Sea of Thieves vs. Skull and Bones: which pirate game is right for you?

The average landlubber would have a hard time distinguishing between the two online-focused, shared open-world pirate games coming ashore in 2018. But even the most seasoned scallywag may not know all the bits and pieces that make Rare's Sea of Thieves (headed to Xbox One and PC in early 2018) so different from Ubisoft's Skull and Bones (arriving for PS4, Xbox One, and PC in Fall 2018). And for pirate fans trying to save some doubloons by only buying one game or the other, it can be tricky figuring out which one will best suit your tastes in seafaring adventure. Well, wonder no more. By answering these quick questions, you'll know whether Sea of Thieves or Skull and Bones is the pirate game for you. And if you're setting sail for both, so much the better - just make sure you don't over-shiver those timbers.

What's the best part of any pirate adventure? 

Naval battles (Skull and Bones): Simply put, Skull and Bones is all about the boats - and though that could potentially change as Ubisoft reveals more in the months leading up to launch, you should consider it to be a strictly seafaring vehicular combat game for the time being. This appears to be what'd you'd get if you took Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and stripped out all the on-land bits, putting the focus entirely on grandiose ship skirmishes as pirate crews vie for dominance across the Indian Ocean. There's no evidence that you'll ever be disembarking for land or controlling isolated crewmembers, nor have we seen any third-person combat a la Creed; for instance, boarding an enemy vessel is simply a cutscene execution triggered by a button press.   

Treasure hunting (Sea of Thieves): For those seeking the more traditional high-seas adventure in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, Sea of Thieves will float your boat. Whether you're plundering sunken ships, forging a path through a tropical jungle, or boarding an enemy vessel, it's all in the pursuit of booty and filling up your ship's hold with filthy lucre. As in classic pirate films like Treasure Island and The Goonies, you'll seek out your next haul of treasure via exploration and the guidance of cryptic clues that lead to towards those secret spots in the sand. All you have to do from there is grab a shovel, dig up your reward, and run like hell if any reanimated skeletons try to reclaim their riches.

Do you want to feel like the captain, or a crewmember? 

Captain (Skull and Bones): If you're determined to feel like the next Blackbeard or Barbossa, Skull and Bones gives you full control of your very own ship and loyal crew, all acting together as one entity. You'll primarily be viewing the action from behind the iconic ship's helm as your chosen captain steers the crew into battle, but you may also need to switch perspectives to shipmates stationed at the cannons to line up the ideal shot, or see through the eyes of the lookout atop the crow's nest to scout out distant targets. Either way, each element of the ship is under your control - so even though you have no inherent command over your teammates' actions in the multiplayer bouts, you'll always have dominion over your personalized vessel, just as the captain should.

Crewmember (Sea of Thieves): Filling the captain's boots in Sea of Thieves will only be possible if your cooperative crewmates all agree to treat you like their leader. This world's player-controlled pirates are all created equal, and if you happen to board a ship full of strangers, you have no way of knowing if you'll get all hands on deck, or if a crew member is just itching to troll everyone with a bit of mischief, disobedience, or straight-up sabotage. If you're a take-charge type who's knowledgeable, patient, and willing to guide others online, you could very well inspire your co-op pals to call you captain - but otherwise, expect to feel like a cog in a wooden, oceanic warmachine that relies on all the other pieces doing their assigned jobs in order to properly function.

Do you prefer realism or fantasy? 

Realism (Skull and Bones): While calling Skull and Bones 'realistic' might be a stretch, Ubisoft is clearly going for a healthy dose of historical accuracy when it comes to 18th-century ship designs and their combat capabilities. You won't just swing your boat into position like some kind of arcadey shooter: steering the ship for the best tactical advantage relies on your mechanical knowledge and skill, requiring that you sail with the wind at your back to build up speed (measured in knots, naturally) and quickly drop anchor when it's time to aim your cannons or manage a tight turn. That said, Skull and Bones isn't afraid to dabble in the supernatural, if the cinematic tease of a giant kraken is any indication. The gorgeous graphics also give every ship a detailed, impressively ornate appearance - which makes it all the more satisfying when one of your cannons hits dead-on and turns that enemy hull into a explosion of tiny splinters.    

Fantasy (Sea of Thieves): The easiest way to sum up Sea of Thieves' approach to realism is the fact that you can launch yourself out of a cannon to land onshore or onboard another ship - and land completely unharmed. Sea of Thieves is in line with Rare's previous work in that it opts for a fun, cartoony style that has no concern for real-world laws of physics. Your customizable characters will bear exaggerated facial features that make crews look like pirate caricatures, and you'll constantly cross swords with skeletons rising from their graves as they swarm you en masse to reclaim stolen treasure chests. Krakens and mermaids roam the seas, and your flintlock pistol reloads in the blink of an eye. Realism has no place in Sea of Thieves, which is how plenty of aspiring pirates like it.

Would you rather play PvP, or PvE? 

PvP (Skull and Bones): As with Ubisoft's melee brawler For Honor, Skull and Bones is primarily focused on team-based, player-versus-player competition. The debut mode shown at E3 2017 featured the 5v5 naval warfare of Loot Hunt, in which each team races to amass the most loot by blasting it off of other ships. To emphasize teamplay, each player's ship can be customized to fulfill a specialized role: Enforcers sail frigates with reinforced hulls and rows of cannons, Bruisers use their heavy brigantine vessel to crash into opponents like a gigantic battering ram, and Marksmen launch long-range mortar shots from their sloop-of-war. And, just like For Honor, Skull and Bones features rotating seasons for the online competition to give players incentives to keep on fighting for top honors. If you need a break from PvP battles, you can hop into the PvE Hunting Grounds, which will presumably pit you against teams of bots.

PvE (Sea of Thieves): Cooperation is the name of the game in Sea of Thieves, as you and your crewmates must work together if you want any hope of amassing a respectable pile of treasure. Simply sailing your boat across the high seas will be a test of your team's coordination: one player raises or drops the anchor, another hoists the sails on each mast, the navigator steers the ship, and so on. And once you've found the treasure you seek, you'll likely have to fend off hordes of enemies using your cutlass, pistol, or blunderbuss. When another ship sails into view out at sea (courtesy of the behind-the-scenes matchmaking that populates the world), that's your cue to dip into some PvP: you can bombard the opposing crew with your hard-to-aim cannons or launch yourself out of one to board the enemy vessel and fight up close.

Is having a single-player campaign important to you? 

Yes (Skull and Bones): Though it wasn't announced on-stage during the E3 2017 reveal, Ubisoft has confirmed that Skull and Bones will have a single-player 'narrative campaign'. The specifics of the single-player campaign are still up in the air, but just knowing that there will be one should assuage some player's fears that they'd be paying full price for a multiplayer-only experience. If I had to guess, I'd say Skull and Bones will follow the model of For Honor's surprisingly meaty campaign mode, where we get to know a handful of pirate captains while simultaneously learning the game mechanics and sifting through optional bits of lore.

No (Sea of Thieves): While it's still possible that Sea of Thieves could incorporate some kind of single-player story later down the line, it looks like a solo campaign is at the bottom of the priority list for now. The FAQ on the official Sea of Thieves site states that "While we eventually want to support lone-wolf style gameplay, right now our focus is on bringing players together in fun, positive, and collaborative crew experiences." It sounds like Sea of Thieves' character-driven stories will be forged by players' most memorable anecdotes, rather than any world-spanning campaign.

Lucas Sullivan

Lucas Sullivan is the former US Managing Editor of GamesRadar+. Lucas spent seven years working for GR, starting as an Associate Editor in 2012 before climbing the ranks. He left us in 2019 to pursue a career path on the other side of the fence, joining 2K Games as a Global Content Manager. Lucas doesn't get to write about games like Borderlands and Mafia anymore, but he does get to help make and market them.