Software piracy with Rare's Sea of Thieves: Hands-on E3 preview

Ship-to-ship battles play a big part in the competitive side of a game built with co-operation at its core.

Ship-to-ship battles play a big part in the competitive side of a game built with co-operation at its core.

Pirate games are nothing new, but with Sea of Thieves, British developers Rare are looking to do something completely different with the genre.

It's a massively multiplayer Xbox exclusive built around shared adventures and creative co-operation on the high seas, so every game will be different and your experience will to be shaped by how you interact with others, and how they interact with you.

While it's very much a work in progress (there's no firm release date other than 2018), at E3 this week I had the chance to take part in two 30-minute sessions, guided by the developers, to get an idea of what Sea of Thieves is all about.

I also managed to corner lead designer Ted Timmins to talk about the game's development and Rare's grand plans for Sea of Thieves. I had planned to include his comments in this piece but Ted was quite the talker, so we'll publish the interview separately.

Yo ho ho, away we go

In my first session, I was lucky enough to be teamed up with three other players who were all on the same page, pulling in the right direction, communicating via voice chat and following instructions from the Rare staffer.

Beginning on a small port outpost, we began by getting acquainted with the control scheme. Pressing one shoulder button brings up an item wheel, hitting the other allows you to select a quest.

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Quests are activated by following a set of clues written on parchment, ranging from the blindingly obvious to the confusingly cryptic, depending on the rarity of the loot on offer. Once we'd decided which island we needed to head to, we jumped aboard a ship and set sail.

Making sure everyone on board your ship knows their role is vitally important to keeping your vessel afloat.

Making sure everyone on board your ship knows their role is vitally important to keeping your vessel afloat.

And that's set sail in the literal sense, as one team member has to physically lower each sails and alter their length and direction in order to get the vessel out of the dock.

While this is happening, you also have to raise the anchor by pushing a heavy wheel - a process that's a lot faster if two or more of you help out. The game emphasises the importance of collaboration right from the outset.

Unlike other pirate games, there's no on-screen map, so one of your crew needs to head below deck to the map room to make sure you're heading in the right direction - they obviously can't steer the ship at the same time so again, it's encouraging players to talk to each other and stay in constant communication.

On the way to the island we encounter a storm, with huge waves battering the side of the ship and gale-force winds blowing us off course.

Dynamic storms and lighting strikes make navigating the high seas perilous for ships that will quickly sink if they take ...

Dynamic storms and lighting strikes make navigating the high seas perilous for ships that will quickly sink if they take on too much water.

Once we arrive at port some poor docking sees us hit some rocks, requiring us to find the damage and repair it to stop water coming into the ship and sinking it.

Some vague details on the treasure map show us where to look for buried booty and we head off into the undergrowth, encountering skeletons and battling them with swords, flintlock pistols and blunderbuses.

We're working as a team but there's a genuine competitive edge to being the first crew member to find the chest. When I finally spot it sticking out of the sand, I realise I need to select the shovel from the item wheel to dig it out. While I fumble with the controller, another player nips in and digs it out from under my feet. Arrrgh, scurvy dog!

Follow the map, decipher the clues, find the treasure and dig that buried booty up.

Follow the map, decipher the clues, find the treasure and dig that buried booty up.

We try to to work out how to open the lock to get to the gold until our guide informs us that we need to transport it back to an outpost to trade it in. Just as we drag our plunder back aboard, the session time runs out. The 30 minutes flew by, and we all retire to the bar to discuss our shared adventure over a bottle of grog.

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Mutiny on the bounty

Unfortunately, my second Sea of Thieves session wasn't exactly plain sailing.

Some language barriers (A Chinese, a Brit, and two Italians - a long way from "me hearties"), and one crew member's stubborn determination to go wandering off doing their own thing meant that we were all pulling in different directions and as a result, our experience was more trash than treasure.

Things start well enough; we choose a quest and board the ship but after reading the map and setting sail we realise we're not moving. Someone has dropped anchor immediately after we spent a precious minute raising it. Arrgh. 

When we finally make it out of port, one crew member decides to go for a swim and another jumps in to save his matey from a briney death. Luckily, Sea of Thieves makes provisions for such eventualities and some helpful mermaids materialise to warp the overboard pair back on board.

I learned in my first session that the key to getting the most of our limited timeframe was making sure everyone chose a role and stuck to it but it seems like my crewmates are trying to do a bit of everything - as a result we drift aimlessly on the open seas and eng up running aground on a beach a long way from where we need to be.

Pistols are perfect for long range battles , but when combat gets up close and personal, cutlasses are key

Pistols are perfect for long range battles , but when combat gets up close and personal, cutlasses are key

I try in vain to get things back on track but our Chinese shipmate is nowhere to be found. He's on the island shooting skeletons. Despite the assistance of an interpreter  he's not showing any signs of rejoining us so we decide to join him and do a bit of exploring.

Although there's nothing of note to be found on land, the trademark Rare sense of humour that pervades the whole game provides a welcome distraction.

Pulling out an accordion or lute for a quick sea shanty raises crew morale, gobbling bananas whole refills energy and firing yourself out of cannons is a speedy shortcut to reboarding your ship - nice little touches that create the kind of tongue-in-cheek vibe that Rare games are famous for.

Before too long, our 30-minute session comes to an end and after my first thrilling experience showed me what Sea of Thieves was capable of, it's hard not to feel a little bit disappointed.

Leaving one member to take care of steering while another checks the map for navigation is the best way to get your ship ...

Leaving one member to take care of steering while another checks the map for navigation is the best way to get your ship to the nearest treasure hunt.

It's clear that  this is a game that will literally sink or swim on co-operation and communication. If you get together with a group of real-life mates or are luckily enough to get paired with some clued-up online randoms, you're going to have a whale of a time. There's limitless potential here.

But, as we all know, online multiplayer lobbies are notorisouly full of trolls, easily distracted AFK-ers and people with patchy internet connections. If Sea of Thieves can find a way to ensure collaborative players are rewarded and trolls are punished, this really could be something special.

I have to admit I was a little sceptical about Sea of Thieves after that second session but after talking with lead designer Ted Timmons, I was a little more optimistic about its potential and Rare's plans for the future. We'll have the full interview tomorrow for an inside look at the game's development.

 

 

 

 - Stuff

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