At first glance Sea of Thieves doesn’t seem like a game that’s too hard to imagine. You’re a pirate. You’re sailing around the ocean doing pirate things. It’s a concept that, in theory, seems a little too cliché for its own good.
These were exactly my thoughts as I waited in line at E3 to get my hands on the swashbuckling new title from Rare. The company that rose to fame with the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie and dozens of other must-play titles in the ‘90s hit a rough patch after it was acquired by Microsoft in 2003. Xbox exclusive titles such as Grabbed by The Ghoulies, Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power didn’t grab players and critics like Rare’s games of old and the developer became a bit of a has-been, to put things bluntly.
Though they have lost many of their star players over the years Rare is still one of the most promising developers out there. They’ve just been bogged down with Kinect Sports titles and Killer Instinct DLC for a while now. So when they announced Sea of Thieves last year everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Because this is the Rare we want. The one with imaginative settings, memorable characters and enjoyable gameplay. Even if that hasn’t worked out well for them in the recent past, it’s still the right direction to take a developer with their talents.
But as I stood in line I started to have doubts. Booth workers broke attendees into pirate crews of four or five and led them to their demo stations. For half an hour while I waited I watched the players ahead of me steering the ship, raising the sails, and drunkenly falling overboard as they voyaged out into the deep blue. It wasn’t terrible to watch, but the game seemed a bit too empty and simple. It seemed a bit like Rare had taken every pirate stereotype and shoved them into a digital realm. If I hadn’t already committed my time to the line I may have jumped overboard myself.
But I’m glad I didn’t.
Sea of Thieves, as it turns out, is the embodiment of every pirate stereotype, but the folks at Rare seem to have found the perfect balance. The elements involved aren’t anything revolutionary, they’re just really well done. What really stands out is the cooperation between crew members. This is essential, because Sea of Thieves is a game built around online multiplayer. A shared ship, a shared sea, a shared world for all.
I managed to sit down with lead designer Mike Chapman after my demo playthrough, so I’m going to splice in my experience with his own thoughts on building the game.
“When we were thinking of our vision for the game we wanted to create this world where players could have these emergent stories, these adventures that play out differently each time,” Chapman explained. “We had to think of the best way to represent this core gameplay, this unique cooperative experience. I think the idea of being with a crew of pirates on a ship in this fantastical world is just so perfect. It conjures up in your mind all of these adventure tenets like Treasure Island, Monkey Island and Pirate of the Caribbean. But you can make it what you want.”
And he’s right. The atmosphere that comes with being part of a pirate crew is intoxicating. Not to mention you can drink lots of booze and actually become intoxicated with your shipmates. Players have to work in tandem to accomplish goals. I spent a good chunk of my time onboard steering the ship, yet I couldn’t see where exactly we were going due to the sails. My crew members had to tell me where to steer and if rival ships were nearby, giving me updates from the crows nest and the bow of the ship. Some maned the sails, others the cannons, and one unfortunate ally fell overboard while he played a sea shanty in a drunken stupor. Luckily our team was able to swing around and scoop him from the salty brine.
I did catch myself staring into the ocean more than once. The waves and the world as a whole are caught somewhere between realistic and cartoony, a memorizing art style that really adds to the overall ambiance. When I asked about the visuals Chapman told me he and his team of designers had worked diligently to make sure Sea of Thieves had the right look and feel. “This is pirate fantasy,” he clarified,“It’s not a dry, gritty, serious pirate world. We can pull from any famous pirate tropes and put them in the game with no limitations. This huge world we have created has a massive scale and is completely seamless. Players will never hit an invisible wall on their journeys; it’s that big.”
When I asked how he thought players would interact with such a large world and free run of it all he just smiled and shrugged, stating, “I genuinely don’t know what people are going to do. Go on quests, explore the world for secrets, customize their ships and characters - I’m excited to see what everyone is going to do in this shared world. We look forward to adapting what goes into the game based on what the players enjoy most.”
In other words, the sky’s the limit with Sea of Thieves. My time with the game was short, but it perfectly conveyed the team aspect and fantastical environment that is so essential to the games longevity. It’s a game that seems to be a legitimate labor of love from a developer that’s been churning out revamps of their classics series and Kinect-only minigames for the last decade. There is notable heart and ambition that we haven’t seen from Rare since perhaps Viva Piñata.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Xbox One. Not that there aren’t plenty of quality titles on the system, there just aren’t many that appeal to my gaming tastes. Sea of Thieves is a strong contender though, and a title that may finally force me to pick up an Xbox One before the year is over. My cautious optimism for the game’s future has grown into full-blown excitement for all those waiting to get their hands on the seafaring sandbox. Here’s hoping the game can live up to the lofty goals it’s developers and designers have created for it.
You’re reading TAY, Kotaku’s community-run blog. TAY is written by and for Kotaku readers like you. We write about games, art, culture and everything in between. Want to write with us? Check out our tutorial here and join in. Follow us on Twitter@KoTAYku and Like Us on Facebook.
For more game impression and nerd culture silliness you can follow GiantBoyDetective on Twitter at @SuperBentendo.