'Sea Of Thieves' Hands-On Review: Smooth Sailing So Far But Questions Remain

Sea of Thieves still doesn't have an official release date. Rare

I’m a self-confessed pirate games nerd, so naturally I had to stand in line for three and a half hours to play Sea of Thieves at E3 2016. Open-world pirate games are an underserved genre and Rare’s foray into the briny world of swashbuckling scallywags is the first serious effort since Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, and even that game wasn’t all-pirate all-the-time. The concept of an open-world, multiplayer pirate game being playable at E3 2016 was impossible for me to ignore, so I put my line time in to get about 10-15 minutes with the game. Was it worth it?

Kind of.

OK, yes, what I played was great. The Sea of Thieves demo provides plenty of silly pirate fun. My “equipment” was basically a mug of grog, an accordion and a handful of boards for patching holes in the ship’s hull. Playing a certain well-known sci-fi theme on the instrument while drunkenly spinning in circles proved to be a good icebreaker for my crew full of strangers, and soon we were all just laughing and drinking and having fun.

Then we set sail.

This is the unfortunate part of the demo. Sea of Thieves is shaping up to be a very big game, but fans at E3 only got to glimpse what I assume/hope is only a portion of the game. Crewing a ship requires a fair amount of communication and cooperation, two things the online gaming community isn’t always known for. Sure, if you have three friends available to play stuff, it's great, but getting jammed into a game with a bunch of randos might be problematic. At E3, though, everyone was on the same page and crewing the ship turned out to be great fun.

The most impressive part of the co-op experience for me was the way Rare has chosen to handle sailing. In pirate games past the captain (you) was in total control of the ship, including the sails. In Sea of Thieves (and in real life, I imagine) the captain can steer the ship but can’t physically reach the sails to control them, so he must order the crew around instead. In my demo the captain needed the sails adjusted quite a bit, as we were making a lot of sharp turns and then trying to go full speed to out maneuver not one, but two, enemy ships.

Those ships were controlled by other players, not AI, and the combat between ships had an intensity you wouldn’t expect given the light-hearted tone of the rest of the game. The naval combat put us all on a pattern of firing canons on one side of the ship, running into the underdeck to repair any leaky holes, running back up to adjust sails, and then getting on the canons on the other side of the ship and firing as we turned.

There were only three or four other people on my crew, so I imagine a fuller boat would be a little more effective on the open seas. Rare paid attention to little details too - aiming the canons at the part of the enemy hull below the waterline meant it would take on water much faster. I’ll be interested to see if other dynamic damage effects like fire damage or torn sails comes into play, too.

Ultimately, my “kind of worth it” feeling is tied to those unknowns. We didn’t get to board the enemy ships, our only option was trying to sink them with cannon fire. There was no swordfighting or musket combat, no treasure maps or mermaids or haunted skeletons. There was a lot left unseen in the Sea of Thieves E3 2016 demo. But what I saw made me want to see much, much more when the game finally launches sometime in 2017.


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