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Skull and Bones is, despite half a dozen delays and some lingering dark clouds, one of the most addictive and vibrant piracy simulators we've ever played; not that many exist. It offers a surprising amount of freedom in how players approach it, and it looks and runs beautifully on PS5, even during large-scale fleet battles. Developer Ubisoft Singapore has created a vibrant, interconnected world of seamless swashbuckling action, and if you can recruit a few reliable mates, sailing the high seas and engaging in all kinds of nautical hijinks will be a blast.

Beginning life as DLC for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag back in 2013, all the twists and turns of development are too intricate to recount here, but suffice to say, that original kernel of compelling naval combat has endured for over ten long years. Skull and Bones' core gameplay loop represents a distilled form of that, learning lessons from later AC efforts like Odyssey and Valhalla to create Ubisoft's most reactive aquatic play space yet, provided you are willing to get on board with the maritime conceit; players will spend as much time engaged in mundane ship management, and hunting down specific crafting materials, as they will in waging war on the high seas, drawing in massive armadas.

Sailing feels incredible, and the "game feel" here is the real standout star of the show. With realistic weather effects (including dynamic wind direction), wave physics, and many different moving parts, Skull and Bones is a surprisingly immersive experience. However, budding pirates must endure captaining a series of glorified dinghies until the good stuff becomes available. It's a slow burn, but Skull and Bones already had its hooks in once we started seizing goods from unsuspecting ships, putting the profits back into something capable of delivering a decent broadside. There isn't much of a narrative to speak of, just a handful of rather bland characters who act as quest-givers and keep you moving around the game's massive map, and yet our desire to have our growing fleet of ships outfitted and ready for action kept us engaged right from the outset.

Combat truly shines, and not knowing much about Skull and Bones before diving in, we were shocked to discover the deep RPG roots underpinning the action. Ships are the most meaningful purchase players can make, and working towards new vessels is what players will spend most of their time doing. Each has a different size and role in battle, even designated class functions like DPS, Tank, and Support, with Perks that make them particularly suited to a specific task. Add to that the different complements allowed by each ship's configurations (how many weapons. armour, or extras can be equipped at once), affecting overall speed, acceleration, and responsiveness, and you begin to appreciate the mechanical depth.

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Weapon variety is solid, and each has its place and specific use case, which must be considered. Just in terms of cannons alone, Long Guns allow for accurate shots from massive ranges, and Demi-Cannons serve as ship-mounted shotguns capable of shredding hulls up close. Culverins fire round shots and provide a balance between the two, and deciding where to place them on deck is as essential as when to employ them. Bombards offer massive splash damage, Mortars a proper arc and elemental effects, and Torpedoes an underwater alternative; everything is competing for the same limited space on your ship and must be managed in real-time while ponderously attempting to dodge whatever enemy ships can throw at you.

Various factions inhabit the massive open world of Skull and Bones, which ranges from the shores of Africa to the vastness of the Indian Ocean and the multiple islands of the West Indies. Players begin in what is roughly Madagascar and will immediately observe merchant fleets following trade routes and the colonial warships that guard them. Local inhabitants are engaged in industry, transporting finished goods to nearby ports. They engage in conflicts with competing factions, unaffiliated pirates, players who will prey on them all, each other, and any wildlife unfortunate enough to be a necessary ingredient for a wanted upgrade.

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Ubisoft's UI deserves a shoutout, as tracking the resources required to craft a ship's kit is a breeze. All the information needed to pilot a boat successfully is readily available onscreen and discreetly. The map works wonderfully and is a handy tool, displaying any discovered trading routes and what goods merchant vessels travelling on it carry. Savvy pirates will form their plundering routes in response, farming the most efficient waters like their real-life counterparts. Speaking of which, it's possible to make a fortune by more honest means in Skull and Bones as well: buying commodities and turning a profit on the side is something you should be doing anyway, but dynamic Bounty and Delivery missions are well worth an enterprising captain's time.

Skull and Bones isn't all blue skies and smooth sailing, however. It's very grindy; if you wanted to be uncharitable, you could say all the player does is grind for one thing or another. Whether that's XP to increase Infamy Rank and get access to better ships, blueprints for better weapons to equip them with, the materials required for those weapons, and the money to pay for it all, a pirate's life is one of constant hustling. There are ten standard Infamy Ranks, and after that, a post-game Kingpin system comes into play, which works a lot like Call of Duty's Prestige system, allowing players to keep levelling as long as they can stomach the game's admittedly great naval combat. But with no real story to speak of and gameplay, which (while impressive) eventually becomes repetitive, Skull and Bones inevitably run out of tricks. Players can expect around 20 hours of playful plundering to reach Kingpin Rank, perhaps twice that to see and do everything on offer.


Skull and Bones delivers boatloads of explosive tactical action, with players playing the part of pirates in an impressive oceanic world. Its 17th-century naval battles are best-in-class, with developer Ubisoft Singapore building a firm foundation for future voyages. But with no real story to speak of and little in the way of variation, repetition inevitably sets in. While not the spiritual successor to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag as some might have been hoping for, Skull and Bones is never-the-less an incredibly unique, reactive game well worth checking out.