One of the more under-the-radar gems of E3 is Ubisoft's Skull and Bones, a surprise IP just announced as the ceremony began featuring fun and revolutionary multiplayer unlike you've ever seen. Wait... Ubisoft? Multiplayer? Revolutionary? I've heard these descriptors before - in fact, I've used these descriptors before, on a game that has only recently left our consciousness: For Honor.
As of late, that's not a comparison many games would be jumping to receive. For Honor has only been in the recent headlines for its near-historic drop in player count since launch, losing 95% of its player base in three months. Before that, websites were making the rounds just how long you'd have to play For Honor to unlock max gear level, and, spoiler alert, it was a lot.
But, underneath all the controversy and blemishes (of which there were many), For Honor had a core gameplay that was as fun as it was technical, as revolutionary as it was challenging, and ultimately provided an experience you couldn't get with any other video game. If its player count is anything by which to go, For Honor was a botched IP. But Ubisoft is in a unique situation where they can again provide a revolutionary multiplayer game with fun and technical gameplay that is unlike anything you've ever played with Skull and Bones.
If it feels like I've spent the majority of this intro explaining what Skull and Bones could be rather than what it is, then you are mistaken - I've spent the entirety of the intro on explaining that. If you've already clicked away, that's a shame, because what Skull and Bones is in its current state is worth of thorough examination, and that examination will not be delayed any further.
A Pirate's Life for E3
Skull and Bones isn't the first game to feature pirate ship combat. Hell, it's not even the only one to be displayed at E3 2017. Rare's Sea of Thieves also had a well-received showcase. But something about Skull and Bones feels so different once you're behind the wheel of one of its pirate ships.
You're now a ship captain. Where the ship moves, how the ship fires and at what targets it aims its many canons is all up to you. While Skull and Bones is said to have multiple game modes, only one was on display at E3, and the others haven't been detailed. In this mode, your ship teams up with four others to try to plunder more loot than another team of five ships and their captains.
There are multiple classes of ships that play a variety of different roles, with the Marksman the Enforcer and the Bruiser, and they play exactly how their name implies (Marksman is good for range, enforcer is good for defense, etcetera), but they each have a different set of weapons and a unique ability that help each class feel more unique than their simplistic roles imply.
Thar She Blows!
Beyond roles and handling of ships, though, Skull and Bones is also deceptively technical. Moving your ship requires, of course, the use of the wind. Your minimap will tell you where the wind is blowing. Charging with the wind will help, but it will help more if you cast your sails appropriately. Going against the wind will not be so easy, and monitoring how your sails are positioned is paramount to not standing still.
Technical know-how is also a must. It seems all of your ship's weapons are projectiles, as you would assume, meaning you have to know properly assess your aim and adjust for your target's movement. You can also take advantage of the viewpoint from the top of the center mast not only to scout out and assess the movement of targets, but also to set your sights on new targets and new opportunities for loot.
Ships are also not simply bags of health that need to be whittled down until they burst. Each side of a ship has its own health bar and depleting either one is sufficient enough to sink the ship. So, you may have nearly taken out one side of a ship, but, if they flip around, you'll either need to follow them or coordinate with your teammates to finish them off.
One thing you'll notice pretty early on is that Skull and Bones has absolutely no friendly fire. So, while ramming enemy ships and shooting them with your cannons does a fair bit of damage, you can play bumper boats with your teammates as often as you'd like and fire at them for kicks and giggles with no real consequences. At first, this seems like a bit of a misfire. Wouldn't friendly fire add a whole new level of challenge and up the chaos factor?
The thing is Skull and Bonescan already feel chaotic. Ships will be sinking left and right, with shots coming from all directions that you can brace for to up your defense. Not to mention that there's a third, neutral party of AI ships that both attack and hold precious loot, so you're never short on things to do and people to fire at, even without the possibility of hitting your teammates.
Plus, I have to wonder if Skull and Bones would even be possible with friendly fire. So many ships sailing about in what is actually a limited space (there is an out-of-bounds area that will sink your ship if you venture there for too long) would lead to many bumps and possible misfires, so much so that the game's fun factor would severely diminish.
Skull and Bones is currently slated for release in Fall of 2018, so we're a ways off before we'll really get our taste of this pirate's life. But, if the finished product comes close to what we played at E3, and if further game modes expand upon it, and if Ubisoft can avoid some of the pitfalls of For Honor, than Skull and Bones can be one of the best titles of the year.