In late May, I had the unique opportunity to join a group of individuals to be amongst the first people in the world to play Rare’s upcoming pirate adventure, Sea of Thieves. It was two fun-filled, exciting days of touring Rare’s HQ, meeting many of the amazing people that Rare employs, eating the good food at the Rare canteen, and of course getting some hands-on time with Sea of Thieves. I’ll delve further into my experience at Rare HQ at a future date, so for now let’s explore my SoT gameplay experience and what you can expect from the game when it releases in the future exclusively on Xbox One and Windows 10.
To play Sea of Thieves, Rare split the twelve us up into three separate groups of the four and then led us as groups to three different locations within Rare HQ where they had constructed a dozen unique, SoT themed sound proof booths equipped with cameras, headsets, televisions, chairs and an Xbox One controller. The idea behind these booths was for more than just creating a personal space to play and enjoy the game, but also for Rare to capture our reactions and how we played both individually and as a team so they can utilize our experiences to incorporate potential changes in the game’s development. Once we were each placed in our respective booth, we were instructed to wear the headsets and wait for their signal–a greenlight above the darkened TV–to turn on before picking up the controller and beginning our play session.
When the light lit green and the TV turned on, I was presented with the lush environment of one of the game’s many islands in a very colorful world. I could hear the waves of the ocean just ahead as they beat upon the island’s sandy shore and see a great pirate ship anchored nearby. Rather than take the time to explore the island, my three crew members and myself dashed hurriedly toward the ship eager to set sail and begin an adventure on the high seas.
Once the three of us were on the ship, we almost immediately realized that working as a united crew to operate the ship would serve in our best interest and help things run much smoother. Take raising the anchor for example. While it’s entirely possible for only one member of the crew to spin the four pronged wheel and raise the anchor from the depths, it’s a much slower affair compared to when all four of us took our place on a prong and began working in unison.
Raising the anchor was only the beginning. Rare has taken great care in embracing the reality of what would be required to actually run a pirate ship. It’s more than just raising an anchor, taking the helm and sailing away to the great beyond. No, you have to run and control every aspect of the ship. The sails must be lowered and appropriately angled, cannons must be manned and the ship repaired when taking damage (more on that later), and it doesn’t hurt to have someone in the crow’s nest to see ahead. And it’s each of those things that we, as a crew, quickly embraced.
After the raising the anchor, the first thing we did was set the sails. There were three sails in total, each of which could be lowered all the way to their respective lengths, or even only partially. They could also be angled in different directions. Each of these things were largely important in determining the speed and direction in which the ship would sail. Once that task was completed, our ship was off and sailing onto the open seas.
The level of detail that Rare has achieved is an astonishing feat. As someone who has been out sailing on the ocean before, I can attest to the realism that Rare has created for the ship’s movement as it cut through the open waters. It legitimately felt like I was on a ship. It even felt different depending on my respective location on the ship. Below decks didn’t feel the same as when standing on the bow or high up in the crow’s nest. Each created its own unique feeling, which I think is largely important for a game where a large majority of time will be spent out on the water.
Speaking of the water… I honestly don’t even know where to begin to describe it. It was, in all honesty, the most graphically detailed water to ever be introduced in a video game. As someone who has spent nearly twenty-six years of his life playing video games, I cannot express enough at just how well Rare has managed create something that just looks so incredibly stunning. Standing on the mast of the ship and just staring at the ocean is satisfying in and of itself. And there were a few moments where I did just that. It created such a peaceful atmosphere that I could quite literally do nothing but stand there and drink some grog and still have an enjoyable time. As someone who tends to hate anything pertaining to water in a video game, Sea of Thieves does the absolute opposite of that and makes me actually love it.
Water aside, there is an impressive draw distance as well. As we were sailing across the water, I could clearly see various islands, rock formations, and even other ships dotted around the sea. Each of the islands had their own distinctive looks and were ripe for exploring, but there was one in particular that really caught the attention of myself and crew. We dubbed it ‘Spiral Mountain’ as it appeared to be similar in appearance from a distance to the Spiral Mountain featured in Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie. That was the island we targeted for exploration and we weren’t the only ones to do so…
You see, Sea of Thieves is largely a cooperative experience. It’s not a requirement by any means, though. The theme of the game is to “be the pirate you want to be”, so if sailing the sea, exploring islands and fighting against other pirates on your lonesome is your preference, then you have the freedom to do so. But it won’t necessarily be a walk in the park. The first time you come across another crew with four manned cannons out for blood, you’ll probably be wishing you had a crew of your own, as defeating them in battle will be a much more difficult affair, though not entirely impossible. The same applies to running the ship itself. As with the aforementioned anchor scenario, it’s much quicker with people working in unison to raise it up and having different jobs to undertake.
This was a lessen we learned as we approached “Spiral Mountain” and was greeted by cannon fire from another ship. This would be one of many battles we would engage in and where that—as aforementioned—our working together would be the key to our survival. In these battles, everyone on the crew has a part to play, each of which was very important. Continuing to steer the ship was one of them. It was vital that someone was always at the helm to ensure the ship was exactly where it needed to be when engaged in combat. To fight back, the ships in the demo were equipped with eight cannons, four on each side. The ship needed to be appropriately angled and distanced in a way so that the cannons could be pointed in the direction of our rivals and that the cannonballs could actually reach our foes.
Another was the operation of the aforementioned cannons. Operating the cannons was a simple enough task. You walk up to one, aim it at the other ship, and press ‘A’ to fire. The aiming part of that process though was the biggest challenge. If the rival ship was close, it was almost impossible to miss. Just aim straight ahead and fire away and a hit was practically always guaranteed. If the ship was fairly distanced however, things were a little trickier. It became a game of experimentation where you’d have to try and determine the distance of the other ship and the appropriate height required in order to actually be able to hit it. And if I’m being honest, it felt so much more satisfying when I was able to successfully knell a rival from afar.
And finally, the third key aspect of survival in combat was the repairing of the ship. Each pirate was equipped with planks of wood on their person which was to be utilized to repair the ship when struck by a cannon ball. When that happened, the ship would begin to take on water and the plank could be used to fix it. To do that, you’d have to first find the leak below decks and then quickly approach it and nail the plank to the source. Achieving this task was very, very important. Should the ship not be repaired on time, it would eventually fill with water and sink to depths, resulting in a reset for the entire crew back to the island where our adventure first began.
One really cool experience I had involving another fight was when my crew and I crashed into another ship. When were engaged in quite an epic battle when things got a wee bit out of control, resulting in both ships clashing directly into each other. It was at this moment that had the curious idea of whether or not I could somehow sabotage my foes’ ship from the inside. So I jumped from my own ship and successfully landed on theirs, and then commenced to lowering their anchor and hurriedly dashed away to start raising their sails. Unfortunately, my sabotaging was cut short as our play session came its close, but my curiosity at least was appeased.
When Sea of Thieves was first announced at E3 2015, I didn’t know what to expect. There was a two-minute trailer shown promising island exploration, undead skeletons, epic sea battles against other pirate crews and water that was amongst the best ever seen in a video game. Aside from concept art and tune leaks from Captain Bones and some very brief comments from Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg in January, there wasn’t much info available. How would it play? Would it really look like it did in the trailer? Well after two days of play sessions with the game and seeing and experiencing first-hand just how much care Rare has put into creating a real pirate experience that doesn’t always take itself seriously but remains as equally fun and enjoyable, Sea of Thieves is something special. It has far exceeded my own personal expectations and I believe it will exceed yours too.