LOS ANGELES – Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag had two great features that the game never combined: naval combat and a multiplayer mode. It's taken a few years, but Ubisoft has finally created Skull & Bones: a piratical multiplayer extravaganza, where players take on the roles of seafaring scoundrels in the final days of piracy on the high seas. While the game can feel a bit too chaotic at times, Skull & Bones provides players with plenty of opportunities to hunt for treasure, create impromptu fleets and forge their own destinies in the South Pacific.
I went hands-on with a full multiplayer match in Skull & Bones at E3 2018, and got a little taste of everything. During my session, I hunted computer-controlled ships, did battle with other players, tracked down treasure, boarded enemy vessels and came to the rescue of my teammates. One thing is for sure: If I was able to do all this in roughly half an hour, players who make Skull & Bones their regular multiplayer selection won't get bored easily.
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Skull & Bones takes place in the 18th-century South Pacific, where the British, Portuguese and other European powers vie for naval supremacy. (If you're curious whatever happened to piracy in the Caribbean, Assassin's Creed IV provides a pretty good answer.) As a free agent with your own ship, your course is clear: Hunt as much treasure as you possibly can. Generally speaking, this is easier with a group – but alliances among pirates are never a sure thing.
Gameplay occurs in a huge map of the Indian Ocean, dotted with islands and densely populated with enemy vessels. During my match, my primary quest was to lure a famous pirate out of hiding and sink his ship in order to claim his fortune. In order to do this, I had to disrupt the ivory routes on which he usually preyed.
The first step was to track down the ivory. By default, you view the world from behind the wheel of your ship, just like you did in Black Flag. But one tap of a button takes you up to the crow's nest, where you can employ a lookout with a spyglass to take stock of other ships in the area. Using this method, I discovered Portuguese and Ottoman ships loaded down with the rare material.
From there, it was open combat on the high seas. Depending on what kind of ship you have, your strategy could differ drastically. The default ship in the demo prioritized broadside cannons and a powerful ram. I'd usually open combat by slamming into an enemy ship, then unloading with cannons on either side. Other ships focused on forward cannons, rockets or simply soaking up damage. (You can repair at any time, provided you have a break in the action and enough supplies.)
Combat feels exhilarating, as you build up a rhythm of attacking with cannons, bracing for damage, and waiting for your guns to reload. As you land successive hits, you can also activate special abilities, such as speeding up to ram an enemy, or firing cannons for long periods of time without having to reload. Since each ship fights differently, matchups between them can feel drastically different.
Naturally, combat also differs depending on whether you're fighting AI- or player-controlled enemies. Most of the quests in Skull & Bones pit you against colonial forces, or computer-controller pirates and privateers. But since the world of Skull & Bones is both massive and persistent, there are plenty of other players who will eagerly steal your booty if you look like an easy target. In one particularly nasty turn of events, I teamed up with another player to sink a flotilla of Ottoman ships that were on his tail. When the dust cleared, he turned his cannons on me, and claimed my hard-won cargo for himself. A merry life and a short one, indeed.
I never did gather enough ivory to lure the pirate lord out of hiding, but I did get a feel for a few different ships, and discover what it might be like to play in a large, colorful, imaginative setting where teaming up is vital, but every man is ultimately for himself.
If Skull & Bones has a major pain point, it's that it's simply a very busy game, even when you're just sailing from one place to another. Unlike Assassin's Creed IV, the game is very particular about the wind's direction and speed. If the wind isn't going the same way as your quest, you'll simply have to choose another goal – and by time you get back on course, you may be on the clear other side of the island you wanted to visit, surrounded by enemy ships, trying desperately to figure out which of the quest markers in the area is the one you wanted to pursue. It's a confusing situation, and nearly impossible to navigate if you also find yourself under attack (which you often do).
Still, compared to last year's demo, Skull & Bones feels much more polished, and it's refreshing to have a multiplayer game with tons of different quest goals, which you can pursue at your own pace. The game doesn't appear to have a campaign, but it has a strong sense of setting, complete with greedy imperialists, eerie fortunetellers and daring pirates. No doubt, there will be a few secrets to find for enterprising players when the game comes out in 2019.