Skull & Bones: Hands-on impressions from E3 2018

Ubisoft's E3 presentation didn't detail much we didn't already know about its new IP, Skull & Bones. We saw more pirates and some fun catchphrases, but nothing to suggest the game was more than pirates on ships fighting one another. And even after playing the game myself for half an hour, I'm convinced that's the case.

The jokes up until now have been that Skull & Bones is basically just the ship combat portions of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. I had hoped, from my hands-on impressions at E3 2018, to be able to refute that. But I can't. If you've played Black Flag, World of Warships, or just about any other game with boats that fight each other, you've played Skull & Bones and then some.

What is Skull & Bones?

Skull & Bones is a game in which you play as a pirate captain aboard a customizable vessel. Your job is to restore the golden age of piracy by being a really great pirate — sinking merchant ships, looting treasure, and getting into scraps with fellow pirates if you like. Treasure can be exchanged for better ship upgrades, which in turn makes your better at your job. You can get better cannons, stronger rams or hull reinforcement, or even fancy swag to deck out your deck.

My demo of Skull & Bones consisted of sailing about a small area rife with Portuguese merchant ships, in which I was allowed freedom to either complete some listed objectives (bring a ship down, visit and loot a wreck, etc) or just float around and blast my fellow pirates out of the water. Since others were playing the demo with me, I had the chance to do both.

How do you play?

The major difference between Skull & Bones and Black Flag is how reliant you are on favorable winds to travel. At the start of my demo, a fortune teller promised me such winds, but if they aren't going in your direction, you won't travel very fast. In an effort to be true to life, you actually have to either sail with the wind or accomplish some fun zig-zag patterns to get anywhere, and even if you have the wind behind you, your hulking galley moves ... slow. A point in the realism column, to be sure, but I felt I wasted a chunk of the demo just trying to get where I was going, inch by inch.

Fortunately, when you enter combat, every other ship has mostly the same problem. My ship (selected at the start of the demo) specialized in its broadside cannons, so I was able to do some meaty damage to opposing vessels without having to work too hard or bother much with my front-facing mortars. I did get rammed a few times for hefty damage, but between the brace mechanic and plenty of repair kits from looting shipwrecks, I kept myself alive. I didn't have a particularly wide array of options for combat action, but given that at the start of the demo I was offered a mere three basic ship type samples and there seem to be many more, I expect customization to be robust.

What is there to do in Skull & Bones?

What I've mentioned so far: looting wrecks, taking down enemy ships, and collaborating or fighting with fellow pirates is about all I saw to do in my little patch of ocean. I was directed to destroy a fort at one point, but before I could try that out I was waylayed and demolished by another player (I got my revenge after respawning, never fear).

It turns out Skull & Bones is almost 100 percent a pirate naval battle game, perhaps one with fewer tactics than the more modern World of Warships. If that's your jam, you'll have a good time. If you're looking for some overarching plot or characters or exploration or anything else, nothing Ubisoft has shown me so far has indicated that these are a part of the game.


Ship battles are fun, especially when other human beings are involved, but I can see the whole operation getting boring quickly if there's not more to do beyond finishing objectives in the world and building a bigger ship.

The fact that I could essentially get the same kind of gameplay out of a game that came out several years ago, alongside a story, characters, interesting exploration, and whale fishing says a lot about Skull & Bones. In fact, if you can't even go ashore properly in this game, then Sea of Thieves has an edge on it, too!

When can I set sail?

Skull & Bones is expected to launch sometime in 2019 for Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4. Pricing details have not yet been revealed.

Ask a pirate!

Any questions about Skull & Bones? Ask me in the comments!

Reb Valentine
  • Honestly for what I've seen, while it caters to a different audience, this is nowhere near how great and satisfying sailing and ship combat are in Sea of Thieves. This other game seems like it's all fluff but no real depth in gameplay.
  • Literally everything you just said someone has also said about Sea of Thieves as well!
  • Sea of Thieves naval combat requires tactical planning, forward and clear communication, heavy teamwork, and keeping your cool under pressure. I'm unfortunately not seeing any of that here.
  • Sea of Thieves seems like more fun, but my hope is that Ubisoft's Skulls & Bones will increase the pressure on Rare to add more content to the former.
  • Why won't they do a proper 2018 version of Ubisoft's Pirates of the Caribbean game? If you could be a freeroaming pirate again with elaborate quest lines to follow (with meaningful decisions to make), trade routes to operate (yourself buying and selling goods), your fleet to manage (AI controlled in battle besides your own ship), mysteries to solve, ships to board (and keep!), fortresses to conquer and perhaps a small village to maintain... It would be an instant buy! Sadly, the old game suffers from tiny areas (invisible walls) and dated graphics, but the basics were there! I even modified the game's files so that the largest (endgame) warship would pop-up in regular fleets :D. God that was fun to board.
  • I need to see how solo-able it is and if grieving is encouraged. Sea of Thieves was a trainwreck in that regard.