It’s a very good time to be a pirate.
It’s hard to say what, exactly, started this trend — perhaps it was 2013’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag — but now we have not one, but two serious pirate-y games with both PVE and PVP elements.
Rare’s Sea of Thieves launched in March, and Ubisoft’s Skull & Bones is expected in the next two years. While each title will likely push (and inspire) its competitor throughout their life cycles, there’s also a lot to define each game as a very distinct entity. Skull & Bones doesn’t worry me at all, even though I’m a massive Sea of Thieves fan. In fact, I welcome a new pirate game to feed the demand captains everywhere.
Stripped down or fully loaded
Sea of Thieves is notoriously simple, putting a selection of tools into players’ hands and then stepping back to see how they interact with each other.
There’s far less content in Sea of Thieves — fewer bars to fill, fewer numbers to manage, less to do. The end result is an organic game that has you relying on your friends to fill the role of crewmates. The intrigue comes from whether you can outwit your opponent, navigating through waters with an explosive barrel in your arms, or whether you can hail down a sloop from afar and convince them to down a fort with you.
Skull & Bones, on the other hand, seems to be loaded with features to enable pirates. It’s a game far more tied to real, historical places. You navigate the Indian Ocean, occasionally taking part in sneaky measures like disguising yourself as part of the Portuguese fleet as you come up on a particularly tempting kind of loot: a shipment of African diamonds. This level of detail permeates every level of Skull & Bones, from equipment to boarding to even the weather. The level of graphical detail we saw during the E3 trailers was impressive.
To put it simply, you know it’s storming in Sea of Thieves when you see overcast clouds rolling in. In Skull & Bones, a storm is indicated by the Fortune mechanic, and seems to exist to further complicate and vary an existing mission.
Neither approach is wrong, and there are no doubt disenchanted Sea of Thieves fans who are delighted to see Ubisoft Singapore take a swing at the basic pirate formula and make it their own.
O Captain My Captain
Skull & Bones does offer something quite tantalizing, especially to those players who are playing solo: the ability to control your own ship alone. On Sea of Thieves, sailing solo means you’re at a massive disadvantage and limited to the humble sloop. Skull & Bones staffs your ship with NPC crewmates. You control the crew, the cannons, the navigation ... everything. Even in the multiplayer five-against-five mode, you’re part of a fleet, with each ship standing alone.
Add in a single-player campaign, and it’s easy to see why Skull & Bones is looking extremely tempting for people who don’t want to be as social. No longer do you have to check if your buddy is AFK and refusing to turn the sails. Never again will you run aground because your friends are playing extremely sweet pirate shanties while drunk on grog; you’re at the wheel, handling things. Again, it’s not a better approach, but it’s a way to stand out from what Sea of Thieves is doing so well.
This total control allows the Skull & Bones experience to dig a little deeper into customization. The gameplay trailer showed a ship going incognito with a fraudulent sail, and using their multiple-shot cannon for an extra critical strike. It looks as if you’re going to much more control over your own destiny.
An arr for an arr
One of the biggest things that the two titles have in common is the fact that allies can quickly turn to enemies, and a haul could suddenly turn into a brawl. It wouldn’t be a pirate game unless you have the ability to stab your former friend in the back and help yourself to their loot, after all.
I’m also hoping that Skull & Bones handles the social aspect of the game well when you’re online. When I board a vessel in Sea of Thieves, I delight at hearing my enemies react over comms to my broad shouldered, bulky woman wielding a blunderbuss. I forget usernames, but distinct pirates and stories stick in my head: the shirtless, heavily tattooed bald man with the lopsided grin who sunk me via careful sniping; the slim admiral with long tresses who helped me conquer a fort; the shabby rogue who looked ripped straight from the cover of a romance novel.
Pirates are far more memorable than ships and, in a game based around naval alliances and revenge, I hope Skull & Bones allows the same sense of ownership over your character and ship.
Competition is good
I may be a fan of Sea of Thieves, but Skull & Bones intrigues me. I want both games to succeed after launch, and continue to grow.
A core tenet of pirate fiction is that the captain with no bounties left and no enemies to hunt is a captain with no drive to improve. I want both games to co-exist, pushing at the boundaries of their individual design goals. I want them to inspire and challenge each other.
While Skull & Bones is due for a 2019 release, Sea of Thieves is currently available via Xbox Game Pass or the Microsoft store. With The Hungering Deep concluded, the next expansion event is Cursed Sails, due to go live in July. I can’t wait to play it all.