Rare's Sea of Thieves was one of the many games in attendance at Gamescom this year, and to follow up the studio also sailed their game into London to showcase it to players who didn't go to Cologne, giving them the chance to play in a rowdy group of four swashbucklers, guided by the devs themselves, and showing them how much fun a party can have at sea.
When we were first thrown into the game with these experienced devs who knew what they were doing, we'd be lying if we said we weren't a little bit intimidated, as they were hollering directions like "use your map" and "raise the anchor" and "play your accordion" and when we opened our inventory wheel, we were pretty overwhelmed. This pretty much sums up the start of your Sea of Thieves journey, then, because as a swashbuckling sandbox there's a lot to do, but it's all about breaking these objectives down and doing one thing at a time.
So after we'd slowed down a bit and got our bearings (literally, there's a compass for that), we were told there was a map of an island with treasure on it, so naturally we all went over to the big ocean map below deck to see where we needed to go. While the others manned the anchors, sails, and whatnot, we were tasked with getting on the wheel and then sailing us through a storm to get to where we needed to be: the island. Once our crewmates had finished their jobs, then, they came over and pestered us with accordions and shoving a map in our face - even the devs know how to mess around in their own game.
Once we got to the island, we shot ourselves onto land with a cannon, explored a bit, and quickly realised that you actually have to use orienteering skills, as there's no mini-map to guide you. Instead, you need to gauge where it is you need to be, and use your own eyes and a compass to get there (crazy, right?). In a later instance, it wasn't a map we needed to use for treasure, but a riddle instead, and this offers a different challenge, as you need to search for clues, and use the methods we've seen in pirate stories to get to the treasure, like pacing, for instance.
So once we got to where the treasure was buried, we dug it up and a crewmate grabbed it. All good, right? Wrong. There's a number of problematic things that can occur in Sea of Thieves, as we found out, and one of them is the various monsters that appear in the game. We're not sure if there are multiple kinds, but we ran into a bunch of hostile skeletons that we had to fend off with a blunderbuss, a pistol, and a sword before we could even reach the sea again.
Then another disaster struck - as we were exploring this island, another ship full of players rocked up and attacked our boat, and we got there just in time to see the bottom decks full of water before the whole thing tipped upside down. It turns out they had rocked up to our anchored and unattended ship as we were lollygagging on land, and we paid the price for our negligence, a number of us dying after we were boarded during the chaos.
It's unclear exactly what happens when you die, but when we perished at the hands of our fellow seafarers, we went to a 'ghost ship' along with the other lost souls that had died, which is basically just a place to wander about. After a certain amount of time, though, a door in the ship opened, allowing us to wander out into the real world again, spawning next to a new ship, where we rejoined our teammates and started our adventure afresh.
The purpose of this little recap is to demonstrate the types of adventures Rare's game allows for, and all of this was our own choice. Sure, we had a map and we went to get the treasure, but there's no mission structure as such. Instead, you do what you want, and if that be getting booty for your own profit, that's great, and may well be what many people end up doing most of the time, but if you just want to explore the seas and find what's out there, that's also fine. What this also means is that Sea of Thieves won't be for everyone as, without a structure, some might find it a little hard to find motivation, or that 'dangling carrot' to continue.
There's plenty in your inventory to be playing with during your adventure as well. As we said, there are weapons to be used when danger comes your way, but there's also maps, musical instruments, food, planks to repair the ship, cannon balls, tankards, lanterns, and buckets. As you can tell, then, not all of this is totally serious in nature, and Rare is just as much encouraging socialising with your fellow man as competing with them. We can imagine group parties starting in taverns in the game, something that will no doubt appeal just as much as dance parties do in Destiny.
Visually, though, Sea of Thieves impressed us a lot, and there are two sides to this. First, the visual style of the objects, land, and people in the game are a little cartoony, and quite bright, but it totally works. Everything in the game feels simple and uncluttered, but never unpleasant to look at. There's a certain charm here that reminds us of games like Fable, and as a result, everything is brimming with personality.
Then comes the second part: the water effects. We came into our demo not overly concerned about how the water behaved in the game, but we came away hugely impressed by how Rare had made it look and behave. While watching another demo take place, for instance, we saw a player dive under the water and look up at the rolling waves, and the detail that had been put into making it look genuine and convincing was great, and this applies to when you're above the water as well, watching the waves rock your ship with the surf sat on top of it. It all feels dynamic and authentic, which isn't easy when trying to reproduce something as volatile as the ocean in a video game.
This same dynamic gameplay applies to the weather as well, upping the immersion even more. When we sailed from our starting point to the treasure island we passed through a storm that suddenly appeared, forcing us to fight with the wheel for control as the wind and rain battered our sails, but soon it passed and we looked up and saw the dark clouds we had just sailed underneath. The weather and the sea, then, look like they combine in really interesting and unpredictable ways, and this totally makes the world feel more alive as a result.
Sea of Thieves is definitely not going to be a game that everyone will enjoy, but that's okay. It will be one for those who like to freely explore, have fun with friends, create their own adventures, and those who have had a dream of being a pirate on the seven seas. There's no reason Sea of Thieves can't be a hit for those people, and with a world as convincing and entertaining as this, we can see a lot of people having fun with it.