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‘Sea of Thieves’ Hands-On Preview

Our voyage began as all great adventures do: Dancing, drinking, and puking all over a beachside tavern. The George & Kraken (a play on the frequent use of George & Dragon in British pubs) sat just up the hill of a beautiful, sandy beach, with palm trees and a waterfall in the background. We’d gathered to sail for treasure and adventure, but before we’d even finished our introductions we were filling our steins with rum from a free cask on the bar. They say that if you give someone a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. If you give four pirates tankards for grog and a concertina for playing shanties, then everything becomes an opportunity for a party.

Sea of Thieves, the online, open-world, cooperative pirate game from Microsoft’s legendary studio Rare (of Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, and Donkey Kong Country fame) has quests, loot, monsters, and typical MMO-style adventuring. But at its heart Sea of Thieves is less about the goal and more about the silly hijinks you get into along the way. Quests unite you with your crew around a common goal and send you out in a direction, but the rewards at the end are really just icing. The delicious cake is the story; the adventure that emerges out of the interaction between your goals, other players, and the game’s systems.

In addition to textbook gear like a compass, spyglass, and cutlass, every pirate in Sea of Thieves starts with a tankard for grog, and either a concertina or hurdy-gurdy for jamming. The team designed these before adding guns, and that says most of what you need to know about where their priorities lie.

Digital Trends visited Rare’s studio outside Birmingham, UK the other week to go hands-on with the game for several extended sessions, sailing for adventure on the big, blue, wet thing. We’d seen gameplay before, between a recent beta and many public demos over the years, but this was the first time we actually sat down for several extended sessions to get a sense of what the overall experience is like.

The first voyage

For our session we were just thrown in with random avatars. I was a portly, shirtless, mustachioed man of east Asian descent. When the game launches in March, players will be able to choose their appearance, though only from a selection of eight pre-made pirates, randomized across gender, race, age, and body type. There are no sliders to endlessly futz with—you can reroll the eight however many times you want. Ultimately, you’re meant to just pick someone whose look you like and go, rather than matching some particular vision in your mind.

The eponymous Sea of Thieves is a large swathe of open ocean, dotted with islands of various sizes. We were dropped onto the beach at one of the Outposts, which serve as bastions of civilization and hubs for your voyages. Everywhere we explored during our session had that classic tropical island motif—blue skies, light sandy beaches, green palm trees.

Different parts of the world apparently have other aesthetics, but the core we experienced feels like a classic and colorful cartoon image of the Caribbean. There are NPCs in town to sell you things and send you on quests, but every pirate that you meet out and about in the world is another player.

Our makeshift crew of four comprised myself (shirtless, portly, and mustachioed), two fellow journalists, and Sea of Thieves’ PC design director Ted Timmins, who we made our unofficial leader. Captain Ted, sporting a ratty beard and dress (gender norms are for landlubbers!), took us on a quick tour of several vendors around the Outpost, including representatives of the Companies — factions that sell different kinds of quests, like the spooky Order of Souls who send you after undead combat bounties, or the Gold Hoarders who (predictably) have a thing for buried treasure.

An adventure emerges out of the interaction between your goals, other players, and the game’s systems.

The quests in Sea of Thieves provide structure and motivation, but the focus is squarely on the actual experience and the stories you collect along the way to those goals. Completing quests by bringing bounties back to cash in rewards gold and higher ranks with the Companies, which in turn give you access to better quests and special loot. That gold can be spent on new gear like clothing, haircuts, or peg legs. Crucially, everything you can buy is purely cosmetic. Your janky starting cutlass is just as effective as that legendary bejeweled sword.

This sidesteps the problem with which many other ongoing, long-running “service” games such as Destiny 2 now struggle; it’s nearly impossible to control the rate at which players churn through content to pursue the best gear. While there are long-term rewards for advancement, players are never prevented from doing anything or playing with anyone just because they don’t have enough or the right items. There is, as far we can tell, no race to the endgame.

Here we go!

With several quests in hand, we made our way to the dock where our ship awaited. Appropriately, our randomly generated sails were adorned with tankards and vomit stains, warning anyone on the horizon just what kind of hot mess was coming their way. Still unable to manage a straight line, I took a running, stumbling leap from the dock toward the ladder on the side of our ship and splashed down into the drink — this sort of thing would happen a lot in the coming hours. The ocean sobered me up quick, though, and I scrambled onto the deck and joined the rest of the crew in the captain’s cabin, standing around a table.

All of the visual design in Sea of Thieves is a little bit wonky: The lines are all a little crooked, and the planks on our ship’s deck never quite lined up. There were a few inches of standing water below deck from a recent, passing storm—apparently that same storm hounded one of the other journalist crews incessantly and absolutely defined the first hour of their adventure. It’s surprisingly charming: Every thing lends a certain lived-in charm and specificity to the world.

True to history, pirates work by democracy in Sea of Thieves. Captain Ted threw several of the missions he’d purchased (in the form of scrolls) onto the desk and we voted what to pursue by tossing daggers into them. The Order of Souls wanted the skull of the undead Captain Firebomb Don and we all voted to head out to Shark Bait Cove and retrieve it.

“It’s like Jurassic Park!” one of our crew yelled as skeletons swarmed out of bushes like velociraptors.

The most striking thing about sailing in Sea of Thieves is how physical it feels. At no point do you “become the ship” to steer it directly, as you would in most games. Stuck in your specific pirate’s shoes, sailing anywhere is a team effort, requiring coordination. Raising and lowering the anchor, adjusting the height and angle of each sail, checking the map in the lower deck, watching the horizon from the crow’s nest, and then actually taking the wheel and steering.

This makes getting anywhere a charmingly haphazard affair with our hapless crew. People fell overboard, or unknowingly worked against each other by pulling sails in two different directions. We had several near-misses with rocks. By the end of our time together we showed real progress, more quickly able to call out what we were doing and have everyone respond accordingly.

There were even a few moments of grace, like pulling off a tricky hand-brake turn by quickly dropping the anchor and turning the wheel hard to one side before lifting it again. Just like in a real boat, sailing in Sea of Thieves isn’t a single skill, but an assemblage of smaller, simpler tasks. None is particularly challenging in-and-of-itself, and so the trick is all in communication.

We managed to make our way over to Shark Bait Cove — a small ring of sandy beaches and palm trees around a central bay. “Oh god, it’s like Jurassic Park!” one of our crew exclaimed in a panicked giggle as skeletons swarmed out of the bushes like so many velociraptors.

Sea of Thieves Compared To

The game’s combat feels fun and frantic, if not especially nuanced. Press a button to swing your cutlass or block and hold one down to charge a thrust. Guns have limited ammo, are slow to reload, and fire an actual projectile (as opposed to the instant “hitscan” weapons of typical shooters), so while powerful they are slow enough to prevent Counter-Strike vets with hardened twitch reflexes from running away with things – tactics over raw, mechanical skill.

After several minutes of swinging our swords around and firing blunderbusses, the skeletons were felled, including the tri-cornered-hat-and-coat-clad Captain Firebomb Don, named after one of the developers (all of the bounties are apparently named after devs and community members). In his place, there lay a glowing skull, which I picked up and carried back to our ship.

Like the ships themselves, quest rewards are charmingly analog. The items you need, like ghost pirate skulls and treasure chests, cannot be stowed in a menu: You have to carry them back to your ship (at the expense of holding anything else), stow it, then sail back to an Outpost to trade it in for your reward. Until that point, your valuables are vulnerable. Other pirate crews can raid your boat and take anything, which is where much of the emergent fun of Sea of Thieves lies.

Y’arr!

En route to our second bounty, a buried treasure on an island called Plunder Valley, we stopped to scavenge a sunken ship when captain Ted spied a ship on the horizon—three masts, like ours, with green sails. He saw them by the glow of their lanterns, so one member of the crew frantically ran around the deck to put ours out while two of us barely avoided sharks while scouring the wreck for wood and cannonballs. It seemed for a moment the crew might have missed us… Until one of our ranks started to take pot-shots at the ship with a sniper rifle, making our presence obvious. By the time I was back on board, we were circling and unleashing broadside cannon-fire at one another.

Anyone who’s seen Master and Commander knows how utterly chaotic 18th century naval warfare was. Aiming projectile fire at a moving target from a moving platform feels nearly impossible, especially when everyone’s yelling and your ship’s taking on water. Anyone who wasn’t firing had to scramble around patching up holes in the lower decks, and scooping water out by the bucket-full to dump overboard. Things got even messier once we got close enough to board one another: With proximity voice chat, both sides can each other shouting.

At Shark Bait Cove we found several explosive barrels and brought them back on board for potential shenanigans. Captain Ted told us stories about players dropping them into the water as makeshift mines against pursuing ships, or even sneaking them on board for a more direct act of sabotage. In our case, they got hit with a stray cannonball on our deck and blew two of us to smithereens. When we died, we were sent to the “Ferry of the Damned” — a ghost ship that serves as a waiting room before a door opens after a fixed amount of time and you can return to your ship.

Pirates are all about plunder, but Sea of Thieves makes the pirate’s life its own reward.

On our return, the fight was not over, but things had grown eerily quiet. Both crews had run out of resources — cannonballs to make holes, wood to patch them up, and bananas to heal us — so we grudgingly limped away from one another to fight another day.

After restocking at an Outpost and selling our loot, we booked it to their last location in the hopes that we could catch them off guard.

Hungry for blood and the full wind at our back, we were eagerly closing in on our quarry when we noticed a third, also full-sized ship coming at us from the other side—sails adorned with golden crowns on a blood-red background.

The ensuing clash made our previous engagement look like a tea party. If two ships felt messy, then adding another leads to a real three-body problem. All three ships spiraled around each other, blasting cannon fire every which way. A more organized crew might have been able to weather the chaos, but our amateur ranks were quickly broken. Within a few minutes the third ship rammed full-speed into our starboard side. The impact sent me hurtling back to the Ferry of the Damned, and by the time I came back both ships were sinking while our initial target quietly slipped away in relief. A good laugh was had by all involved.

Sailing solo

I also spent some time on the open sea by myself. Sea of Thieves supports crews of one to four pirates, and scales your ship accordingly. My vessel was much smaller, with a single sail and both its ropes and the anchor conveniently close to the wheel so I wouldn’t have to run around too much. Sailing solo felt natural after a few hours with a crew — in fact it was quite soothing.

Out on the open water, the experience was the closest I’ve since felt to playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, surrounded by a seemingly infinite horizon dotted with potential adventures.

Things got hairier once I hit land and tried digging up a treasure chest. As I was making my way along the beach, I heard cannon fire from above. Several skeletons were perched on a cannon embankment on top of the island’s peak, lobbing cannonballs at my ship. I scrambled up the bank to stop them, but by the time I’d made it back to my ship, I just found a mermaid marked by a glowing plume of smoke (which shows up after a minute whenever you fall overboard to teleport you back to safety — and I just learned then that they also arrive to give a helping hand when your ship is wrecked).

On attempt number two, I made my way to the same island and parked around the other side, a safe distance from the cannons. Just as I start digging, I see another ship heading toward mine across the island. Again, I book it back to be met by two of players, rooting around my lower deck for supplies. The joke was on them — I was broke.

A pirate’s life for me

Going it alone is viable, but nerve-wracking without anyone to watch your back. That said, Sea of Thieves is clearly intended to be a collaborative experience. The slower pace than your typical action game and tasks that are simple, but demand coordination, makes your ability to succeed less about twitch reflexes and opens up fun space for clever, cooperative play.

Sea of Thieves takes the broad strokes of an MMO — a persistent character in a persistent world, going on quests with and against other players for loot, gold, and reputation — but shifts focus away from progression and min-maxing stats, and back onto the actual moment-to-moment experience of play. In a lot of ways, it does for online RPGs what Breath of the Wild did for single-player open worlds: Cuts down the noise and embraces a sense of play and wonder. By reputation, pirates are all about plunder, but Sea of Thieves makes the pirate’s life its own reward.

Sea of Thieves launches on Xbox One and Windows PC March 20.

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