I’m not sure I’ll ever leave the prologue area in Skull And Bones

Last night I spent an hour in Ubisoft Singapore’s Skull And Bones, the much-reconceived, nigh-mythical open world pirate game that has been in development since 2013. Taking a leaf from the book of feared intergalactic corsair Samus Aran, the prologue starts you off at the height of your bucanneering powers, with a mighty gold-and-scarlet galleon at your disposal that is shortly blown to bits by the English Navy.

You wake up on a piece of soggy driftwood, which also neatly serves as a reflective surface in which to customise your character’s face, and are given command of a humble sloop. Then it’s off to rove a small archipelago full of surviving shipmates, centred on the massive, listing hulk of your former vessel. There’s a tutorial fetchquest, a cannon-firing minigame, sharks to hunt, and a couple of campfire hubs where you can turn those sharks into stamina-replenishing consumables. At the end of it you’re given coordinates for Sainte-Anne, aka “pirate paradise”, and invited to build your legend as a freebooter. My voyage immediately foundered, however, because I finished the prologue before the game had finished installing. Cast back from the horizon by an “out of bounds” screen, I undertook another tour of the opening area.

A small ship on open ocean with the low sun visible near a waypoint in Ubisoft's open world game Skull And Bones

Two pirates standing on a small wooden sloop in Ubisoft's open world game Skull And Bones

A first-person view of the player steering a ship in Ubisoft's open world game Skull And Bones

Several pirates mingling at a campsite in Ubisoft's open world game Skull And Bones

Image credit: Ubisoft/Rock Paper Shotgun

Having to reverse course wasn’t entirely unwelcome. You see, I have a thing – please don’t call it a fetish – for never leaving opening areas in videogames. Recent sources of shame include Scorn, the Giger-inspired first-person adventure with wibbly grafted-on shooting elements. I have never completed its very first proper puzzle, which involves moving massive alien chicken nuggets around a vertical board to power up a door. Instead, I only picked at the puzzle before retreating into the surrounding tunnel system, with its bevy of biomechanical fixtures pulsating to either side or squelching underfoot, and its soothing absence of NPCs.

Scorn, you might have read, isn’t so hot on the old gunplay front, even if the guns themselves are a gristly delight. Hence, my disinclination to cross the threshold into areas with active threats. On a similar note, I’m reluctant to enter the wider world of Skull And Bones because there is a whole bunch of looting, progression and other live service gubbins out there, and I am on record as being very tired of these things. As regards Ubisoft specifically, I think those broader structural elements often overwrite the undeniable pastoral splendour of many Ubisoft gameworlds. So it was kind of a relief to be thwarted, and obliged to spend some time enjoying the scenery without any further busywork to attend to while the remaining 20% of the game downloaded.

What if Ubisoft devoted their impossible resources to the creation of a gentler, exploratory simulation like A Short Hike? God, I think that would be marvellous. You can see how it might work in the wonderful intricacy of NPC life in an Ubisoft open world. I wrote an Assassin’s Creed review on here back in the day (I won’t link to it because it’s probably really awful and I don’t want to remind myself) in which I talked about the experience of following exactly one travelling labourer across the countryside to a city. In that city, there was a simulation of metalworking that I was able to trace to the sale of arrowheads, I think, in another town right across the map. God, can you imagine how charming and beautiful Ubisoft’s open worlders would be – how restful and majestic – if they’d only quit looting, levelling and live-servicing and dedicate their narratives and designwork to such things.

You catch the image of that game, of course, in the various Discovery modes of Assassin’s Creed. And I caught glimmers of it, too, in the set-dressing of those opening islands in Skull And Bones. The islets around the shipwrecked galleon are full of marooned NPC pirates (plus a spectral handful of fellow players), all busy processing their defeat by means of the traditional pirate debriefing rite of getting absolutely legless. There are pantomime scuffles, people dancing, old seadogs flopped over singing or capering in the surf. I’m pretty sure I met somebody who was having a conversation with a bottle of rum. There’s also a perpetually “dying man” in one corner, his apparent sole function being to direct you towards somebody else who can actually give you a quest. In the belly of the smashed galleon, meanwhile, the figure of the captain slumps over his map table, surrounded by splintered riches.

Cover image for YouTube videoSkull and Bones: Launch Trailer

It would be deeply frivolous to read Skull And Bones opening with a shipwreck scene as some kind of metaphor for the game’s own extraordinarily rocky development, which has proceeded from one redesign and leadership reshuffle to the next amidst changing industry trends, pandemic conditions and accusations of misconduct and toxicity at several Ubisoft studios. It would be powerfully facetious to point at that huge, ruined vessel in the centre of the archipelago and declare “thus the grim fate of a triple-A live service game that has fallen behind the times”.

But I do want to sincerely draw a comparison in one respect, in that I hope the cathartic piratical merry-making on show in the shallows is a portrait of rank-and-file developers at Ubisoft Singapore and supporting studios, as their troubled project finally hits the open water. I don’t want you all to drink yourselves into a stupor, mind you. I’m not sure shark-hunting qualifies as workplace detox, either. But I do hope those of you who’ve been on this journey since 2013 are finally getting the chance to let your hair down.

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