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So far, the Skull and Bones beta has just made me want to play Sea of Thieves again

Skull and Bones is finally coming out this month (or so we’re told), and this week’s open beta is Ubisoft‘s last best chance to convince us that the long-delayed pirate game is worth $60. I played a few hours of it today, and I can’t say I’m convinced, though I won’t rule out that it gets better in the endgame.

It starts with Ubisoft’s typical early game babying: Before you graduate from captaining a dinghy, generic pirate NPCs make you prove that you understand complicated game systems such as pressing F to pick up floating loot, and you’re sent schlepping between little islands in search of an acacia tree to cut down. That task took me a while, because other players had already harvested all the nearby acacia groves, and I guess they take a while to respawn. Yo ho yo ho, another stump for me.

Should logging really be one of the first things you do in a pirate game? Probably not, but after acquiring lumber and finally building a proper ship, I could focus on sinking NPC merchants to amass wealth and supplies, which is better.

The combat is simple fun, although it’s more like piloting a speedboat than captaining a 17th century ship. I guess I somehow failed to absorb any of the nearly 30 Skull and Bones trailers Ubisoft put out over the past seven years, because I’d been picturing something slower and more dignified, like the capital ship battles of Fractured Space (except on the ocean, obviously).

It’s easy to maneuver into cannon range with NPC merchants and fishing ships, and landing shots doesn’t take any great ballistics intuition. A crew stamina bar does add some friction, though in an artificial-feeling way—they get too tired to make the ship go fast, basically.

The stamina system also prompts ridiculous complaints from the crew about being hungry, since cooked food gives them buffs—eat before we leave for high seas adventures, you dolts! Their constant mewling and barking (they yell about everything they see, just in case I didn’t notice all the big ships around me) made me pine for the poignant solitude of a solo session in Rare’s Sea of Thieves.

At first I thought Ubisoft was making a grittier, bloodier counterpoint to Rare’s charming, whimsical pirate game, but Skull and Bones isn’t really gritty or bloody. It’s cheesy and unnatural. After I constructed my first ship, I was shown a celebratory animation in which my character aggressively applauded at the shipwright like a wine-drunk adult trying to get a reaction from a baby. It reminded me of those TikTokers who pretend to be NPCs, or those ads for fake mobile games where the player becomes a Level 99 Boss. I can’t imagine growing attached to this world.

Maybe the real Skull and Bones fun comes from teaming up with other players, forming a mini-fleet and battling other groups. None of the players I passed wanted to join up. I took potshots at some, but at our level, PvP seemed futile—my cannonballs lacked gusto when it came to damaging player ships, and hull repairs are too easy for them to have felt threatened. (It’s like using a health pack in a shooter.) I did enjoy pointlessly ramming into players who were trying to sail into the main settlement, spinning them around just to be annoying. Sometimes you have to make your own fun.

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If Skull and Bones gets better with bigger, better-armed ships out in the open seas—there’s a whole PvPvE endgame where you can take over manufacturers and set up your own trade routes, which sounds cool—we’ll say so in our review.

So far, I just feel a renewed desire for the simple but thrilling adventures and mishaps of Sea of Thieves, which emphasizes simulation and player agency (aka the freedom of an individual to cause massive problems for everyone else) over the structured progression of Skull and Bones, where I’m running routine quests to unlock ship and weapon blueprints and collect the materials to build them.

I’ll give Skull and Bones one thing… I do want to have this peg-legged cat on my ship:

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