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Skull and Bones: Gameplay, leaks, and a new Insider Program

Skull and Bones
(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Skull and Bones, which has been "coming soon" for around five years now, could finally be on the horizon. The official site for the game recently started inviting gamers to sign up for a Skull and Bones Insider Program for the online pirate game, promising the chance to be part of "future test phases."

It's the biggest since of life since 2020 for the Ubisoft title, which promised the chance to sail the seven seas and indulge in some salty naval combat, before disappearing below the waves. Even more confusingly, the games press had been able to play an early version of the game in 2018 before it all went quiet. It wasn't until 2020 that hopeful swashbucklers found out the game was still alive with a short update from the studio. There have been rumors and leaks since, but the last official update was that the game's co-director was leaving Ubisoft after 15 years. 

We still don't have a release date, but the Insider Program backs suggestions that we should expect it later this year or early in 2023. Until then here's everything we know about the game so far, from that recent update to how it actually feels to play. 

Skull and Bones leaks

A reliable Call of Duty and Battlefield leaker shared new details about the game in November 2021, revealing that players will have access to five tiers of ship. To get a new ship you'll need to buy a blueprint and have the resources to build it, and it can then be customized with different weaponry, cosmetics, and features like extra storage. 

They also tweeted the news that the game "'isn't near completion' but is reported to be in a decent spot with a lot of good combat."

Ubisoft did not respond to the leak. 

Skull and Bones release date - when is it coming?

Skull and Bones release date

Skull and Bones now won't be released until at least 2022. The news was revealed via the most recent Ubisoft financial update to investors. "Skull and Bones will now be released in 2022-23," it said in its earnings report (opens in new tab).

In March 2022, the Skull and Bones website was updated with smart new black and yellow branding and the launch of a new Insider Program so players could sign up to test early versions of the game. 

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Skull and Bones has had more trouble with release dates than a galleon has with barnacles. At last mention, also during an earnings call (opens in new tab), the game was scheduled for a 2020/2021 fiscal year release, which was a pretty big window even by game developer standards. 

The video posted to Skull & Bones' official Twitter in 2019 seems designed to stem the tide of any disappoints as Ubisoft continues to work on the game. "Rest assured that we are working as hard to ever to make sure the game is going to be as great as possible, and quality remains our number one focus," says producer Karl Luhe. "We will be back as soon as we can with exciting new updates." 

A September 2020 update (opens in new tab) from Ubisoft Singapore creative director Elisabeth Pelle, gave an update on production, but it looks like we'll be waiting a lot longer to sail the seven seas. 

Skull and Bones development issues

The latest news from the development team is that the co-director of the game, Antoine Henry, has left Ubisoft after 15 years. Fingers crossed this isn't just the latest curse to hit the beleaguered pirate game. 

In July 2021 a report from Kotaku (opens in new tab) gave us an insight into issues behind the scenes that have caused the development process to drag on so long and could jeopardize the future of the piratical project.

The article, which includes input from current and former developers on Skull and Bones, reveals constant changes to the game's direction - like switching between naval combat and survival as the core concepts - and culture clashes on the development team. Three different sources put the cost of Skull and Bones at more than $120 million, and it's not even finished yet.

In response, Ubisoft put out a statement updating Kotaku on the game's progress and recent Alpha production milestone. 

"The Skull and Bones team are proud of the work they’ve accomplished on the project since their last update with production just passing Alpha, and are excited to share more details when the time is right. That being said, any unfounded speculation about the game or decisions being made only works to demoralize the team who are working very hard to develop an ambitious new franchise that lives up to the expectations of our players.

Over the past year, we’ve made significant changes to our policies and processes to create a safe and more inclusive workplace and empower our teams to create games that reflect the diversity of the world we live in."

Skull and Bones 2021 update

During the Ubisoft 2020-21 earnings call (opens in new tab), chief financial officer Frédérick Duguet had this to say about the game. 

"We strongly believe in the team’s creative vision and they have been given an increasingly ambitious mandate for the game,"

"Production led by Singapore has been advancing well over the past 12 months and the promise is better than ever. The additional time will allow the team to fully deliver on its vision."

Skull and Bones 2021 update

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Skull and Bones 2020 update

Ubisoft Singapore creative director Elisabeth Pellen updated fans on progress in September with the following statement (opens in new tab)

"Production on Skull and Bones has been in full swing with a new vision. Our teams at Ubisoft Singapore are fully committed to launching the game, as well as supporting it for many years to come," she wrote.

"Many of you have been wondering why we’ve had to postpone our launch. The answer is that we simply needed more time. We dreamt something bigger for Skull and Bones, and these ambitions naturally came with bigger challenges."

"These difficulties resulted in necessary delays for our game. Critical questions needed to be addressed over the past several months such as: how do we modernize the classic pirate fantasy? How do we ensure a more immersive and visceral experience? How do we create cool and memorable moments in-game? For most of these questions to be answered, it was clear that we needed more development time."

You have to guess that the game will at least be getting a visual upgrade for PS5 and Xbox Series X.

Skull and Bones beta - when and where can you sign up? 

You can already sign up for the Skull and Bones Beta, so they're at least thinking of letting the general public play it at some point. Here's where you sign up for the Skull and Bones Beta (opens in new tab)

Skull and Bones gameplay - what will we do?

Skull and Bones combat

Crudely, Skull and Bones gameplay is all about sinking other ships. The subtlety is in the method and the reason. You're essentially out there to get loot and become a powerful pirate - the trailer makes many references to getting to the top of the food chain. Sailing works similar to how it does in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag - you steer around the ocean, then shoot cannons at other boats. There are different types of shot, which allow you to cause damage to other ships or take out their ability to sail or shoot back. Each boat can be fitted with a special ability now so, for example, you can have a cannon that fires eight shots in one volley, or the ability to fire without waiting for a cooldown. 

You'll have different ways of sailing too. We see in the demo that you can disguise yourself as ships from different factions, and you can set your sails for speed, rather than combat or the ability to manoeuvre. 

The idea, however, is that you can team up with other pirate ships and combine your various abilities to take down the really big enemies and claim maximum loot. You'll need to buddy up to sink the big warships, even if you're powered up yourself. The only problem here is that alliances are fluid in Skull and Bones, so you may find that your team mates turn on you when it's time to divide the treasure.

Skull and Bones trailer - where can I watch it?

The newest trailer is from E3 2018, and you can watch it above. It sets the tone for the game and gives us a taste of some of the characters and customisation options we'll have in the game. And it's pretty damn exciting too...

Skull and Bones customisation

Skull and Bones menu

There are loads of ways to customise your ship in Skull and Bones, and it seems that different set-ups will be useful for different scenarios. We see the ability to change sails, weapon set-ups, and figureheads in the demo, but expect there to be loads more options in the final game.

You'll need to adapt because the conditions of the game will change according to the predictions of a fortune teller. Yes. You're given an outlook for each session and will have to change your play accordingly - so, for example, high winds mean that there are more merchant ships to plunder, but greater competition for them. Not sure how that correlates, but it's all in the demo. She'll also advise on weather and trade routes too.

It's worth noting that you can also hop off your ship and look around your own private island. Expect there to be plenty of distractions here too.

Skull and Bones weather and mythical creatures

Skull and Bones ship

Weather will play a role in Skull and Bones too. We see in the trailer that the pirate crews encounter a massive typhoon. Expect there to be rough seas, high and low winds, and maybe even lightning storms to contend with too.

And then there's the kraken... We saw the kraken at E3 in 2017, but it didn't show up in the latest footage or trailer. It's probably still in the game but we noticed that the gameplay has changed (opens in new tab) (and evolved) significantly since last year, so perhaps all the over-the-top stuff has gone. Probably not, though.

Skull and Bones character

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Skull and Bones broadsided with another delay, and won't be at E3 2019 (opens in new tab)

The E3 2018 demo of Skull and Bones is all about fortune tellers, pirate allies and salty slaughter (opens in new tab)

Skull and Bones, that Ubisoft pirate game you'd forgotten about, is getting delayed (opens in new tab)

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Black Flag without the Assassins: The internet reacts to Skull and Bones from E3 2017 (opens in new tab)

Rachel Weber is the US Managing Editor of GamesRadar+ and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She joined GamesRadar+ in 2017, revitalizing the news coverage and building new processes and strategies for the US team.