Skull and Bones vs Sea of Thieves: comparing the big pirate adventures of E3

E3 2017 has revealed that come 2018, we’ll have not one, but two big pirate games to choose from: Rare’s Sea of Thieves and Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones.

Though it’d be easy to assume that these games will be going blade to blade as direct competitors on the market, having been hands-on with both titles at E3, we at TechRadar are inclined to say there’s room for both of them.

Yes, they share many similarities, but there are distinct differences between the games and it’ll entirely depend on what you want from a piratical adventure which one you choose; you might even opt for both. 

Visuals and tone 

As far as graphics, visuals and overall tone are concerned, Skull and Bones and Sea of Thieves couldn’t be more different. 

Sea of Thieves not only has that signature Rare stylized cartoonish look, it’s also filled with quirky features. You eat bananas to regain health, and our character even had an accordion in their inventory which we were big fans of busting out and playing at the slightest provocation. Our teammates were not amused. 

Skull and Bones is clearly aiming much more for a realism that borders on simulation. Its visuals err more on the side of cinematic than cartoonish and compared to Sea of Thieves' Monkey Island-inspired color palate, Skull and Bones is much more muted and akin to Assassin's Creed Black Flag. 

When it comes to Skull and Bones, there are far fewer silly laughs to be had. Instead you’re more likely to be darkly chuckling as you sink an enemy ship and steal its loot. 

All for one and one for all gameplay

Though Skull and Bones does posit itself as a pirate game, at the moment there’s less focus on you as an individual pirate and more focus on you as a collective pirate ship. 

In the 5-versus-5 match we played, you pick a pirate ship class based on what kind of combat style you prefer (whether that’s long-range cannon fire or effectively being a floating battering ram) and you can then upgrade it and improve it in an RPG-style system.

From what we understand, Skull and Bones will revolve around building a strong fleet of ships which you can customize and direct to take down other groups of pirates, with the overall aim of becoming the most powerful presence on the high seas.

Meanwhile, Sea of Thieves is much more of a cooperative experience. You each play as a single crew member, and none of you are able to do everything you need to do to keep the ship afloat alone. From manning the cannons, to steering the ship, and patching up the hull with planks of wood, everyone will need to tackle separate tasks if you want to survive. 

Combat and tactics

Skull and Bones seems less focused on encouraging exploration of the open seas as it is on encouraging domination of them. Considering the game’s origin is the naval combat elements of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag this heavy emphasis on combat isn’t entirely surprising. 

The combat revolves around using your ship's cannons to take down enemy vessels and though you can board enemy ships, this sequence is automated and you don’t actually engage in any hand-to-hand combat. 

Sailing and combat in Skull and Bones are fairly tactical; there’s a wind direction system located in a mini map in the bottom right hand corner of your screen and to pick up a decent amount of speed in order to escape enemies (or chase them down) you have to be sailing with the wind rather than against it. 

Moving along to Sea of Thieves, there are certain similarities. You need to be aware of the wind’s direction and pitch your sails accordingly, and you’ll also find yourself caught up in combat situations on a fairly regular basis. 

However, there are a couple of crucial differences. 

Though combat is present it’s hardly the game’s main focus. You’ll spend much more of your time simply sailing the open seas looking for adventure, and searching for that sweet sweet booty. 

Then, once you actually get into combat, you’re given much more freedom with where you can go and what you can do. You can either sit tight on your own ship, or you can jump into one of the canons and fire yourself across to the enemy’s ship and take the crew members on directly. You can even jump into the sea itself, although we wouldn’t recommend this unless you want to shortly find yourself in Davy Jones’ Locker.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Like Sea of Thieves, Skull and Bones involves playing online with others. We played a five-versus-five match in our E3 demo, but according to Ubisoft there’ll also be modes where you’ll be able to play online alone. 

In our match it was important to coordinate with your team to take down enemy ships and escape with as much loot as possible. As victory revolves around loot rather than the amount of ships destroyed, there’s a definite encouragement of cooperative play. 

If there’s a ship on your team with more loot than any other, it’s important that you help them escape at the end of the level (even if it means sacrificing yourself) as they’re you’re best chance at winning. 

It’s a similar story with Sea of Thieves, although here you’ll be cooperating within a single crew rather than across different ships. From manning the sails to firing the cannons, everyone has their own job, and you’ll need to work together to avoid sinking. 

That said, if you don’t want to work with as big a team, smaller ships which need a smaller number of people to crew are also available. 

More to come

Skull and Bones is still in the early stages of development at the moment, so we’d be wary of judging it too much at this point. We were told by Ubisoft that there would indeed be other modes when the game is released, so whether or not the game will explore beyond naval combat and perhaps allow the player to leave their ship as an individual avatar and explore is unclear. 

Sea of Thieves is much further along in development, and has been in closed beta for a number of months now. However, the game is still changing on a regular basis, as developers Rare take feedback and data from the community to change and develop the game. 

However, it seems at this point that Sea of Thieves is a much broader experience than Skull and Bones which encompasses all aspects of piracy rather than simply naval combat. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s definitely going to be the better game, as Skull and Bones may benefit from this much more focused approach. 

Both games are offering creative and interesting takes on what it means to be a pirate, and it’s great to see the setting being explored by two world-class developers. 

One advantage Skull and Bones might have over Sea of Thieves is that the latter is an Xbox exclusive with Windows 10 compatibility, while Skull and Bones will be available to PlayStation, Xbox and PC owners.

Overall, we found that Skull and Bones seems like the ideal game for players looking for gritty realism and a focus on tactical navy combat rather than the light-hearted and romantic exploration offered by Sea of Thieves. 

But, as far as we’re concerned, there’s plenty of space in the wide world of gaming for both games to get us our pirate fix. 

  • E3 is the world's largest exhibition for the games industry, stuffed full of the latest and greatest games, consoles, and gaming hardware. TechRadar is reporting live from Los Angeles all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated E3 2017 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about the next year in gaming.
Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.