Beginning development in 2013, Skull and Bones, conceptually, was a spin-off of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which launched that same year. Both are games where you play as a pirate and engage in naval warfare, improving your ship over time as you gather resources and unlock new crafting recipes. I hoped Skull and Bones would build and iterate on Black Flag–one of my favorite games–to be its own thing. Although naval combat was a pillar of Black Flag, it wasn’t the entire focus of an Assassin’s Creed game, so a game like Skull and Bones–built from the jump to be an entirely pirate-focused adventure at sea–could make some big swings with its deeper naval combat and presentation, free from the quasi-realistic world and the sneaking and stabbing focus of Assassin’s Creed. Having now had a chance to play Skull and Bones, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Based on my experience thus far, Skull and Bones isn’t doing enough to differentiate itself from Black Flag and, as a result, feels like playing a game I already experienced over a decade ago.

When it comes to enjoying Skull and Bones, I think your mileage may vary. Since 2013, we’ve seen more games that have built and improved upon Black Flag’s naval combat–heck, most of them are subsequent Assassin’s Creed games like Rogue and Odyssey. So, even if Black Flag had one of the best (and I’d argue it was the best) naval combat in a video game as of 2013, that’s not the case anymore in 2024. At the very least, Ubisoft’s version of naval combat is no longer novel. For me, it’s a little dated and stale and so, consequentially, Skull and Bones feels a little dated and stale.

There are new ideas in Skull and Bones, sure (Skull and Bones has much more ship customization than Black Flag did, for instance, that’s based on a color-tiered loot system akin to many recent live-service games), but the déjà vu of the experience is overwhelming and hits like whiplash. It regularly pulled me out of any sort of fun I happened to be having. It’s not just the gameplay either–the aesthetic of the experience can feel like it’s just been copied and pasted from Black Flag. For example, some of the sea shanties in Skull and Bones sound like the same ones from Black Flag. In the grand scheme of things, whether or not they’re new recordings isn’t a huge deal–Black Flag has good shanties and I like listening to them. But it’s the startling sum of details like this and other similarities–from the combat mechanics to visuals, and from the sound design to the gameplay loop–that make it feel like I was just playing Black Flag again. And I don’t want to just play Black Flag again.

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