Sailing the high seas with Sea of Thieves, Rare's whimsical pirate adventure
At E3, we were lucky enough to go hands-on with Rare's upcoming connected pirate game – Sea of Thieves.
Up until now, Sea of Thieves has been shrouded in a mist of intrigue, with only scant details to accompany its slick, but uninformative debut trailer. At E3 2016 I was lucky enough to not only play the game but spend a significant amount of time discussing it with Rare's Joe Neate and Gregg Mayles, along with studio lead, Craig Duncan.
Sea of Thieves has the potential to be a very big deal. Here's what I learned.
Sea of Thieves is an always-online open world, where groups of up to four players will be able to band together to explore, plunder loot and progress a misfit pirate crew. Neate said that everything you'd expect from a connected RPG would be available in Sea of Thieves — from character progression, upgrades, quests, and more difficult group objectives.
Neate said that the trailer the studio showed at E3 (embedded above) provides hints at different activities you'll be able to take part in for Sea of Thieves. From my time with the demo, the potential this game has to be a huge hit is crystal clear.
Neate said that when Rare sat down to decide what game to build next, they felt the need to take on a new challenge. The studio looked at what was popular in the industry with the aim of bringing the Rare charm and humor to an existing paradigm. The studio became particularly interested in shared-world games, such as Destiny and The Division, where players spend hours and hours together, forging their own stories.
Gregg Mayles said that they have less of an interest in linear games at present and that player freedom will factor in heavily to Sea of Thieves. Rare doesn't want Sea of Thieves to be a game every player experiences in the same way; they're also eager to get Sea of Thieves into players' hands as soon as possible. The studio has put up a Sea of Thieves forum, so they can begin taking feedback on the direction the game should take. Indeed, when I asked if the game would have some kind of crafting system, Neate said that it wasn't in right now, but it would ultimately be up to the community to decide what features get added to the game down the line – nothing is off the table for the future.
Sea of Thieves is designed to give players a sense of being in a tightly-knit band of friends. I alluded to The Division's Dark Zone multiple times while talking to Rare, and while it shares similarities, it's by no means a good comparison for Sea of Thieves.
Like the Dark Zone, human controlled pirates and ships will dynamically phase in and out of your world, utilizing matchmaking algorithms to limit the chances of coming face to face with higher level ships or clans of swashbucklers. In our meeting room, the TV screen displayed Sea of Thieves as it was connected to the show floor, showing players blowing up each other's ships in real time. Neate said they had made careful considerations with how often players will encounter other players because they don't want to make players constantly paranoid and distracted from their own adventures.
Neate said that while they do want players to feel a sense of loss and risk when it comes to meeting potential enemies, they don't want it to be as punishing as something like Day Z, EVE Online or Elite Dangerous. In some of these games, losing your items or ships can result in hours or days of lost grinding. It sounds as though Sea of Thieves will be a perilous, but ultimately forgiving, world where the sense of loss shouldn't make you want to quit the game completely.
The demo build Rare had available for Sea of Thieves was very stripped down; there was no melee combat or shooting. It was designed solely to give players an idea of how the game's co-operative naval combat and social features would work in quick, E3-style 15-minute bursts. And it was total, unmitigated awesomeness.
Luckily, I was playing with two Rare developers, who knew some advanced tactics for steering the ship. The best comparison to Sea of Thieves' naval experience I can think of is Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, where players need to work together to control different parts of the game's ship. The person in the Crow's Nest has much longer view distance, and can spot enemy ships on the horizon. Communicating that information to the helmsman, players can then decide whether to steer towards it. You can change the angle of the sails, and wind direction has a potent, but not punishing effect on the speed of your vessel.
As someone who is quite reserved and uncommunicative on Xbox Live, Sea of Thieves made voice-based organization feel a little more welcoming. If you want to pilot those larger ships successfully, the optimal way to do so is by communicating with friends in real time, letting your crew know when you'd set the sails, when you'd dropped the anchor, that you were going to patch holes in the hull, and so on.
There was certainly a sense of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag as our ship came side by side against our enemy, and we all rushed to man cannons to blast the enemy ship into kindling. Our ship was taking serious damage, sending us scrambling below decks to block holes in the hull. Rare noted that in newer builds, players can use buckets to displace the water that gathers within their ship to toss it overboard.
Speaking of water, Sea of Thieves sports some of the most gorgeous effects I've ever seen in a game. You'd probably hope they would be given the game's premise, but it almost felt like a pre-rendered video, not far removed from a Pixar movie. The condition of the sea isn't static, it becomes rougher and calmer dynamically, giving the world a sense of realism. Day and night cycles throw vivid sunsets against the horizon, painting shimmering, warm reflections on the sea. The character designs were fun and vibrant, and everything was washed in that enticing, colorful Rare charm.
After I had stopped being distracted by the superb visuals, I realized we'd sunk the enemy vessel, and the scurvy dogs we faced were now heading straight into Davy Jones' locker, helpless in the water. The demo build had some cheat commands to help people get quickly back into the game, but the core premise felt equal parts hilarious and exciting. It just felt so right.
Joe Neate pointed out that the demo lacked a tutorial on purpose because they feel as though players can quite quickly figure out how to sail a ship thanks to popular culture's emphasis on pirates. That said, there does seem to be plenty of room for advanced tactics. The Rare devs in my crew were dropping the anchor while moving, to slingshot the ship for quick turning. It then took several of us working together to pull the anchor back from the depths in mid-combat, but the additional speed gave us a huge advantage over competing vessels.
Rare were keen to point out that the demo build we played was only a "sliver" of the full experience, and it's certainly not all about blowing up enemy ships. When you see an enemy ship on the horizon, it doesn't necessarily mean the players will be hostile either – they may want to trade, or they may want to band together to take out something bigger. Seeing another pirate ship on the horizon should be a "magical moment" says Neate, straight out of the best pirate movies and media.
Rare acknowledged that players do want definitive goals, such as quests, things that can be earned and so on, and that Sea of Thieves would fully support that sort of play. As noted, the cinematic trailer hints at the full breadth of variety on the way to Sea of Thieves. Diving under water, finding mermaids, avoiding sharks, battling skeletons, recovering buried treasure. You'll also be able to anchor in NPC ports, purchase items from shops, upgrade and customize weapons, clothes, and of course, your ship itself. You can alter your ship's visuals, buy upgrades for the hull, the cannons, and practically every part. It sounds as though Sea of Thieves has the potential to devour hours of people's lives (specifically mine).
Rare said they experimented with the idea of allowing players to betray their crews, but they found even among their own work colleagues, finding treasure often resulted in chaotic bouts of betrayal that harmed the core experience. Rare's vision for Sea of Thieves is that it's your crew against the world, but the studio has long-term plans to allow crews to ally together in some form of a guild-like system. The studio does have plans to allow players to experience Sea of Thieves solo or in smaller groups too, with plans for smaller, more agile ships that require fewer players to crew successfully.
I asked if Sea of Thieves will feature any class roles or specializations, but they said they didn't want to pigeonhole players. Instead, players will be able to undertake any activities they feel like. According to Rare, all play styles will be supported, from exploration to plundering, all the way up to more difficult, shared "raid-like" objectives. Neate said that there will be creatures in the world both above and below the sea, in addition to on land. He said that encountering a Kraken in Sea of Thieves will be an "intense" experience, and the studio is committed to providing more of those sorts of experiences.
Sea of Thieves isn't free to play, but Rare repeatedly emphasized that the game will evolve and develop over time with new content. While the full business model hasn't been announced, I'm not confident that Sea of Thieves can "evolve" with updates without some form of micro-transactional model to fund development. Sunset Overdrive was supposed to receive dynamic updates over time, but beyond a few snippets of paid DLC, very little changed. The Division patches have been very slow paced as well and have often failed to address some of the community's biggest concerns.
My key take away from Sea of Thieves was the raw, amazing, exciting potential contained within that very brief, bare-bones demo. With the tragically canceled Fable Legends stranded in Sea of Thieves' wake, it's ultimately on Microsoft to ensure Sea of Thieves receives the right amount of investment and care for Rare to realize their vast ambitions. Sea of Thieves could be a big, big, deal, with the right amount of attention.
Watching Rare's cartoony pirates frantically scurry around this sprawling ship was humorous in its own right, but our interview group laughed out loud when Rare's Joe Neate had his character start playing accordion as the ship sank, in a defeated lament. Laughter typified my experiences with Sea of Thieves, as the loudest cheers of E3 came from the game's stand, as players indulged their inner pirate.
Everyone I met from the studio shared that unique, definitively Rare spirit, that gave us some of the most memorable characters and games ever made. It's somewhat heart-warming to report that Rare has pivoted all the way back to the top of Triple-A pile with ease. Make no mistake – Rare is back, ye scurvy dogs. Sea of Thieves deserves your undivided attention.
Sea of Thieves is set for a 2017 launch on Xbox One and Windows 10.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!
The game still sounds like fun.