Skull and Bones Review: Golden Age of Piracy returns to Indian Ocean

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New Delhi: There are a whole bunch of activities that you can sink your time in, in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, including building up your village, fishing and even training your horses to swim. One of the most entertaining aspects is taking your longboat and raiding settlements. With Skull and Bones, Ubisoft has made an original title that focuses only on this aspect.

Nothing is as much fun as chasing down a fleeing ship. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Ubisoft had actually capitalised on this aspect long before Assasin’s Creed: Valhalla, with Assasin’s Creed: Pirates, a smartphone-only title that was released in 2013. Skull and Bones has a similar setting, during the Golden Age of Piracy. The gameplay takes place in a set of mysterious islands in the Indian Ocean, which is an ideal location to explore a number of different cultures. Then there was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, also released in 2013, and that is the game this one will be compared to. You cannot help but repeatedly think ‘Black Flag’ while playing this title.

Not all shipwrecks are this large and spectacular. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Skull and Bones is its own thing, it ditches all the landlubber concerns, for a refined, focused experience around naval warfare. This is a squad based tactical shooter that you can play solo as well, in which case it is just a tactical shooter. The matchmaking is pretty spontaneous, you see another captain on the seas, you holler, you team up and go plunder a town, loot a convoy of merchant ships, or hunt a ginormous hippo. If you are getting overwhelmed or anticipate it, you can call for help and other players in the vicinity can respond. There are no separate PVE or PVP instances, you just raise a PVP flag and can engage in combat with other players in the same world. All of this is smooth, works as intended, and works cross-platform too.

Elements of the game are inspired by a variety of diverse cultures around the world. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

There is plenty of strategy involved in just prepping for a fight, or provisioning for your voyage, choosing your kit of weapons, and going out pirating. Now of course, a well coordinated party with the appropriate mix of ships can cheese through most of the game, but it is perfectly possible to play most of the game solo as well. To be clear and set expectations, Skull and Bones is not Black Flag, and there is no single-handed combat or sword fighting. Also, it is a bit strange to play a game with so much Assassin’s Creed DNA in it, but with absolutely no parkour. You cannot even jump, you just have to walk your way through maps, with a limited set of interactions.

Sliding down ropes is the only time your feet leave the land. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

All the action takes place in the seas, so although there are places with islands for cover, the wind is what you need to navigate around to play. Friendly fire is always on, so you can damage people in your squad during fights if you are not careful. It is a slow-ish dance, a mixture of evasion and attacks, and you need a basic setup of tank, dps and support ships to make a party of three. You will often encounter people at the objectives with shared goals, so you can just party up for short bursts then go on your way. The enemies scale according to the party, so things are always fun.

There is no such place as home

One of the first things that you notice when you start playing the game, is that all the action takes place on an impressively large map. Then, the game throws in the most demanding types of animations. To start with, there is the sea itself, with its constantly undulating waves. Then, there is a lot of fabric with the sails reacting to the wind. On top of that, all of the crew and the captain wear clothes too, with all the textures and hairstyles rendered in exquisite detail. Then there are birds and pets thrown in too. The dynamic lighting conditions change continuously, in tandem with weather events ranging from thunderstorms, to blankets of fog, to bright, clear skies and calm seas. As a gamer, you just know that this is all incredibly impressive and sophisticated at a graphics level, something that would just not be possible a few years ago.

Your ship is your home. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The game looks gorgeous on good hardware, but it is still light enough to run on older machines or even Intel Evo ‘thin and light’ laptops. The other good thing about the title is that while it does have a little bit of a console-oriented UI, you can play the game perfectly well with a keyboard and a mouse. Still, this is a game that is best enjoyed on a console, or at least with a large screen and a controller. Surprisingly, there are almost no bugs! That is pretty rare for a multiplayer title with continuous updates, events and matchmaking.

Resources, crafting materials and commodities are easily available all over the game. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Though you start the game in a location known as the Red Isles, you do not need to keep returning to it. Throughout the large map, there are forts, settlements and production sites. All of these are trade opportunities, with the production sites manufacturing one specific item, say wood or iron. The forts are defended by towers, and can be plundered if you do not want to trade. The outposts are settlements where you will find a cache or warehouse to store your goods, traders, and everything else you need in the game. It is possible to roam the seas, without returning to any particular base camp.

Plundering and looting

It is possible to play this game in a non-violent way. The blacksmith at town crafts essential tools for harvesting, foraging and mining. You can use the pickaxe, the scythe and the saw to get the materials you need for new boats, weapons and ammunition. There is a minigame where you have to click the tool at just the right time to gather the resources. Usually, if say there are a bunch of teak trees on the coast, or iron ore in the rocks, then the nearby waters will have some of the resources floating around, that you can just pick up with minimal effort. In this way, just picking up the stuff that you encounter on your voyages can be enough to keep you provisioned for the journeys.

Hitting the button over the green or purple bands gives you more resources. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Then there is the trading, and it is possible to make an honest living as a trader. All you need to do is buy the stuff that is cheap, and sell the stuff that is gaining high prices. The availability of commodities as well as their prices constantly vary, but can be tracked using the world map. You can also plan ahead using the information available at the smuggler’s hideout, which you get access to in early game.

Plundering towns is the fastest way to get resources. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The real fun of the game is to embrace piracy. You can just shoot down any ship that you encounter on your journeys, and loot all the booty. The spyglass or telescope informs you about what the ship is carrying, and its level. It makes good sense to avoid ships that are too high level for you. Carrying some items or having particular quests active can also attract enemies, so that is something that you have to read carefully and watch out for.

The spyglass can tell you from a distance the faction a ship belongs to, and what it is carrying. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The looting and plundering is pretty straightforward, you just fire your guns at an enemy ship till it sinks. Get real close and there are options for boarding the ship, firing muskets, or throwing firebombs. Boarding the ship gets you some special items that are not available when you sink the vessel. For looting settlements, the pirates invade the town, while you have to take out any watch towers and approaching ships. This plundering is real fun when others join the party. Settlements have a short timer for recovering, after which they can be plundered again.

Information can be used to strategically plan ahead. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

There are also shipwrecks scattered around the map, and these essentially provide you with everything you might require. There are repair kits, ammo for your guns, crafting materials and large sums of silver hidden away in the shipwrecks. Now, looting shipwrecks, trading and gathering resources are more than enough for you to progress in the game, but the most fun way to do it is through sinking enemy ships.

Scurvy Dogs and Sea Shanties

The Golden Age of Piracy is a great setting to explore cultural diversity and how these various cultures overlap, interact and relate to each other. Ubisoft has done this aspect of the game absolute justice. There are European ships in the seas, with their colonial approaches focused on looting untapped lands. However, there are also a number of local factions, inspired by Africa, the Middle and Far East, as well as South and Southeast Asia. These factions and tribes have plenty of conflict between them, and you can choose which sides to take.

If you like explosions, you will like Skull and Bones. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Initially, I thought that there was just the wind and the waves for the soundtrack, with the game having no sound. Suddenly, someone burst into song and the whole crew followed. Over subsequent voyages, I got to listen to a wonderful playlist of sea shanties, from diverse cultures around the world. I wouldn’t be able to name the languages, but they all necessarily have a community element to them, and is a great team building activity for the crew.

The singing unfortunately stops during combat. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

All of these sea shanties are memorable performances, with a vocal lead followed by a chorus. Then, Ubisoft has made efforts to make each of the NPCs memorable and unique, through the voice acting. These are not just inert NPCs that procedurally go through algorithmic talk points. They actually respond to what you are doing, what you are wearing, and how you have provisioned your ship. Your first mate may remind you of not having enough repair kits before setting up on a voyage, or a hawker may complement you for wearing the clothes of her people.

The game has memorable NPCs with great voice acting. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

It was only on the distant shores that I realised that the game actually does have a soundtrack, that swells up gently, like a monster wave sneaking up on you. The soundtrack is a pretty neutral background sound that is meant to be in the background. Each of the various areas on the map have their own associated soundscapes. This is a great way for you to navigate, be alerted of exploring new waters, and even being reminded of where you are without having to check the map.

Parrots and Peg Legs

There are merchants scattered throughout the islands, and at some of the major settlements, the hawkers have unique goods. These can be in the form of weapon or ship blueprints, clothing items related to that faction, and food recipes. Saint-Anne has a ‘Vanity Atelier’ who allows you to pick out clothes suitable for your status as a captain. You can also change your entire appearance here.

The furniture, the wheel, the costumes of the crew, everything the captain is wearing, and the pet are all purchasable cosmetics. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

There are plenty of options for character customisation, but it is not just about what looks good or what works together. If there is conflict between two factions, you can sympathise with one, wear their clothings and colours to show your support, and fight their enemies. The point is, the game does a good job at attaching symbolic meanings to the cosmetics, which are a way to demonstrate your allegiances. There are also quests that require you to disguise your ship and loot settlements while flying certain colours to seed chaos and confusion.

You can also purchase cosmetics for the ship itself, using currency that you can obtain in-game. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The ships themselves can be customised to a great extent. Most of the embellishments are cosmetic, such as a particular crow’s nest, or a helm, or the figureheads on the prows, which are the fronts of ships. These can be purchased or claimed from quests. There are also seasonal cosmetics available, which commemorates your participation in the game during a particular time. The ships colours can be changed, along with those of the sails, as well as their patterns and motifs.

Some of the customisations are practical, and not merely cosmetic. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Now while there is a wide and diverse set of customisation options available, and you can look however you want, there are no options available to change your appearance, or adjust certain parameters such as say eyebrow or nose shapes, distances between eyes, size of body and so on. You just have to work with given templates, which is fine we guess. Not everyone requires such endless customisation options, and there is enough variety provided for anyone to find a body that they like.

The skeuomorphic piracy icons are on the bottom right corner. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

One thing that we really appreciated was the skeuomorphic icons for stuff that pirates would do. If you sit down and think about it, this is a ridiculous exercise, but Ubisoft has managed to do it so well, it is incredible. You can switch to a view from the quarterdeck or the crow’s nest, which have little icons depicting them. There is also a button to bring out the spyglass. It is just surprising how much sense the icons make, which in turn enables gamers to navigate the UI with ease.

X marks the spot

Of course there are treasure maps. You are just given a rough sketch of a coastline, and while it is possible to scrutinise the world map closely to discover these locations, you are just better off roaming the map, as the game will notify you when you are on the right island. The treasures are usually buried close to the beach. Finding treasures is just one of the many missions that you can embark on.

What is a pirate game without buried treasure? (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Missions can be picked up from practically all the NPCs that you encounter in the world. Every hawker, trader and community leader has some kind of mission to offer. There are primary and secondary objectives. The primary storyline involves becoming increasingly powerful through attacks, raids and smuggling, as well as seeding discord between the various factions, and just general villainy. Each mission is tagged with a level number, so you can easily identify which are the suitable missions to take up.

You will encounter kingpins during your adventures. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

All of the settlement maps have roughly the same layout. There is a cache and a trader close to the beach. Then you can take multiple paths inwards, which usually leads to one or more camps, where there are community leaders who offer even more goods for trade. There is also invariably a fire in these camps where you can cook some food. Ammo and raw food items can be picked up for free around the settlements. There is also a place to draw water, as well as altars into which you can throw some gunpowder to get a buff.

The game has beautiful maps for the towns. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

There is a wide variety of missions available, which include plundering towns, smuggling goods, disrupting trade routes, and even killing wildlife. Now not all the missions require big bulky ships. In fact, the smaller ships are better for navigating the narrow waterways within islands. The larger ships are better for crossing the seas. You will require to use the smallest ship, the dhow, to enter into certain areas where there are wildlife, such as a particularly violent great white shark or an enormous crocodile. There are however, much larger monsters lurking in the open waters.

Krakens, Ghost Ships and other Nautical Nasties

Of course there is a Kraken. There are mild fantasy elements but these are so subtle and low-key that the game can be considered to be in a realistic setting. Out on the seas, you can get alerts, either a call for help, or a high level enemy nearby, or mysterious sightings of aquatic monsters. You can choose to continue what you are doing, or go investigate.

The creature attacks are photogenic and scary. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

There are events, with a different enemy moving into the seas. Right now, the first season is going on, known as Raging Tides. Each season lasts for three months, and contain what are known as world events. You will be alerted of world events if you get close to one during your voyages. There are merchant convoys crossing between the islands, that are loaded with loot, as well as mysterious ghost ships patrolling the seas.

You can use collected resources to build new and more powerful ships. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The big baddie is this infected pirate known as Philippe La Peste, who is looking for a cure for his affliction, while spreading it around the Indian ocean. Take down his ships and you will be hunted. Just playing during the season earns you tokens that you can redeem for rewards along different tracks. Each of these tracks have unique rewards, and you can choose to go all out along one track to bag the final prize, or choose to finish all the three tracks to the extent that you can or want, if the particular rewards along each of the tracks are better.

The in-game camera works great, despite not having granular control options. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The game also has a great in-game camera. The features are pretty basic, there are no settings to change the exposure, adjust the lighting or the depth of field. However, the game looks so gorgeous that these are not really necessary. There is the ability to orbit around the ship, zoom in or out and move the camera itself. The game does not freeze while you are capturing images though, so it is difficult to capture that fleeting moment when a bird settles on your steering wheel. You can also not move the camera very far away from the ship. So while the camera is good, it can definitely be better.

Davy Jones’ Server Issues

While we did not encounter even a single bug, glitch or freeze within the game itself, there are some connectivity problems from time to time. While loading the game, we did encounter messages that said ‘Cloud Save Incompatible’ or ‘Timed out’. You can also get kicked by the server with a message saying ‘Host left the instance’, which happened once in the middle of a multiplayer raid. These problems usually do not interrupt the gameplay, and are infrequent.

There are very rare problems with connectivity which typically get resolved quickly. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Ubisoft is also proactive when it comes to communicating with gamers on server timeouts. These are not long, and allow you to get back to the action pretty quickly. These problems are expected for any multiplayer game, and in fact we have to note here that the issues are a lot less than other multiplayer titles.

Ubisoft is proactive when it comes to communicating outages. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

One of the biggest shortcomings of the game is that it does not really give you any motivation to do anything. If you want to build a new ship, or get new weapons, that is your motivation for going around the map. But it is perfectly possible to remain and base and do nothing, you can live forever unharmed, without being attacked by hammerhead sharks or corrupt megacorporation officers.

The Pirate’s Code

The game does a great job with the straightforward but diverse maps. The setting is incredibly large and diverse, and it is surprising that such a vast area can be explored without the need for loading screens. The loading screens show up only when entering or leaving settlements. The fast travel costs a lot of coin, but it is easy to recover this money by looting three or four shipwrecks even if you fast travel straight across the map.

There are some ridiculously fun weapons in the game that you can craft. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

The dynamic trading system does a good job of simulating a thriving economy, but you cannot apply real world logic here. For example, ferrying goods across the map does not guarantee that you will get good prices. Monitoring the trade routes is the easiest way to get silver and resources. The open seas are beautifully rendered, and the storms are really opressive. You will be glad of any human presence on the open waters, including other players, not just NPCs.

Of course you get uncut diamonds and ivory in Africa. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

One of the highlights of the game is the wildlife. This includes the cattle on the shores, the sharks that attack the ships, the whales that suddenly break through the waves, the flocks of flamingoes or the sea birds that accompany the ships close to the coastlines. The wildlife just elevates the already beautiful and diverse landscape.

The environments are crafted beautifully. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

Now this is the first season of a multiplayer title. The title has already been delayed by an incredible amount of time, and the expectations were high. This might not have been the game that people expected from Ubisoft, but it is a refined and polished title, that is very good at simulating strategic naval battles. It would be great to have clans and larger party sizes down the line.

The dynamic weather can be spectacular at times. (Image Credit: In-game screenshot on PC).

For now though, this is a game that I would definitely revisit from time to time, after sinking in all the hours necessary to reach the max level of course. I am not really motivated to get all the blueprints and all the ships, or gain all the event rewards. It is a fun game with few bugs and something that you can spend a lot of time in. The base game costs Rs 2,999 but there is a free trial included as well for those who want to check out the game first before making a decision.

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