Sea Of Thieves Hands-On Preview [E3 2016]

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After years of waiting, I’m glad to finally say it: Rare is back.

It’s been a rather tumultuous period for fans of Rare Ltd. While the release of Rare Reply was a real treat for longtime fans of the UK-based development studio, they’ve arguably seen a slow down over the past few years. Having developed well over 100 games in their lifetime, the team at Rare has seen some drastic changes since their acquisition by Microsoft. Development staff have come and gone, and many of the big names that were responsible for their ‘golden era of games’ have since moved on to other ventures, including company founders Chris and Tim Stamper.

That’s all changing, however. While it may have taken a few years to find their footing, it looks like Rare is looking to make a strong comeback with gamers and casual fans alike. Their secret weapon? Sea of Thieves.

For the uninitiated, Sea of Thieves is a pirate-themed adventure game, with a strong focus on playing online in an interconnected, multiplayer-focused open world. Unlike some MMOs, Sea of Thieves has more of a focus on providing the player with the tools to create their own moments and stories, rather than having them focus on segmented quests.

Of course, as you might imagine, the nature of open world multiplayer-focused games means they don’t exactly demo that well. However, we got to go hands on with the game at E3 with four other players, with one of them being a staff developer at Rare Ltd.

The most interesting thing about Sea of Thieves from a design perspective is the use of a first-person camera and control scheme, rather than a more traditional third-person viewpoint. This design decision lends itself well to the moment-to-moment gameplay; the first-person viewpoint makes you feel more involved and invested in your character, making the freeform style of gameplay that much more enjoyable and personal.

While there will undoubtedly be more gameplay to show off at a later date, our demo functioned as a vertical slice of sorts, focusing on ship to ship combat and navigation. After our crew assembled on a small island beach, we made our way to our ship, which was anchored just offshore. Of course, like many would, we took our time to figure out the controls. It was during this exploratory period that we found that each player had their own mug of (what I would presume to be) grog. After a few hearty cheers and swigs, we quickly found ourselves drunk, with blurred vision and wobbly controls to boot.

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After drunkenly swimming to our boat, we quickly sobered up and we were on our way. It’s here where me and my fellow shipmates discovered that the process of getting our ship on the seas was more involved process than simply pressing a few buttons. Raising the anchor, dropping the sails, and adjusting their angles are all part of the minute-to-minute processes that are a small part of steering and navigating on the open waters.

Of course, as expected for a multiplayer game, there’s an emphasis on teamwork and coordination in order to maximize the efficiency of your crew. Raising the anchor, for example, can be done quickly if more than one person jumps to your aid. Dropping the sails and adjusting their angles requires knowledge of wind direction, and with three sails to keep an eye on, coordination among players will be key.

Even with all the work that has to be done though, there are plenty of memorable moments and chuckle-worthy stories to remember. During my demo, a few of us convened on the bowsprit (ship terminology is a must-have to feel fully immersed) and formed a band, playing sea shanties on our own instruments and partaking in a few drinks between sets. There were also a few moments where one of our crew members (myself included) fell off the side of the ship in a drunken stupor. This of course, necessitated a full stop, as the capsized crew member boarded the ship.

The fun and good times continued until one of the ship’s swabbies (once again, pirate terminology is a must) spotted a rival pirate ship off in the distance. Our crew quickly assembled and began preparations to take out the enemy vessel. Our captain was manning the wheel, initiating a hard turn to the right, with another seafarer at the anchor, dropping and raising it when needed to help reduce our turn radius. Our fearless leader from Rare Ltd. was manning the sails, while me a fellow cadet were on the cannons, firing at the enemy ship non-stop. Unfortunately, the enemy ship managed to get away, though that didn’t stop up from giving chase until the end of our demo.

Pirate themed levels and characters have been a staple of Rare games, from levels in the Donkey Kong Country and Banjo Kazooie games to their cancelled SNES/N64 title Project Dream. It may have taken a decade or two, but Rare Ltd. is finally able to make good on their intentions to release a pirate-themed game. Sea of Thieves is a definite highlight of Microsoft’s E3 lineup, and is one that you should keep on your radar  map in the months to come.