Way back in 2013, Ubisoft launched Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which boosted the franchise after the uneven Assassin's Creed III. Black Flag left behind land for an adventure as a pirate, sailing the open sea of the Caribbean and plundering treasure from those that would hoard it. Black Flag left a mark on the franchise. Folks actually wanted Ubisoft to split off the pirate adventure into its own series.
Despite that taste in the announcement trailer, Skull & Bones isn't quite that game. There's no on-foot play here, meaning you'll never dock your ship at a port of call and go running through the streets. Skull & Bones is the work of Ubisoft Singapore, the studio behind the ocean and water technology in many of the Assassin's Creed games. The title is Ubisoft Singapore's chance at its own game, doing what it does best.
So Skull & Bones offers a ship-bound experience, with players exploring the high seas and destroying those that would stand in their way. There is apparently solo and cooperative play in the game, but what we've seen so far has been mostly competitive, charging fleets of player pirates with sinking each other and collecting loot. At E3, Ubisoft showed off the Loot Hunt mode, which pits two teams of five players against one another to see who can steal the most loot.
In the E3 demo, player choices are limited to the type of ship you captain. There's the long-range glass cannon Marksman, the mid-range attack and ramming power of the Enforcer, and the close-range, heavy armor Bruiser. In Loot Hunt, you have to pick a team that complements each other. I chose the Enforcer, figuring I'd do better up close and personal.
If you've played Black Flag, then you'll be happy to know ship movement and combat haven't changed all that much. Momentum is important, as the ships can't stop and turn on a dime. You have to think about where you're going before you get there. Fighting is done primarily via broadside cannons, though every ship has weapons for front and rear combat. There's also special abilities like mortars that give you more attacking options.
One significant change in Skull & Bones is the addition of a wind simulation. Your map now shows wind currents, which twist around in random paths. Trying to sail against the wind will stop you in your tracks, while sailing directly with the wind gives you a boost of speed. It adds a bit more complexity to ship movement.
Loot Hunt drops both teams into open water. Your starting objective is to destroy NPC ships and take their loot. This quickly morphs into the PVP side of combat, as both teams end up fighting one another to grab a larger share of the loot. A destroyed ship leaves loot debris that you have to pass over to pick up. Boarding of weakened ships is available in Skull & Bones, but it's an automated action that you initiate when a ship is weakened, instead of a playable moment. It does heal your ship though, making it a great option in the middle of combat.
Even if you have the most loot on your team's ships, there is a twist to Loot Hunt. It only counts towards your team's score if your ship escapes. Towards the end of a match, AI pirate hunters will sail into the playing field and a timer shows how long you have to cut and run. This turns the fight into a three-way battle, with both teams trying to escape and prevent their opponents from doing so, while the pirate hunters attack both sides.
In my first match, we lost because while we were winning in loot overall, none of us escaped. One member of the opposing team did. In our second match, we rallied and all escaped to win the game. The end of match escape phase adds a ton of tension to the game, because you have to decide whether to bail with what you have, or stay around to collect more. I hit the escape boundary with 3 seconds to spare in my final match, which was a white knuckle moment.
There's more to see in Skull & Bones, but so far, Ubisoft Singapore's showing at E3 2017 was pretty fun. Much like Dreadnought, it's a PVP action game without a twitch reflexes requirement. You have time to decide what you want to do. Ubisoft Singapore also has time to show off the rest of the game, as Skull & Bones isn't coming out on PS4, Xbox One, and PC until Fall 2018.