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Skull & Bones’ 2019 release date is the best thing to happen to it

Just enough time to put some meat on these bones

Three tall ships with full sails open sail away from the viewer in Ubisoft’s pirate adventure Skull and Bones Ubisoft Singapore/Ubisoft
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When I played Skull & Bones at last year’s E3, it was already a good game. Now that it’s due to launch in 2019, it feels like the team has more time to turn it into something great.

Skull & Bones is a game about fighting like a pirate on the high seas. Raise the mains’l and load the cannons up with chain shot, me hearties, and pillage to your heart’s content. Maneuvering is a stately affair, with ships angling to the wind and trying to be the first to land a broadside, while lining up the shot itself feels a lot like a first-person shooter. Aim with the left trigger, shoot with the right and straight on til’ morn.

If you played the sections of ship-to-ship combat in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, then you’ll pick up on how to play Skull & Bones quickly.

But the game that we played last year was player-versus-player only, with four-person teams going at it on the open waters. That felt a little ... thin. Developer Ubisoft Singapore assures us this year that PvP content is still in the game, but the focus of its presentation — and our hands-on demo — was something completely different.

It’s called Hunting Grounds.

Skull & Bones - moon in the sky above the hideout Image: Ubisoft Singapore/Ubisoft

Justin Farren, the game’s creative director, says that when players boot up the final game, they’ll be presented first with the map of the game’s first region: a portion of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Madagascar called the Mozambique Channel. All around the channel will be hotspots where players can participate in PvP, but there will also be areas labeled as Hunting Grounds.

Before they head to the Hunting Grounds, players will have their fortunes read. That will tell them the unique game states that will be in play at the start of their session. Those could be things like more anti-pirate ships on patrol, or a state of war between two AI-controlled nations. It could impact the weather or the winds, or even the amount of plunder available on the map.

Once inside the Hunting Grounds, players will be presented with a number of different options for gameplay. There may be a primary, multipart quest of a sort such as the one we were presented with: to hunt down a rival AI-controlled pirate. Players can follow the quest, or they can ignore it and simply attack the other ships on the map. Bring down enough fat merchant ships, and a bounty hunter will spawn in. Players that manage to sink the bounty hunter’s ship will be rewarded with a treasure chest containing loot.

At any time, players can attack one another. Or they can climb the crow’s nest, spy another player’s ship across the map and invite them to team up. Adversarial or cooperative options abound on the same map, including the opportunity to double cross your newfound friends.

The goal will be to increase the size and the capability of your fleet, augmenting it with weapons of war, but also valuable new members of your crew.

“You’re going to be able to decide how you want to take on those challenges that are important to you,” Farren said. “Your goal is to become the pirate that no other pirate can take down. You do that by working your way up the food chain — building your pirate gang, recruiting a deadly crew, recruiting the people who are going to help you fuel that progression.”

Skull & Bones - captain at the helm in a battle among three ships Image: Ubisoft Singapore/Ubisoft

But preserving player choice — giving users options — is paramount in his team’s design.

“You don’t just log into a mode,” Farren said. “You log in and decide where in the world you want to go, which factions you want to take on, whether you want to do it by yourself or call your friends, or meet new friends within the world. All of those things are based on your own objectives. So if you want to take on team-based PvP, you go into the Disputed Waters. If you want to go into the open world, that’s the Hunting Grounds, you do that.”

In talking with him, however, I distinctly got the impression that there’s still a lot of work to be done. For instance, I asked about the world map that players will use to jump into the game, but Farren was only able to talk in generalities. Similarly, what few cutscenes there were felt clipped and perfunctory, with plenty of room to grow. Farren also told me that the game will change over time, with new parts of the world to explore added in the form of seasons, along with new weapons and characters to unlock.

Recent multiplayer games from Ubisoft, including For Honor and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, had troubled launches. With Skull & Bones, it appears that Ubisoft is opting instead to take its time. For a game with as much potential as this, however, I’m more than happy to wait while the company sorts things out.

The next level of puzzles.

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