Loud, concussive bangs puncture the thick, smoky air as iron balls zip past each other in a lethal exchange. The two pirate vessels engaged in bloody close quarter warfare had chanced upon one another approaching a port, both swollen with ill-gotten gains. The victor is already clear, as punctured with splintered holes one of the ships clings to life as its holds are ransacked of treasure by the invading crew, and the last of its sailors executed in a blaze of pistol fire. In this world riches can change hands in an instant and legends can be born overnight.
It was clear from the offset that Rare's Sea of Thieves was attempting to offer players something a little different from the norm. Inspired by the potential of open-world survival games the team has endeavoured to create a world where player-driven, emergent narrative is the focal point. Here, the players create their own stories, they forge their own legends and the only story to speak of is one of your own ambition.
"Let's give them a world, let's give them a set of tools and how they use those tools and interact with others means that the game is going to play differently each time," Sea of Thieves' Design Director Mike Chapman told Gamereactor.
With the full release of Rare's swashbuckling adventure only around the corner we recently took a deeper look at this charming new pirate sim and examined the emergent experience it hopes to offer players. After getting a recent hands-on with Rare's latest build it's clear a lot has changed, but thankfully some things have remained the same. For instance, the appearance and behaviour of its oceans are still as breathtakingly beautiful as it was in the alpha, so good in fact that some players have reported feeling seasick during play. "It's an incredible technical achievement, we invested a lot of time and effort into it because you're going to be out there a lot, it needed to look as great as anything," executive producer Joe Neate told us.
Impressive water physics aren't the only achievement of Sea of Thieves' distinctive look. The whole world is wrapped in this painted quality that Neate describes as "timeless" and testimony to Art Director Ryan Stevenson's dedication to create a game "that doesn't age and doesn't rely on all the latest technology" to look good. It exudes that Rare charm we've all come to expect by ditching graphical fidelity, instead opting for a distinct personality where everything is just a bit wonky.
One thing that players are eager to establish after the beta is the substance of Sea of Thieves' end game. In an always-online world where player-driven narrative is paramount, there has to be a goal to strive for, and Rare hopes that becoming a pirate of legend will prove to be that higher objective. We already know how progression will work, but we recently got a glimpse of the rewards that await those who transcend into pirate myth.
"The Pirate Hideout is something hidden in the world, it's the home for Pirate Legends in the game," Chapman said. "What we wanted to do was to create something that was more than just a status symbol, that being a Pirate Legend was more than just I've got the best outfit in the game or I've got the best title, it was a tangible reward for all of this time and all of these adventures that you'd had in the game."
This exclusive area will serve as the first end goal of the game and act as a staging area for what happens beyond launch. According Chapman, it also presents a "significant time investment," as here you'll have access to exclusive legendary quests and items designed to display your status to the world, if you so choose of course. Notably, you may even have access to an exclusive, legendary vessel, as opposed to starting in a generic ship you can only apply cosmetic changes to per voyage.
Interestingly, progression in Sea of Thieves won't affect your ability to play together with your friends, as even Pirate Legends can sail with newcomers and share the end game loot they earn. Although working for three core factions - the Gold Hoarders, the Merchant Guild, and the Order of Chaos - will increase your reputation level with them, giving you access to better contracts, this will not affect character power or damage scaling, as Chapman points out:
"We made a choice at the start of the project to not put any barriers in place that prevent friends and potential new friends from playing together, so if you'd played the game for 100 hours and I'd bought the game at day one we can still play together, because Sea of Thieves isn't a game about endlessly chasing stats, it's about having meaningful adventures that play differently each time with your friends."
Ambitiously, Rare is trying to build a game that everyone can enjoy with inclusivity at the heart of its core design. You can see this in the game's approach to cross-play, its wide optimisation range for PC, and its leveling system that strives to never separate players into hierarchies. As one of Microsoft's first big launch titles for Game Pass ,it'll be interesting to see how this affects community engagement. From the developer's perspective, as PC Design lead Ted Timmins told us, Game Pass is seen as an advantage. "As a developer you just want as many ways people can play your game as possible and that ties back into the cross-play and the Xbox Play Anywhere and Game Pass," he said.
Cross-play has proved to be a bone of contention for players in the past, but Timmins was quite optimistic about balancing due to Sea of Thieves' unique mechanics. The idea is that you can play this game, fairly, anywhere on anything, and it even runs at 540p on low-end laptops. "As long as we keep everything in unison we're always doing the best we can to make it a balanced world and fundamentally ship vs ship it doesn't matter whether you're on Xbox or PC that's just a battle of quite literally physics," he explained.
It seems grandiose public events will also have a role in Rare's free-roaming pirate simulator as well. For instance, the already-leaked Kraken has now been confirmed with a short trailer documenting the devastation this mythical beast can unleash on an unsuspecting crew, and there are also the Skulls Forts, tempting enemy strongholds filled with riches signified by glowing skull clouds that act as rallying calls to all nearby crews, drawing players together in cooperation or conflict, which Neate describes as "like saving Private Ryan but with pirates".
"What we like about it is it's an emergent thing in the world and it drives interesting player behaviour and leads to interesting stories and that ultimately is our aim," Neate continued.
Rare has also decided to break from the norm in terms of character customisation, opting to do away with traditional creation tools. In its place, players will have access to a specifically-designed pirate randomiser that presents an "infinite" number of options and combinations. The developers hope this will encourage players to step out of their comfort zone and experiment with role-playing. "We're trying something a bit different, we want a wide range of characters out there in the world and we want you to encounter different characters," Neate said.
Sea of Thieves is lining up to offer a long-term service to its community instead of a one-time consumable, narrative experience. This is something that has divided players recently, specifically in relation to the presence of monetisation and loot boxes in full-price retail games, such as Destiny 2. It appears the development team are aware of this and have an attitude in keeping with their vision for the game. Neate confirmed that Rare have "no intent to charge for any of those updates that come to players" in terms of DLC, as they don't want to separate the player-base, but smaller purchasable items, such as pets, may be available in the game sometime down the line.
"The kind of things we want to add are optional, so nothing we ever do will affect power or progression, you'll always know what you're going to get, so that means no loot boxes, but what we want them to do is add to what we think is really fun and special about Sea of Thieves," Neate explained to us.
The future seems bright for Sea of Thieves, as its clear Rare is conscious of protecting its legacy whilst offering players something they've always dreamed of: a pirate-themed sandbox. The treasure-hunting epic seems to have gone down well with the community so far as well after trending number one on Twitch during the closed beta and attracting 332,052 players, which may not seem like much until you consider most people had to pre-order the game to get access. Right now, it has a lot of potential, and couple this with its improvisational nature with gameplay mechanics that naturally encourages role-play and you have an immersive experience as engrossing as it is captivating to watch. It's a game hoping to change the way people play by taking a new approach to player immersion, as Chapman told us:
"There's a very one dimensional view of multiplayer that we've really tried to challenge with this game, we've tried to do something new and unique and it's great to see that resonate with players."
Sea of Thieves sets sail on March 20 for Xbox One and Windows 10 PC.