for specific zones and events, but there’s precious little I can do when a fellow bored player sails full-throttle into the side of my ship. When the alternative is playing Skull and Bones properly, I can hardly blame them.

Skull and Bones review: a message warns that a player has stolen a legendary treasure map

Cannonballs, of course, aren’t the only way to damage opposition fleets, or threats that lurk in the shallows. You’ve also got demicannons, sea fire cannons, and a long-gun… cannon. Skull and Bones even features magical health-restoring cannonballs for you to fire into your friends’ ships during multiplayer. This arcade-like silliness doesn’t quite land and – again – is indicative of a game that doesn’t know what it is or even wants to be.

Tweaking your Skull and Bones ship loadout and exploring the extensive customization options offer a comparatively much better time. The excitement of spotting an extravagant cosmetic is dulled, however, by the high price of in-game premium currency. A particular bundle of cosmetics will set you back 1,200 gold, equating to around $13. It’s a tough sell for a game that already costs $60. Thankfully, I was able to unlock a healthy variety of cosmetics without spending a penny by completing contracts for silver and looting ships.

Skull and Bones review: a screen shows the option to purchase white sails with blood stains

Obtaining blueprints for bigger, better, meaner ships is a long-winded process, though. The hunt to find them can be tedious unless you’re using a guide and, strangely, there are currently only small and medium-sized ships to acquire. Unlocking the first of the medium-sized ship blueprints requires you to hit at least Brigand I infamy, and then you have to sail off to far-flung islands to buy them. After that, it’s a jaunt across the ocean, sinking enemies and looting their wreckage to find the required materials to build the ship. Despite the repetition of this loop, it’s one of the game’s few worthwhile endeavors.

Crafting weapons is tedious thanks to the loading screen that appears every time you use the craft feature. This is one of many recurring loading screens that collectively hurt the game’s pacing. You’ll suffer them whenever you get off your ship, interact with an NPC, or dig up some treasure. Coupled with the fact you can only disembark at specific zones and have to be on land to fast travel, and Skull and Bones starts to feel less and less like an open-world game.

Skull and Bones review: a black cloud of smoke billows from your ship as an opponent player has shot it

Despite all of this, the game does deliver fleeting moments of fun when teaming up with friends to decimate enemy ships. Still, the combat’s surprising fussiness, especially with the painfully long weapon reload times, eventually ground me down.

The PvP is also wildly imbalanced at the moment, and you run the risk of meeting someone five levels above or below you, but these fast-paced encounters offer up one of the few opportunities for player-to-player interactivity. While I’m struggling for positives, the option to craft your own contraband and smuggle it via the Black Market does eventually open up more complex and satisfying contracts, provided you can stick it out long enough to get there.

In the end, any fun to be had here is thrown off by the disjointed open world, a lack of personality, and the endless, extended fetch quests that seldom excite. Skull and Bones had every opportunity to win me over – it had so much promise – but I’m sad to say its launch version is painfully far from being the pirate adventure of my dreams.