E3 2017 Hands-On (Deck): ‘Sea of Thieves’ Captures the Myth and Magic of Piracy

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Pirates are a fascinating, ever-relevant part of pop culture. In video games, pirates are as vital as ever, with two different pirate games featured at E3. Ubisoft’s recently revealed Skull and Bones takes the naval combat from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and uses it in a unique, competitive, multiplayer experience where two teams of five players, each in control of an entire pirate ship, seek to eliminate the enemy fleet and gain control of the high seas. Dark, gritty, and cinematic, Skull and Bones, in particular graphically, offers a slightly more realistic look at historical pirates than Sea of Thieves by bordering on a naval battle simulator. Sea of Thieves for Xbox One and Windows, on the other hand, aims and succeeds at capturing something much different. It doesn’t concern itself with the pirates of reality, but expertly encapsulates the romanticized perspective of pirates in the public’s mind. In that, developer Rare has captured all of the evocative myth, magic, high-flying adventure, and outrageous fun of pirate legend.

My time with Sea of Thieves began where all pirate adventures begin: the saloon. Surrounded by a motley bunch that would soon be my crew, we acquainted ourselves with one another by striking up song on the kind of assorted instruments most enjoyed by pirates, before sharing a couple of bullets and swings at one another with our swords. Sea of Thieves‘ item wheel is chock full of useful tools, such as a compass and fruit to restore health, and other humorously useless items like accordions and grog (that’s not entirely true, as the grog can be used to get tipsy or even drunk and during my play session one player drank ’til he puked all over another member of the crew). Small moments full of charm truly distinguish the shared world of Sea of Thieves. While it’s a treacherous world wrought with danger and adventure, it’s equally wrought with wit and humor, never taking itself too seriously and always providing a laugh.

After drinks and music it was time to begin our quest, and the four of us made way for the ship docked at port. Scrolling between the three maps in our map wheel, we decided to forego a treasure hunt utilizing the two standard, X-marks-the-spot maps in favor of a hunt for treasure alluded to by a mysterious riddle type map featured in the game. We also decided a captain much the same way – I commandeered the title and just sorta told everyone what to do without any contention from the crew, despite how ready I was to make a mutineer walk the plank. After a quick glance at the world map below deck, we found our heading, straight for Shipwreck Island, one of many handcrafted islands in Rare’s nautical world.

Sailing a ship is one of Sea of Thieves‘ core conceits. Players are entirely responsible for manning their ship, requiring teamwork and communication. Before setting sail, the ship must be prepped, the anchor raised, the sail lowered, and each member ready to man their station. In my playtime, I steered, Goomba Stomp’s very own Ryan Kapioski was lookout, one player navigated, while another…well he was kinda just there. Each member of the crew is dependent on other players playing their part; for instance, the player at the wheel is dependent on the lookout, as they can’t see beyond the mast and sail, and everyone else relies on the steerer to follow instruction. In this regard, Sea of Thieves offers a unique cooperative experience where everything is dependent on individuals operating as a unified whole. While certain tasks like raising anchor can be done alone, everything is achieved much quicker when all player band together. Certain roles may seem trivial and less engaging than others, but in reality each role is pivotal to sailing the ship efficiently. At the very least, navigating to a destination can be done relatively quickly, and anyone uninterested in their role probably won’t have to do it for long. Also, with a shared world, the seas are always inhabited by other players and threats making safe voyage less likely.

During combat, its all hands on deck. One player continues to steer while the rest man the cannons or move below deck to maintain the hull’s integrity as it receives blows from enemy vessels. Whether firing at an enemy ship, steering the ship to safety, or helping her stay afloat, Sea of Thieves‘ naval combat is frantic fun unlike any other, and one of the highlights of the game. Players less inclined to fight with cannon fire can even load themselves into a cannon and launch themselves toward an enemy ship to board it in a heroic, inane attempt to seize the enemy vessel. Comparable with Sea of Thieves quieter moments on the open seas, every member of the crew will have a truly critical role during a firefight, and it’s guaranteed that no one will feel left out of any potential fun.

Our ship came under fire once during the demo, but the enemy quickly fled as my crew returned the barrage and we arrived safely at Shipwreck Island. Lowering the anchor, we parked the ship, loaded ourselves into the shipwright cannons, and fired ourselves toward the island. Pulling up the riddle map once more, we continued to work through the clues. Soon we were all pulling out compasses and counting paces hoping to end up where the buried treasure lie, an easy task, as holding the trigger down while holding the compass results in the cartoony pirate making clear cut steps thanks to Rare’s clever design. Moments later we were all digging up a colorful, mysterious chest with our shovels before skeletal pirates protecting their booty rose from the grave to thwart us. Armed with swords, pistols, and blunderbusses, the crew took the fight to the undead guardians. Each gun has a very limited amount of ammo, so accuracy is essential. Leveling my pistol without a reticle, I aimed down the barrel of the gun before blasting a skeleton with a ball of lead while my crew routed two others with swords. Reloading, I found three more skeletons between us and the shore toward the ship. Two shots fired, two skeletons reduced to dust. The third fell prey to the sword-swinging buccaneers of the bunch. Seconds later, one crew member carrying our precious booty, we hauled back to the ship to sail off into the sunset and the conclusion of our demo.

While all aspects of sailing and nautical battles are designed in spectacular fashion, it’s the adventure and exploration aspect of the game experience in the latter half of the demo that appeals to me most, and holds the most promise. For one thing, the world is a beauty to behold, with a bright, warm, tropical color palette, engaging, cartoony visuals, and it’s overflowing with charming detail and magical, nautical ambiance.  Sea of Thieves embodies all of the allure of whimsical pirate lore and legend sensationally, perfectly maintaining the theme with all the mystique, wonder, and bottled magic of a Disneyland attraction. The comparison of Sea of Thieves to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is an apt one, and easy to make. In fact, Rare handles the cartoon, caricatured corsair theme, tone, and atmosphere so remarkably that had they probably could’ve helmed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales to a satisfactory conclusion. Regardless, Sea of Thieves is an immensely promising and ambitious concept which Rare has staggeringly managed to realize up until this point. Will Sea of Thieves make good on its unique, cooperative, shared world experience with its grin-inducing fanciful portrayal of a pirates life? Time will tell. I, for one, am on board; yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me!

Tim was both born and raised. He resides quietly in the Emerald City, where he can often be found writing, reading, watching movies, or playing video games. Like the stereotypical Seattleite, he makes money crafting coffee beverages, though he would like to make a career writing or in working for the Galactic Empire.