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Skull and Bones review – yo ho ho and some pockets of fun

<span>Almost good … Skull and Bones.</span><span>Photograph: Ubisoft</span>
Almost good … Skull and Bones.Photograph: Ubisoft

The frustrating thing about this swashbuckling multiplayer game from Ubisoft, which has reportedly been in development hell for about a decade, is that it’s almost good. Some things about it are good, such as the ship battles, which are intriguingly customisable, more flexible than you’d expect, even thrilling when you’re up against a well-matched opponent. And when you’re sailing from the African coast to the East Indies, or through river channels with tropical wilderness on all sides, you cannot help but admire how beautiful this game can be. And some things about it may become good; right now, the menus are confusing, and it’s slow and turgid for hours before your piratical expeditions become more exciting, but a few tweaks could really pick up the pace. This is a live-service game, so it has room to evolve.

But some things about Skull and Bones will never be good, at least not without tearing them down and starting again, which after years of expensive delays seems unlikely to happen. All of the characters in this game have dead eyes, and only their lips move when they speak to you. The story is so boring that after more than 20 hours on the seas, I can tell you the relative worth of uncut gems and where to sell your tobacco for the best price, but not the name of a single character or faction. And when you are on land, there’s nothing to do – no sword fighting, no treasure-hunting, no meaningful exploration. Immense effort has been expended on creating small oases of land, and then nothing ever exists there except a couple of quest-givers and a bonfire. Only two more populous pirate-hub settlements exist on the whole map, where you can at least find a blacksmith or a tavern, but finding other interesting places to dock is a bust.

This means that you’ll spend 90% of your time sailing, because all the action is on the waves. And when you’re not trying to ransack a merchant ship or defending yourself from other pirates, all that sailing involves is hoisting or lowering your sails, and occasionally adjusting your trajectory. It’s boring, but I actually found it peaceful ferrying things around and enjoying the scenery. The Indian Ocean is the best thing about Skull and Bones: I felt quiet awe in occasional moments, such as when I was steering my svelte cutter through a tight pass, rocks rearing up on all sidesas I rounded a corner to see a waterfall tumbling from above as the sun was setting, soundtracked by my crew’s shanties. In that moment, like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games sometimes do, Sea of Thieves felt like a recreation of a lost time, breathing new life into the golden age of piracy.

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Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed is the elephant (seal) in the room here. Skull and Bones was inspired by 2013’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, a hugely enjoyable pirate-flavoured adventure that really felt like an adventure, with islands to explore and things to discover and a plethora of interesting stories to find alongside the thrill of sailing and firing cannonballs at foes. 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, too, features splendid seafaring on the azure ancient Grecian waters, and plenty else to do besides. Skull and Bones elevates the sailing ever so slightly, and has much better ship crafting – changing your seacraft and your weapons about really does alter how you play – but it has nothing else to offer, none of the personality or intrigue of the games that inspired it.

The other game that can’t escape mention here is Rare’s Sea of Thieves, another online pirate action game that launched in a barren state in 2018 but has since evolved into a terrific time with friends, as funny and chaotic and characterful as you could hope a pirate game to be. But Skull and Bones is much more serious and solitary, a different game entirely – it reminded me much more of Sid Meier’s Pirates than Sea of Thieves, in that most of the game is really about transporting cargo around and meddling with coloniser factions. The further in you get, the more Skull and Bones becomes about making, selling and transporting hidden-market goods, or sinking other players to steal theirs. It’s a trade and naval battle simulator, really, more than a pirate game. It has no swagger, but it does have good seafaring and an excellent selection of tricorn hats.

If its publisher Ubisoft continues to support it, Skull and Bones will attract a committed player base of sea-combat enthusiasts who enjoy tinkering with their ships’ builds and facing off against each other, or teaming up to take on the intimidating fleets, cargo heists and sea monsters that lurk tens of hours in. If you are after a game that feels like a pirate adventure, though, you’re still better off with Black Flag.

  • Skull and Bones is out now; £49.99