First Impressions - Skull and Bones: Closed Beta

December 28, 2023


Also on:
Xbox Series

Have you ever tried something for free, enjoyed that thing, but then realised that you wouldn’t have enjoyed it if you had paid for it? I know I have; gun range trips that were on my someone else's dime, shots provided by a drunk at my local dive bar, and free food from my folks have all been great in their own right, but not great enough for me to actually want to shell out my own hard-earned cash for if the situation arose. Back when the gaming industry actually cared about players, I also used to regularly play demos for titles that I had no interest in, and although I very much liked those demos, I rarely ended up buying the full releases of those titles. My point is that after spending five-odd hours last week with Skull and Bones, Ubisoft’s attempt at making a Sea of Thieves clone, I’m almost certain that I won’t end up picking it up when February 16th rolls around and I’m forced to decide whether or not to fork over £50/$60 for it, even though I was rather fond of the beta. 

See, there are a lot of reasons why I don’t see myself sailing the high seas come February, the biggest one of which is that Skull and Bones is very clearly designed to be a live-service title. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and I’m ashamed to admit how many hours I log on Call of Duty every year, its core gameplay is at odds with the concept of logging in every day to play. In case it wasn’t obvious, Skull and Bones is essentially a spiritual successor to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but online and without any third-person stabbing-related missions. In the beta, and presumably the full game, you take control of a captain during the golden age of piracy who is tasked with rising through the proverbial ranks of the swashbucklers while completing main story quests, upgrading your boat, and most importantly, destroying both AI and other players’ boats to loot their ill-gotten booty via third-person ship combat. 

Please no, not a British ship!

That combat, to be clear, is pretty good, and so is the process of adding more cannons to your vessel as well as the bits of the narrative that I played last week. All of these things are very much derivative of the aforementioned Black Flag, with the only notable difference between the two being that the title’s many zones use an implicit levelling system to keep you from immediately getting the best pieces of kit right away. It’s fun, if not especially difficult, to blast away at enemy galleys and galleons, especially seeing as you can always enlist the help of a few of your friends, who are given control of their own boats but can follow you freely around the open world as you complete quests and attack outposts.

Skull and Bones is also pretty solid from an audiovisual perspective. Its graphics are decidedly good, it runs well on the computer I played it on, and your crew can sing sea shanties with the press of a button that sound just as good as ones from pirate-themed playlists on Spotify. I also didn’t experience any bugs during the half-dozen hours I played and, given how long the game has been in development, I don’t expect to experience any if I end up buying it at launch. 

But, getting back to the reasons I don’t actually see myself doing that, Skull and Bones doesn’t have any objective problems, just ones that personally bother me. The game will almost certainly have plenty of daily quests, items that will only be able to unlocked with some sort of season pass or event, and raids that are only available for a limited time. While there’s no proof that any of these things will be part of the full game, I’m willing to bet my very meagre paycheck that they will anyway given recent Ubisoft titles, and the overall atmosphere of what I played. And in a game that’s heavily focused on PvE combat and a quasi-realistic narrative, the potential (and almost guaranteed  inclusion of those anti-consumer elements seems a tad strange) inclusion of those elements is/will be off putting from my grog-filled point of view. 

What does this make me? A big damn swashbuckler!

On a different note, I also wasn’t a fan of the lack of opportunities to get into fights when I wasn’t behind the captain’s wheel of my ship. Unlike Black Flag or Sea of Thieves, when you decide to board an enemy vessel, it’s done with a single button prompt, and you have no control over what happens when your AI crew take the crews of the hostile AI. You were, at least in the beta, free to roam around various hubs with third-person non-ship-based movement to buy cosmetics for your captain, sell your loot and accept quests, but every other interaction you have with the world is done from the quarters of your not-yacht, which I just wasn’t a big fan of.

And so, after spending about six hours with the Skull and Bones beta, I just don’t think it’s the game for me, and I’d venture to guess that it won’t be the game for you when it launches, either, unless you’re looking for a toned down World of Warships. Its core gameplay is good, it’s a perfectly fine title technically speaking, and there was plenty to do even in the introductory area that I was able to mess around in, but for purely subjective reasons, I just don’t see myself exchanging my cash for it come spring. If I want to play a pirate-themed title, I’ll either boot up Black Sails, Tortuga - A Pirate's Tale or Sea of Thieves. If I’m in the mood to grind out cosmetics or pay for a battle pass, I’ll reluctantly reinstall Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III (2023) or Counter Strike. None of this means that I didn’t enjoy Skull and Bones’ beta, and that you won’t come February, but it does mean that, much like taking a shot of Malort, I’ll only do it if someone else is footing the bill, and you probably should too. 

Skull and Bones releases on February 16, 2024. Check back here on Jump Dash Roll if you’d like to know more about the game at launch!

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.