Ubisoft’s E3 2017 press conference was ridiculously strong, even putting the likes of Sony and Microsoft to shame thanks to a flurry of strong announcements and a few surprises – including the long-awaited Beyond Good and Evil 2. But for some, the most exciting announcement was Skull and Bones, a brand new IP based on some tried and tested gameplay.
Skull and Bones is a brand new online multiplayer title that, as the title suggests, is all about taking to the high seas for some naval combat as a pirate. It’s based on the success of the naval combat in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and from our half hour Skull and Bones preview session at E3, we’re convinced Ubisoft is onto a winner.
Our preview session first took us through a quick tutorial of how to actually steer our shiny new ship. If you've played Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, it'll all feel very familiar. On Xbox One, it's drop your sails with A, with an extra burst available if you cut your sails when you've got the wind behind you (direction is all indicated on your mini-map). You can fire your cannons using the triggers and then it's just a case of steering your ship with the analogue sticks.
It's easy to get the hang of, unless you're the girl next to us who just kept spinning in circles...
After the tutorial, our Skull and Bones preview was dedicated to playing through two rounds of one of the game's modes - Loot Hunt. As the name suggests, you're against the clock to collect as much loot as you can by destroying enemy ships and reaping the rewards. The more you gather though, the bigger the target you become, with anyone hoarding the most pirate gold getting their own icon on the map, alerting everyone to your current position.
Once the time's up, the Pirate Hunters come sailing in and you then know it's your cue to move as quickly as you can to the escape point and sail into the sunset with your ship's belly full of loot. The winning team is then decided by the amount of loot earned by those who actually managed to escape. Your haul won't count unless you make it to freedom, even if you technically have the most loot.
For anyone who's convinced this will be a direct rival for Rare's Sea of Thieves, you're wrong. This isn't a co-op game in the sense you need all your party to help man the sails, steer, fire the cannons and take other jobs, that's all on you in Skull and Bones. What you will need to do though is work with the other pirates in your fleet to attack as one, making taking down enemy ships much quicker and stopping yourself become a lone ship – and therefore an easy target.
You've got to keep your eye on two separate health bars, one for each side of your ship. If either one of them depletes, you'll be paying Davey Jones a visit in the depths and leaving your loot (strangely) floating on the surface of the water. But, if they even get low, your ship becomes vulnerable to boarding by the opposing teams.
Despite the lack of grog and pirating sing-song, there's no doubt that Skull and Bones has nailed the naval aesthetic. Not only can you watch your crew working around the ship as you sail, but you can also switch to Crow's Nest view for a good look at the surrounding seas. Successfully manoeuvring your ship also takes a bit of sailing knowledge, as your vessel won't turn on the spot and knowing how to position your ship for the best cannon fire can take a bit of getting used to.
In the end, the winning team (ours) used teamwork and some sailing skill to collect and evade, while those who struggled with the controls found themselves quickly surrounded.
To help that learning and your overall percentage of winning, there's a strong emphasis on ship customisation too. In our Skull and Bones preview, we got to choose from three basic ships: the Bruiser, built for attacking and is your main all-rounder; the Marksman for long-distance combat; and the Frigate, which has brilliant defence but isn't the best at turning.
In the full game, it seems like you'll be able to customise the weapons on your ship, along with its cosmetics. The more piratey the better in our opinion.
Is Skull and Bones going to be good?
From our lengthy Skull and Bones preview session, it's clear that Ubisoft is onto something here. With absolutely stunning graphics and a vibe that's distinctly piratey, we just couldn't get enough of the naval battling on offer. We can't wait to see what other modes, especially more narrative ones, that Skull and Bones will bring when it arrives next year.
Skull and Bones is coming in 2018 to Xbox One, PS4 and PC.