As beloved and storied a developer as Rare is, they’ve sat well out of the limelight for far too long. After an initial flurry of games for the original Xbox following their purchase by Microsoft, the number of high profile games they released tailed off through the 360 era as they were tasked with supporting the motion tracking technology of Kinect. Sea of Thieves is their chance to show that they’ve still got it, that they can still craft games that conjure up wonder and delight in all and sundry, and with a distinctly British tone and humour.
Your quest for booty starts at a pirate outpost in the middle of a huge ocean filled with island both big and small, rival pirates, forts and more than a few skeletons and hidden chests of treasure. It’s at this outpost that you’ll meet your crew in a shack that can loosely be described as a pub, whether you brought them with you or have been grouped together by matchmaking.
Having a headset is an absolute must. While I brought one buddy with me, most of the other random players I encountered in the game seemed to have voice chat enabled and be eager to talk and to discover the game together. That included both our temporary shipmates – first a friendly German, before he disappeared and was replaced by an equally friendly American – and the French crew of a rival pirate ship that we had a long running battle with before we had a slight prang and both sank…
Naturally, you also have the ability to send quick stock messages through the game, but as you take on a quest, try to follow treasure maps, and simply explore the world, it helps no end to be able to quickly communicate via voice chat. In that regard, it reminds me a lot of Star Trek: Bridge Crew, albeit with a much more action oriented side to Sea of Thieves where you can step off the ship and explore islands or chase other ships between the islands.
As fun and friendly as the game looks, its stunning rolling ocean waves and dynamic weather pleasantly contrasting with the cartoonish style of the people, ships and islands, there’s actually a relatively realistic ship sailing game underneath it. Between your ship’s crew, you’ll have to manage everything about the ship, raising the anchor, unfurling the sails, turning them to catch the wind and pick up speed, manning the helm while blinded by said sails, loading and firing cannons, patching up holes in the hull and much more besides. It’s a full job for four people on the game’s biggest ship, that’s for sure, and I’ve no doubt that players will start to pick up what “tacking” the sails means, and what side of the ship “starboard” refers to, instead of confusingly saying left and right…
While there’s the serious side to sailing, there’s also more than ample opportunity for tomfoolery and misguided shenanigans. Drinking even a single tankard of Grog will make you wibble and wobble your way around the ship (and probably overboard), while drinking four or five in quick succession has you projectile vomiting that you can then catch in your bucket and throw at other people. Delightful. On more than one occasion, people went overboard and we had to slow and drop anchor so they could try and catch up (while being chased by sharks!). The less puerile side of the game lets you pull out a hurdy-gurdy or accordion and play a few sea shanties to while away a long journey. Brilliantly, if you do this while tipsy from the Grog, your playing is all out of tune.
Messing around in the game is a lot of fun, but it’s difficult to know how long that appeal will last, and if there’s one question that still hangs over Sea of Thieves, it’s whether or not it has the staying power to compete with other online games intent on sucking all your gaming time dry. The closed beta has only a small slice of the content from the final game, Rare have promised, and I’m hopeful that my first few hours spend in the closed beta have barely scratched the surface of what it offers. Certainly, the pirate outposts you return to have only a handful of the NPCs manning shops to sell you things, and I’ve only tackled the first few quests.
Those quests are relatively straight forward to start with, as you grab a treasure map and try to match the island’s shape to an island on the big map table on your ship, before heading there to dig up a chest of treasure and return it to an outpost for a reward. Alternatively, you’re given a light riddle, taking you to an island, having to search for a particular visual clue and then follow instructions with step counting and directions in order to find your booty. These can also appear as multi-part quests with separate chapters, but I’m eager to head deeper into the beta and see whether Rare can take the game beyond these rather one note early missions.
It’s easy to get distracted and sidetracked from these goals. Exploring islands might let you find extra hidden treasures, and if you spot seagulls hovering over a spot of the ocean, there’s some supplies to grab or a sunken wreck to dive down to and search for more treasure – just beware of sharks who are more than eager to take a bite out of you. You’ll constantly be scanning the horizon for the sails of other ships during the day and their lights at night, whether you’re wary of being attacked on your way back to port or want to chase after them.
Being a beta, and the biggest test of Rare’s online set up so far, there have been a number of teething issues. Some people have been unable to get into the game at all, prompting them to lengthen the beta for two days, but once in the game there’s also been some really bad instances of lag that lasted 15-20 seconds. I wondered what the hell was going on the first time the ship slowly but surely capsized, before righting itself as though nothing had ever happened…
Sea of Thieves might have some way to go to prove itself, but I really enjoyed setting sail in this closed beta, learning the ropes – literally – of how to sail, chasing after other ships, and doing this while chatting and messing around with friends old and new. “There are good ships and woods ships, ships that sail the sea,” says the old Irish toast, “but the best [pirate] ships are friendships, may they always be.”