Sea of Thieves First Impressions: The Return of Something Rare

Lost on land, Rare finds itself at sea.

[Note: Written in conjunction with Christopher Kysse.]

WHEN RARE’S bugle horn sounded at Microsoft’s Xbox conference in 2015, it was making a definitive statement: after five years of devoting itself to Kinect projects, the British studio, best known for its irreverent, boundary-pushing humour, had decided to embark on a risky oceanic voyage that hinted at the magical era of Conker, Banjo and Donkey Kong. They would baptise it Sea of Thieves. A open-world multiplayer adventure where pirates are king of the deep blue. A daring leap of faith. Three years later, and Rare’s ostensible return to form finds itself in beta an exclusive testing period which was too seductive an offer for Sea Dogs/Age of Pirates enthusiast Christopher, and myself, a hardcore Banjo-Kazooie fanatic, to pass up. We leapt into Sea of Thieves with high expectations, and emerged with a glittering chest of Rare treasures, not all of them gold.

THE LURE OF PIRACY 

Katrina: So, my fellow shipmate Christopher. What enticed you to participate in the scandalous buccaneering of Sea of Thieves?

Christopher: As a young troublemaker, I was drawn to open-world games of piracy. They had elements of exploration, discovery, danger, and often mystery. Sid Meier’s Pirates! was a favorite of mine for its charm and energy, and the part of me that loved the simulation side of things lost countless hours to Akella’s challenging, role-playing series of sailing games. Akella released several titles Stateside, confusingly under different names, from Sea Dogs to Pirates of the Caribbean (originally Sea Dogs 2) to Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales and Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships. Not only could I crew a vessel and immerse myself in the simple act of sailing, but I could walk around land picking up quests in port, dueling with sabres and pistols, and exploring islands for treasure. Both the casual and hardcore experiences ignited my imagination for open waters. When Sea of Thieves was announced, a game of not dissimilar general features, I couldn’t have been more excited to relive that passion. The game’s ability to share that passion with friends through two to four-player co-operative play meant Rare certainly had my attention.

“Both casual and hardcore (sailing) experiences ignited my imagination for open waters. When Sea of Thieves was announced…I couldn’t have been more excited to relive that passion”

You didn’t have the same history with sailing and pirating games as I had, but Rare’s library admittedly delivered some of your favorite games. So what were your expectations for Sea of Thieves prior to playing the closed beta?

Katrina: Alas, you are correct; my shamefully limited experiences with looting, pillaging and navigating would never get me a job aboard the Black Pearl. Maybe I’d get a stint as a cook. However, I have a long history with Rareware games spanning the Donkey Kong series and Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie, which really propelled my interest here. The focus of Sea of Thieves also seemed much more specific than something like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and I thoroughly adored the fact Rare was sticking to its strengths with stylised cartoons instead of cutting-edge realism — another blessing for animation nuts like me.

Christopher: I love that you mentioned realism and Rare’s stylistic visual approach, because although Sea of Thieves leans more toward an arcade-like and colorful atmosphere, I found it absolutely immersive. And that brings us to our first impressions. I had such a great time during the closed beta. It immediately drew me in both with how goofy and hilarious pirate adventures with others could be, as well its well-realized sailing mechanics and beautifully rendered waves (probably the best I’ve seen).

“Standing on the bowsprit and watching the violent waters caused a little vertigo…I lost my sea legs for a moment and strangely enough, I couldn’t have been happier”

Amusingly, playing on a 21:9 aspect ratio monitor left my vision and body bobbing even after I had closed the game. Standing on the bowsprit and watching the violent waters even caused a little vertigo as I whipped myself around back to the deck. I almost lost my sea legs for a moment and strangely enough, I couldn’t have been happier.

Katrina: Aye, mate. ‘Goofy’ is a very accurate descriptor of Rare’s personality as a whole, and it shines in multiple aspects of the game’s design. Honestly, which other game out there lets you drink endless mugs of rum? Or play bittersweet hurdy-gurdy melodies on deck?

“Instead of loading projectiles at enemy ships, you can indulge in comic mischief and catapult yourself. Rare’s lost the plot, and I absolutely want to get lost with them”

And it’d be remiss to not mention that instead of loading projectiles into the cannon to take aim at enemy ships, you can indulge in comic mischief and catapult yourself. Sheer insanity. Rare’s lost the plot, and I absolutely want to get lost with them. Sea of Thieves is loads of fun, vertigo notwithstanding.

ADRIFT, NOT MAROONED 

Christopher: What I found particularly great about Sea of Thieves is that the ridiculous aspects and nature of the game blend so well with its more “realistic” elements. I’m using the latter term loosely, because the mechanics are definitely not simulation-heavy, but sailing a ship isn’t as basic a task as it is in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

The first challenge is that there is no persistent interface to inform you what’s happening to the ship. Players need to observe, explore, and interact with the numerous components of their vessel. Before adventure can be had, the anchor is raised by physically turning a wheel. Sails need to be lowered and angled to catch the wind. The ship doesn’t turn on a dime or indicate which direction it’s heading other than by compass, so managing the wheel requires active attention.

“Sailing a ship isn’t as basic a task as it is in Assassin’s Creed. With a crew of multiple people, I found (it) to be extremely rewarding. Everyone melded into specific roles…and in a Rare game, that often meant hilarious shenanigans”

Oh, and if you really want to know where you’re going, that means running below deck to monitor a map. The pirate behind the wheel of a larger vessel has difficulty seeing what’s in front of him or her due to lowered sails, too, so a guide on deck is always welcome. With a crew of multiple people, I found those actions to be extremely rewarding. Everyone melded into specific roles, be it captain, a spotter in the watcher’s nest, drunk musician, or cannoneer. And in a Rare game, that often meant hilarious shenanigans.

Katrina: Blimey, those navigation mechanics threw me for a loop! For some strange reason, I thought they’d be inverted and sent the ship careening towards a cliff of some sort, then straight down to Davy Jones’ Locker. It certainly took some adjusting, but you’re right — once you find your feet, it’s smooth sailing. The compass is a clever point of reference; it removes the need for Black Flag’s directional minimap and forces you to rely on your wits to decipher all those cryptic clues etched on faded parchment. Rare also keeps the momentum going by rewarding your curiosity when you experiment with your shovel, digging around for precious items unmarked on your marauder’s map.

Christopher: I think I laughed for a solid five minutes after asking you, “Do you want to take the wheel?” and then watching you sail us straight into the rocks and to the bottom of the sea.

Katrina: Ahem? Like I said, Captain Jack would obviously consign me to kitchen duties to avoid such disasters. Not my fault you adhere to the “ladies first” motto.   

A PIRATE’S DEMISE 

Christopher: It was nice to discover that death and destruction aren’t frustrating, at least. Going into Sea of Thieves, I was curious how they’d handle dying, losing sight of your ship, or straight up sinking it. If I was with a random crew, would I be forced to matchmake with another group? Thankfully, it’s a pretty relaxed system. For example, when our lovely galleon was sent violently to its doom, interacting with a mermaid – its location indicated by a pillar of blue smoke – simply gave us a new one. And when we dropped anchor to investigate an overturned shipwreck, dove below the water to explore the ruined hull, and were met with visions of sharp, gnashing teeth…

Katrina: I remember it well. Part of me suspects that shipwreck was placed there deliberately to lure greedy pirates to their doom. I mean, this is Rare we’re talking about. The company who assigned a vicious shark (Snacker) to the shores of Treasure Trove Cove in the hopes Banjo and Kazooie would develop hydrophobia. So, like most things in life, I avoided thinking about death in Sea of Thieves until it was actually in front of me.

“The Ferry of the Damned is such an amazing visualisation of seadog afterlife I hardly felt like it was a punishment for dying at all”

I assumed your character would just respawn on a randomly generated ship; not so. The mermaid smoke signal is a stroke of genius. What’s more, The Ferry of the Damned — where deceased pirate souls roam — is such an amazing visualisation of seadog afterlife I hardly felt it was punishment for dying at all. This limbo-land also turned my thoughts to Charon, the ferryman who is said to transport the dead across the river Styx to the underworld. Luckily, you’re never stranded there for too long, and as long as your shipmate comes out unscathed, you can still score some quality loot. Rare avoids loot boxes with loot boxes. I like it.  

Christopher: I remember frantically swimming back to our own ship, getting aboard deck, and shouting, “I got the treasure chest! Katrina?” You were just gone. And then I heard your giggling about the Ferry. Discoveries and moments like that sold me on the beta.

THE SIRENS OF TREASURE 

Katrina: Agreed. Sea of Thieves also has a loosely defined mission structure that isn’t immediately apparent; to unlock the meat and potatoes of the game, you need to locate an island merchant and purchase voyages for a predetermined fee (no haggling, sadly), then reach a consensus with your crew back on board.

After making your decision comes the fun part harnessing your cartography skills to locate the treasure’s potential location, or reading between the lines of an ambiguously worded riddle. But there’s much more to it than that.

Christopher: The treasure-hunting voyages were all satisfying, quick adventures. The aforementioned riddles all of which naturally rhyme, of course were especially great to resolve. They’d often have us search the landscape for a particular sign or statue, but they could get pretty complex.

One had multiple lines that would only reveal under the right circumstances, such as shining a lantern near a specific puddle. And the treasure chests we’d find weren’t all quiet containers of wood. Some loudly cried, filling our hull with water that we then had to empty out with buckets. Another would leave my character wobbling about drunk as a sailor on shore leave.

Obtaining those treasure chests was our primary goal in the beta. The full game will have three Trading Companies with which to obtain different types of quests, build reputation, and earn rewards from (such as more lucrative voyages and special items), but the Gold Hoarders was all that was available to us.

Katrina: Was it a similarly swashbuckling experience in the joint PC/Xbox One voyages?

Christopher: That’s right, I did get to try the beta on both the PC and Xbox One. As an Xbox Play Anywhere game, one account gives you both versions of the game. I was able to hop between either one and retain my progress. Furthermore, it was really cool to see cross-platform play in action.

“My first time in Sea of Thieves put me into a perfectly split crew of PC and Xbox One players…no one knew what to do, and it was a blast figuring it out together”

My first time in Sea of Thieves put me into a perfectly split crew of PC and Xbox One players. Everyone had a mic, no one knew what to do, and it was a blast figuring it out together. And for those worried about Xbox One performance, it ran and looked beautiful. The PC version is sharper, of course, thanks to the option to select higher resolutions, but I was still wowed by the visuals on console.

Katrina: Well blow me down, those scenic vistas really captured the sun’s heavenly, fading rays. Quite a sight. Though I can’t say the same for the startup crash or loading screen, which stared back at me unchanging for seemingly incalculable amounts of time. The server can be a bit temperamental too. When you do connect, the seafaring is of course spellbinding. I’m hoping Rare can abbreviate the matchmaking process by launch time. This is crucial for a multiplayer.

Christopher: The loading times were definitely long. They often took more than a minute, and other times it felt much longer. That said, once in the game proper it’s uncommon to see another, at least not one quite so hefty. We were playing cross region, so it’s possible our connections had a strong impact on their duration.

Katrina: Any other troubles fellow buccaneers should be aware of?

Christopher: Not so much troubles as a slight concern about progression. We’ve all been conditioned on vertical reward systems. We level up and get stronger. The items we buy or earn confer noticeable boons to our performance and survivability.

“Sea of Thieves forgoes vertical reward systems to maintain balance…instead, gold is spent on visual upgrades. I’m perfectly content with that system”

Sea of Thieves forgoes that kind of progression to maintain balance, as at any moment you could come across another crew of players. It wouldn’t be fun to get utterly demolished by someone’s level 16, acid-spewing canon. Instead, gold is spent on visual upgrades. Gold-encrusted shovels. A fancy admiral’s hat. I’m perfectly content with that system, because as an Age of Pirates fan, I just love the act of sailing. But will it be enough to keep players interested in the long term?

RARE AS THE PEARL 

Christopher: And love the sailing in Sea of Thievesclosed beta I did. I can’t wait to dive back into the full game this March 20th to discover what else it has to offer. The adventures we had were equal parts exciting, rewarding, and humorous.

Katrina: I’m pumped for the final thing, too. Rare is moving into uncharted waters with Sea of Thieves, but inside a familiar ship; the use of cartoonish, Grabbed by the Ghoulies style graphics is a clever way to rope in its pre-established fanbase, and is in stark contrast with the realism of Ubisoft’s upcoming naval-warfare adventure Skull & Bones — the only other multiplayer interested in piracy right now.

“Rare is moving into uncharted waters with Sea of Thieves, but inside a familiar ship. Could this be the guiding beacon for Rare’s return to the pre-Kinect era?”

Sea of Thieves might not steal everyone’s heart, however, it’s bursting with the creative energy of a new IP crackling, thunderous skies that threaten to usurp Poseidon, melancholy accordion rifts that bounce in harmony with the waves, the roar of cannon fire that sends shivers down your blackened, scallywag soul could this secret blend of herbs and spices be the guiding beacon for Rare’s return to the pre-Kinect era? I sure hope so.

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Sea of Thieves releases on March 20 for PC and Xbox One. Pre-order it here.