Skull and Bones is back. Ubisoft Singapore’s pirate game that we last saw at E3 2018 has finally sailed back into view and it’s out this November. But what exactly is it? Despite how it looks, Skull and Bones is a very different game to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. In fact, it’s much more like Sea of Thieves than any of Ubisoft’s traditional open world games.
To make sure you’re all set and ready to sail, we spoke to game director Ryan Barnard to find out the seven things you need to know about Skull and Bones.
There’s No Campaign
Unlike most of Ubisoft’s open-world games, Skull and Bones does not have a campaign. “It is definitely not a storyline-driven game,” says Barnard. “You don’t finish Skull & Bones and have credits and a cutscene at the end. It’s something we want to perpetuate as a live game for years and years to come.”
That’s not to say there’s no story at all, though. “We do have pivotal characters or ‘Kingpins’ in the game that you’ll meet on your journey, and they will have bits of story and background that you will be able to [learn through] jobs or the contracts with them,” Barnard explains.
Instead of a main, overarching storyline written by Ubisoft, Skull and Bones’ story is one you make yourself. You set your own objectives, decide how you’ll sail the waves, and plunder ships to increase your wealth and infamy. You can do all of this solo, but Skull and Bones is a shared world game with up to 20 players on each server. You can team up with those other players… or hunt them down, sink their ships, and steal their treasure.
Open Seas Activities
So if there’s no campaign, what exactly do you do in Skull and Bones? Well, the Indian Ocean is full of opportunities. There’s plenty of characters offering work contracts that lead to adventure, explosions, and – most importantly – heaps of treasure.
“We want [activities] to be pirate-oriented,” Barnard reveals. “It’s maybe about bringing some dangerous contraband to different places around the world, or going after and taking out named pirates that are causing trouble for one of the Kingpins, or plundering one of the settlements to get a certain item. Generally [activities] fall into categories of getting things for the pirate that wants those things, or taking things from one place to another for them that’s very dangerous and you can’t lose it or you’ll end up paying the consequences.”
As you explore the ocean you’ll discover trade routes, hidden islands, and enemy armadas. Each one is a new opportunity to fill your hold with booty and raise your infamy. And the more infamous you become, the more you’ll be respected by the world’s characters.
Become a Pirate Kingpin
Infamy is Skull and Bones’ progression system. As you increase your infamy rank, you’ll unlock the ability to captain more impressive ships and experience the game’s higher-level opportunities.
“Your name is a big deal,” says Barnard. “[Back in the age of piracy] if you sank a big ship or a named ship, people hear about it and your infamy grows, and that gives you access to different pirates wanting to work with you and do deals with you. That’s exactly the same flow that our progression follows.”
The highest rank of the infamy ladder is your big, overarching goal: to become a pirate Kingpin, and sit among the most fearsome pirates in the Indian Ocean. “If you play Skull & Bones regularly and you invest the time, you will reach Kingpin,” Barnard assures. “Kingpin is where a new type of experience starts and that can end up being a little bit more competitive.”
Surviving the Seas
Becoming a Kingpin isn’t something that happens overnight. You start with little more than the clothes on your back, and must work your way up from sea urchin, to sailor, to scheming captain. Along the way, you’ll always need to be aware of Skull and Bones’ survival mechanics.
“At the start of the game, you are left with basically nothing, so you need to craft your first spear,” explains Barnard. “You need to hunt some sharks or some fish and grill them to be able to feed yourself and your crew, or they’ll mutiny against you and toss you overboard.”
Wait, mutiny? “To be a good captain, you need to keep your crew happy,” says Barnard. “When they’re out sailing at sea, it’s hard to run these big ships, so we have a concept called morale. [Morale] will drain slowly or quickly depending on the ship type you’re in and how far you are in your infamy. In order to keep that maintained, you need to feed them.”
As you become more successful, what you need to do to survive changes. Managing your ship becomes ever more important and challenging. You’ll need to keep the hull repaired and the cannons loaded, but also keep your weight in careful balance. It’s tempting to loot all the treasure you find, but if your ship is overweight you’ll find it difficult to outrun your enemies. Sometimes it’s best to throw some of that cargo overboard for the good of staying alive.
Craft Your Way To Victory
Making a spear and cooking a fish is enough to survive, but to thrive you’ll want to make the most of Skull and Bones’ crafting system. It starts with, well, almost everything you can find.
“We want this feeling of everything in the world to have value,” Barnard says. “So if you find something, you can use it immediately or it’s something you can save for a blueprint or a design later, or it’s something that you’ll need as a component for a recipe or something you can sell.”
Raw materials collected by gathering and plundering can then be taken to craftsmen NPCs, who can turn them into valuable items for your ship. That could be building a set of new cannons that can more efficiently blast an enemy vessel to splinters, armor plates to protect your hull, or even furniture to make your ship feel a little more personalized.
Ships, Shooters, and Sailors
Your ship is your most important possession in Skull and Bones; as the game is set almost entirely at sea, your ship is both your transport and weapon. As such, Ubisoft Singapore has put effort into making sure it’s easy to set up your sails and fire your cannons.
“I think it’s very intuitive,” says Barnard. “It’s very easy to pick up sailing your different ships that we have in the game. Combat is something that we also wanted to make sure that is very intuitive, something that’s like if you were playing a shooter.”
There’s a variety of ships to captain, from tiny dhows and sloops, to the mid-sized sambuks and brigantines, and beyond. Each can be fitted with a wide range of guns, from classic cannons to more specialized equipment like flamethrowers and the multi barreled mortar. Combining the right ships and guns will be important, as different contracts will demand different approaches. A courier task requires an entirely different set up to a fortress assault, for instance.
It’s also important to remember that your ship and cannons aren’t your only tools. Smart use of your crew is vital if you want to sail away with the best loot.
“As you do damage [to other ships], the crew gets whipped into this fervor and at some point you’ll be able to execute what we call a ‘crew to crew attack’ . . . If you time it right to where your enemy ship is lower health, [your crew] will execute a boarding maneuver and that hooks [the enemy] in. That’s the only way that you get all the loot in the cargo.”
While most of Skull and Bones’ world is made up of water, there are locations on land that you can visit and explore. These areas are similar to base camps in games like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed; they are where you’ll meet NPCs and other players, take on contracts, craft new items, and build up your fleet. The biggest of these locations are the Pirate Dens, but smaller outposts can be found scattered through the Indian Ocean.
“In the dens, this is where you’ll have your warehouse, where you will most likely be socializing with other pirates, where you can craft all of your different weapons and new ships and those kind of things, where you can refine materials,” explains Barnard.
“Outposts, which are scattered all the way throughout the world, rotate,” he continues. “It could be that one of the factions is at that outpost at this time, and they’re offering a certain set of contracts just for the time that they’re there. [Outposts are also] places where you buy new blueprints or designs as you progress through infamy [tiers].”
Barnard also promises that Outposts are where you’ll discover more about the Indian Ocean and the pirates who live there. “You’ll find bits of lore that lead to the story. Why is everybody here? What happened? There’s a deeper, underlying story that it’s not a linear narrative, but it’s something you can investigate and learn about as a player.
And those are the seven things you need to know about Skull and Bones. It’s set to release this November, so be sure to stay tuned to IGN for more information about what to expect in the Indian Ocean.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.