During Ubisoft's E3 2017 media briefing, the company unveiled a new pirate game due out in autumn 2018: Skull & Bones. The news didn't exactly come as a surprise to the developers at Rare, makers of fellow 2018 pirate game Sea of Thieves, but they'll have watched the detailed gameplay trailers with interest nonetheless.
All of a sudden, there are two big pirate games coming out next year. But what sets them apart? What makes Sea of Thieves different than Skull & Bones? Rare's Ted Timmins, a designer on Sea of Thieves, points out some pretty stark differences that make the two games fundamentally different.
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"For us it's you are the pirate and you work together with a crew," Timmins tells me at a Microsoft showcase event at E3. His point here is clear: in Sea of Thieves you actually play as a pirate who is free from the shackles of a pirate ship. Your pirate can leap into the water, explore mysterious shipwrecks, hunt for treasure on islands and fight skeletons with a sword. In Skull & Bones, while you assume the role of a pirate, you mostly play as the boat you sail.
Skull & Bones emerged from the naval combat in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, and while it's set in a shared open ocean, it's heavily combat-focused. In Skull & Bones, you build a fleet of ships you can customise and set out to take down rival pirate captains.
You pick your pirate ship class based on your preferred playstyle and evolve it with an RPG system. Out in the Indian Ocean, the combat comes into play. You have to harness the wind system to position yourself just right before blowing enemies to bits. You can do this alone, but you'll need to work with other player-controlled pirate ships to fight large merchant ships, among other powerful enemies.
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In Skull & Bones there are five versus five competitive matches available to play, but you can play combat solo, Ubisoft has said. Whatever the case, the idea is you grow your influence over time, and as you do, you attract a greater challenge for you and your gang.
Skull & Bones, then, seems to revolve around combat, whereas Sea of Thieves is more about co-op exploration, riddle-solving and, well, messing about. Yes, there is combat in Rare's game, but it's not particularly complex or sophisticated. You can fire cannons at enemy ships. You can even fire yourself out of a cannon onto an enemy ship. And when you're up close you can fire a pistol in what feels like rudimentary first-person combat. But combat is just one part of Sea of Thieves. It's more about getting together with friends to have a big of a laugh.
Tonally, the two games couldn't be more different. Skull & Bones is going for a realistic look that edges towards pirate ship simulation. Sea of Thieves employs a heavily-stylised, cartoon aesthetic that doesn't take itself seriously. This is not to say Sea of Thieves does not look impressive. The water looks fantastic and at one point during my hands-on, when the sun was coming up over the horizon, I dared to think it was beautiful. Skull & Bones looks gorgeous in its own way. If we think of Sea of Thieves as The Goonies meets The Secret of Monkey Island, Skull & Bones is Black Sails meets For Honor.
"What you get with a Rare game is funny, British and quaint," Timmins says. "If you play Sea of Thieves you will come away with a smile on your face, and you will fire yourself out of cannons and you will eat bananas that don't look like they're meant to be eaten and you will be attacked by sharks."
Sea of Thieves does indeed contain that trademark Rare flourish, that lovely touch that makes you smile. For example, when you die you find yourself on a Ghost Ship while you wait to respawn. This Ghost Ship acts as a social space where you can see and even talk to other players who die around the same time. So, say you're killed by some other player, then the player who killed you dies. All of a sudden you're both on the Ghost Ship looking at each other. Hi!
"It's about being a pirate and it's our perspective of what that was like," Timmins says. "Other developers will have their own perspective of what being a pirate was like, but this is the Rare perspective - what a British studio in the middle of the countryside thinks being a pirate in the Caribbean is like."
I get the impression Sea of Thieves will be a popular game with streamers and those who like to watch people play games where things can very much go wrong. There's an organised chaos to Sea of Thieves that encourages silly moments. Skull & Bones, on the other hand, feels to me like it could be an eSport, or at least wants very much to be taken seriously as a competitive multiplayer game. There are damage numbers and everything.
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Skull & Bones will organise its players into competitive multiplayer, whereas Sea of Thieves, which is looking to expand a single instance of its game world to support five crews of four players, seems content to provide the ingredients for clashes, leaving it up to the players to make their own fun.
My play time with Sea of Thieves was a case in point. While we were thrust into the gameplay demo shown off during Microsoft's E3 2017 media briefing, our session did not follow the same route or even come to the same conclusion. We started off just farting about, jumping around a boat, each member of the crew messing with this item or that. I thought it would be funny to fill my bucket with water and chuck it on my fellow crew members. After we managed to set sail (a trial in of itself), we ended up at the target island and fired each other, via cannon, onto its beach. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we managed to bust a hole in the hull of our ship, and it started to sink. Before we realised what was happening, it was too late. We'd lost our ship. Ah well, never mind. No-one was that attached to it in the first place.
It seems loot underpins both Sea of Thieves and Skull & Bones, but each approaches it differently. Skull & Bones looks like it thinks about loot as other Ubisoft games, such as The Division and For Honor, do. In Sea of Thieves, chests are graded by rarity. The better quality the chest, or the rarer the chest, the better the loot inside. But you can't simply open a chest when you find it. You have to pick it up, cart it back to your ship, then sail it back to port to cash it in. Say you sink a ship and their chests bob to the surface. One might be mythical quality, another rare and the final three all common. But as you swim out to grab the chests, another crew turns up. Are they friend or foe? Proximity chat actually lets you discuss the situation. Perhaps you agree to share the spoils. Perhaps not. Either way, carrying a treasure chest is always a risk.
Then there are Weeping chests to content with. These super valuable chests sink your ship on the sly, so you have to keep chucking water out to keep afloat. And what of the Drunk chests? When you're carrying a Drunk chest, you're automatically hammered, making it particularly tricky to get back to your ship.
"Everything in Sea of Thieves is built to be tangible," Timmins continues. "Like the chests, which are physical things in the world that can be stolen, lost and even thrown overboard."
While I'm more enamoured by Sea of Thieves than Skull & Bones at this stage, there are aspects of Rare's game that worry me. It currently feels devoid of purpose. Yes, it's a lot of fun, but to what end? Ted Timmins tells me pirate progression is an important part of what makes Sea of Thieves click, it's just Rare isn't showing that part of the game off yet. Skull & Bones, however, seems clear in its purpose, even at this early stage: form the most powerful pirate gang in the Indian Ocean.
Skull & Bones has questions to answer, too, such as what is there to do in the game beyond combat? Can you leave your ship at any point, perhaps to explore a port? And is there any meaningful story?
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For now, though, it's important to remember that while there are two big new pirate games coming out in 2018, they're actually pretty different. Perhaps there's room in the virtual ocean for both?