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June 2019

Sea Of Thieves

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Rare
Release Date: March 20, 2018


XOne/PC Preview - 'Sea of Thieves'

by Cody Medellin on Jan. 30, 2018 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Sea of Thieves is an immersive, shared-world adventure game filled with pirates, unexpected dangers and loot for the taking.

Pre-order Sea of Thieves

Ever since it was announced at E3 2015, Sea of Thieves has had an interesting ride. There was a year and a half of silence before countless closed alpha sessions occurred on both the Xbox One and PC. The game was constantly tweaked, and the netcode improved. In an interesting wrinkle, the game was announced as being part of a new initiative where Xbox Game Pass subscribers can play it day and date with those who buy the game, giving the title a shot at getting a good player base from the outset. With only two months to go before Sea of Thieves is released, we got a chance to check it out during a closed beta.

You start by deciding your ship size, which, in turn, determines your crew size. Though the game recommends and is tailored for a four-person crew, you can choose to play with one other person or even solo, which results in a much tougher game. From there, you party up or team up with random people and begin the game. There is no character customization in the beta, so you'll have a completely random appearance, but you don't get a chance to see yourself anyway unless someone else takes a screenshot.

From here, you're pretty much on your own. In a significant change from almost every other modern title in the market, there is no tutorial. There are no guide markers for where to go, and there are no suggestions from other characters about what to do next. There isn't even a minimap to highlight points of interest. Opening up your inventory gives you no descriptions of your items and tools. There's also no aiming reticle, which is troublesome given the amount of motion on your ship; it's even leading to some bouts of motion sickness. The only thing that qualifies as a hint is a prompt that indicates whether you can interact with an object or pick it up.

This lack of direction can be very disorienting if you're playing solo or playing with a bunch of people who don't know what to do beforehand. You can only pick up items through barrels. You can ask for grog from the barmaid, but you only get it when you realize that you have a mug in your inventory, since you can't pick up any of the mugs on the table. Wander outside, and you'll see a number of buildings with no occupants. There are a few shopkeepers around offering a number of cosmetic items, but since you have no gold at this stage, those things are useless. It isn't until you speak to a trader and realize what he has for sale that you finally get some direction: Sail for an island, find the treasure, and return to exchange it for gold to buy more quests.

Once you get on your ship, you'll learn that the game focuses on two major factors: cooperative play and a DIY attitude. You'll discover the latter when you try and set sail, since you have to raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, steer to get anywhere, and you'll need to do the reverse to stop before crashing your boat. Since the map table is inside the ship, you'll need to head there, take note of the target island, and use your compass to locate it. You'll also have to deal with limited visibility since the sail is large enough to block most of your vision. This is where cooperative play comes in, as you can have everyone else handle navigation, looking out for trouble, sail faster, or load cannonballs in case of danger. In the worst case scenario, the extra hands can play music or stay on the ship while everyone explores an island. This ensures that the ship doesn't disappear, which would force you to seek out a merman to warp you back to deck. That last part is important, since it seems to happen quite often when playing solo.

Once you're on the island, about the only things you can do is explore and hunt for treasure. Sometimes, you'll run into animated skeletons, but they're easy to dispatch since you have a cutlass, a pistol, a long-range rifle, and ample ammo for all of them. You can search the island and dig up any spot you'd like, or you can use the clues for each mission to get the treasure. The game still won't tell you exactly where to dig, but it's kind enough to rumble to count your steps, so you aren't completely helpless. When you find the treasure, you'll have to carry it back to your ship, and this is where the extra hands come into play. You can't warp into your ship via merman since that'll drop the treasure, and since you can't do any climbing or defend yourself while holding the chest, you'll need other people to help.

Since this is a multiplayer experience and since everyone has the same goal of finding treasure and delivering it for gold, you can expect other player-controlled pirates will try to steal the treasure from you. This is where the game gets very interesting; like sailing and parking a ship, everything needs to be manually done, and it can quickly get complicated if you're going solo. If you wanted to fire a cannon, you have to load a cannonball first, aim, and fire before repeating the process. If your ship gets hit, you need to go down and use the boards to fix the hole while bailing out the water. You can even try and board the ship by firing yourself with a cannon. Your reward for defeating the enemy is taking their chests or impeding their progress, and while death means losing your ship and getting sent to a ghost vessel for a while, that penalty doesn't last long, so you'll be back into the thick of things in no time.

In a way, you get the sense that the objective is all about creating wild and crazy stories with your friends. We're already seeing stories of how people have snuck aboard ships and single-handedly taken out the crew or people throwing others in the brig while serenading them with squeezeboxes. Others have decided to swim from one island to another, all the while hoping they aren't eaten by sharks. Some are having dance parties on every island. There are just enough emergent gameplay moments happening, and even though the world is comprised of smaller instances instead of hundreds of people in one place at one time, it still feels alive.

The real question that has to be answered is what else is there to do in the game. The treasure-hunting is fun and the battles against other pirates can be a blast, but that can be rather shallow if that's all you can do. Microsoft has stated that the beta is purposefully omitting content, so there's hope that the experience may be as deep as other open-world titles.

The presentation is rather offbeat. The character models are very stylized, in some cases looking like a grotesque cartoon come to life. The islands have simple and muted colors for rocks, sand and shacks, but the foliage is lush and gorgeous due to its density. The weather system looks great, especially when the sunset gives everything a warm glow. The water, however, is the game's most impressive feat. Both calm and choppy waters are represented well, with large waves crashing on your boat while the appearance of those waves from underneath is absolutely breathtaking. It also looks more realistic than everything else surrounding it. Between the PC and the Xbox One, the only difference thus far stems from the frame rate, as the console tries to lock at 30 fps while the PC offers 60 fps with no sweat on decent hardware.

With so much of the game locked away in the beta, it's difficult to get a more complete idea of Sea of Thieves' prospects. It's fun to go around with your crew and do almost anything you want in your pirate playground, as even the most mundane things can produce hilarity and good stories. However, the fun can only last so long if there isn't much to do beyond grabbing treasure and defeating other pirates. We'll see if the game has some longevity when it docks on Mar. 20.

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