It shouldn’t work: swinging big, heavy boats in slow wide arcs to bring cannons to bear, so you can fire the ballistic equivalent of highly polished rocks at your enemy. But Skull and Bones manages it, lifting the navel battles from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag lock stock and all the barrels to create a stand alone multiplayer game.
It’s not just a big boaty deathmatch either. The mode I played pitted two teams against each other to loot AI ships, fight each other and then get away – the amount stolen only counting towards your score if you manage to escape at the end. It creates a pleasing three way pull between you and the other two factions as you try to navigate combat and looting.
There’s a nice twist to all this as well where you can defeat human enemies and steal their collective winnings. As a matches progress that becomes a more interesting tactic, with successful players becoming bigger and bigger targets. It gives the game an almost two stage feel: fight to grab all the loot, then protect your richest player while trying to take down the opposition’s biggest fish in return. Plus, you have to make a successful get away (sailing to a safe area of the map as pirate hunting ships close in) potentially trading shots and skirmishes along the way
Doing that requires team work, as the different ship classes (revealed so far) have strengths and weaknesses that can make unsupported one-on-one combat tricky. There’s the Bruiser for example: a middleweight ship that’s relatively fast, with good armaments and a battering ram but not a great range. The Marksman has range, but an eggshell-like fragility that means it has to use it. And, finally, there’s the Enforcer – a battle tub of a boat with high firepower and armour but all the maritime grace of a waterlogged pillow. It all adds another tactical layer, as you need a team mix to be effective, and have to play to each ships’ strength. It’s not quite Overwatch with boats but a clever class change mid-match can make a difference if your strategy isn’t working.
Mechanically, it’s otherwise identical to Black Flag’s combat – dropping speed for tight turns (great for catching enemies off guard) and using the camera to select which bank of cannons you’re going to let rip. It’s a slower paced shooter as a result, but much more thoughtful as you try to guess enemy intentions while trying to surprise them with a sudden course change of your own. Bringing your guns to bear and being rewarded with the crashing, splintering impact of a successful volley is all the more satisfying for it – you’re not just pointing and shooting, you’re anticipating, planning and executing.
As fun as all this is, it does still feel like a proof of concept currently with much to prove. How Ubi can expand on it, with classes, modes and more, will make all the difference. It’s entirely vehicle based now with boarding reduced to a button triggered cutscene. The shouts of your captain and crew add loads of character but remain steadfastly anchored to deck, meaning this will sink or swim purely on the strength of its boating action.