11 Years Later, You Can Finally Play Ubisoft’s Long Lost Open-World Game

Skulls and Bones went into production over a decade ago. Why did it take so long to finally hit shelves?

Skull and Bones
Photo: Ubisoft

It hardly seems real, but pirate action-adventure Skull and Bones is an actual finished game you can go buy and play right now, 11 years after Ubisoft first started production on the title and seven years since it was unveiled at a 2017 E3 presentation (remember those?). The open-world title you’ll get out of the box emphasizes naval battles, ship building, and exploration, but the game infamously changed shapes multiple times during its long, tortured development cycle, with false starts and delays turning it into one of the most troubled AAA productions of the last decade.

Skull and Bones began life as an expansion for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag before Ubisoft turned the project into a full-blown MMO spinoff called Black Flag Infinite to add a live service component on the ship combat mechanics fans loved from its predecessor. But those were just two iterations of the game.

As reported by Kotaku in 2021, the game was also reworked at one point as a “session-based shooter” in the same vein as Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege “but with boats.” Then the project shifted to be more like popular survival title Rust, emphasizing crafting, resource management, and a roguelike gameplay loop, alongside ship combat. The multiplayer framework, a key ingredient for the game’s live service longevity, also changed several times, shifting from a PvP only experience to an open-world map with a PvE region “similar to The Division’s Dark Zones, [where] players could loot hideouts, fight one another, or work together to take on more powerful AI opponents.”

The game’s setting also shifted from the Caribbean to more fantastical locations: “One version was inspired by Sid Meier’s Pirates! and played out in a fantastical world called Hyperborea through branching multiplayer campaigns that lasted weeks. Another revolved around an elaborate floating base called Libertalia—a ‘cathedral on water,’ as one developer described it—inspired by the mythical pirate colony of the same name,” reported Kotaku. In the Skulls and Bones hitting shelves today, you can set sail across East Africa and Southeast Asia in the 17th century.

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Reportedly costing over $120 million, the project was delayed six times from its original 2018 date, being bounced around Ubisoft’s release schedule, while multiple creative directors came and went, each with their own vision of what the game should be. There were also many prototypes, plenty of overtime, and lots of employee turnover due to burnout at lead studio Ubisoft Singapore.

“It’s a classic case of mismanagement for eight years,” a former developer told Kotaku of the project’s issues. “Instead of adding layers of value we kept running around in a loop.”

But now Skull and Bones is finally out and critics are sharing their first impressions of the game’s open beta period, which took place ahead of the full release.

“I’ve already found a yo-ho-whole lot to be excited about after spending nearly 30 hours with its surprisingly unconstrained open beta this past weekend,” wrote IGN in their review in progress. “Aside from the expected instability one usually encounters with a beta for an online game, the only red flags so far are the lackluster story and a list of endgame activities that feel like they could become repetitive in short oar-der. I won’t be able to complete my voyage until the full version sets sail later this week, but I’m already excited to sea more.”

“Maybe I could excuse this dull resource management and the lack of exciting pirate gameplay if the game looked gorgeous and had some impressive digital water. But even the ocean in Skull and Bones isn’t much to write home about; a shame since you spend a lot of time looking at it,” said Kotaku in their own write-up, criticizing the game’s dependence on fetch quests and resource gathering in its early hours.

GamesRadar similarly pointed to the game’s slow opening hours as reason to worry the title might turn off players: “It does well to hide a lot of its more interesting content and quests later into the game. It takes a while to get going, and the on-land stuff – at least from what I’ve seen so far – never evolves beyond what you see in those opening hours. The story gets more interesting, as do the associated quests, I’m just wary that some may get turned off by the slowness of the opening hours. So far, I’m enjoying Skull and Bones as a pirate ship fantasy builder, it’s just missing a lot of the off-ship pirate fun that makes games like Sea of Thieves so alluring.”

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Of course, you can just go ahead and see for yourself whether the wait (and the emotional and physical toll this project took on the studio’s current and former staff) was worth it. Like I said, Skull and Bones is finally a game you can in fact play right this second.

Skull and Bones is out now for Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, PC, and Amazon Luna.