Despite being quite familiar with the terms for as long as I can remember, I’d never really understood the nautical trappings associated with ‘port and starboard’. I’d never needed to. To begin using them in a videogame would, I assume, surely represent the kind of overly fussy dedication reserved for the most stalwart of model train aficionados, beer drinkers who keep notes in a closely-guarded little black book, rigidly-organised people who wear specifically coloured socks on days that begin with a ‘T’. And yet here I was; adrift on the open sea with a rag-tag band of recently acquired, good-humoured crewmates, being pursued by two of the most salty of seadogs – the kind whose ship you’d recently sunk, and loot plundered!
As we made off with their presumably hard-earned chests of gold (and an openly sobbing Chest of Sorrow for good measure) one of Sea of Thieves most community-dividing features made itself all too clear; how do you maintain one crew’s unfettered thirst for revenge against the satisfaction of their adversaries’ hard-fought victory? It is currently a question that Rare are unable to fully answer, at least within the scope of this extended demonstration. As it stands, player vs player combat between opposing crews is a slightly clumsy affair, with limited movesets, ammunition and weapon types often resulting in swift and scrambled ‘who shoots first’ exchanges. At first ambitiously thrilling, the larger scale ship vs ship combat is an exciting mixture of communication, cooperation and spontaneity, as crewmates assign themselves into specific roles. One player will typically organise and steer, while the others quickly take to the cannons en masse, abandoning the multiple sail and anchor positions essential to successful ocean and map navigation, unleashing an unrelenting volley of heavy metal in the vague, bobbing direction of the enemy ship. At least, until they are inevitably required to peel off below deck to repair their own damaged hull with planks of wood, lest they risk letting their ship take in too much water and… unceremoniously sink to the bottom of the (admittedly stunning) deep blue sea. More often than not, as the two ships draw closer, players will volunteer to aggressively board their opponent’s vessel, jumping from extended planks, loading themselves(!) into cannons, and gloriously blasting headfirst towards the foe, pistol drawn, cutlass at the ready.
When the dust settles, one ship will be in a worse state than the other and one crew will have suffered more losses. To the victors go the spoils, as they hurriedly help themselves to whatever loot had been squirreled away onboard. And then the losers respawn. On the same ship. Repeatedly. Or alternatively with a brand spanking, fully armed and armoured, shiny new ship nearby. This frequent, same instance spawning (despite requiring a brief post-death stint aboard an otherwordly ghost vessel) results in a tit-for-tat battle of attrition which can become somewhat tiring; and begs the question – at what point will players simply ‘give up’ on recapturing lost loot, on taking revenge on the now-resource-hampered crew which previously scuppered them? It turns out, not for quite some time. And those same players, more often than not, will pursue their freshly-forged arch nemesis for retribution to both the figurative and very literal ends of the earth.
And so it was, after recently fleeing such a pair of score-settling try-hards, my crew found itself tearing across the open waves, abandoning all previously established plans of treasure hunting and plunder, our goal to simply get as far away from these annoying followers as we could. Nothing would shake them. On deck, dancing and playing music together, using the in-game wheel to mutter contextually-driven phrases at each other, while fun, would only alleviate the frustration temporarily. And then it happened. ‘Aw man, there are two more ships over there!’ I called, cautiously sipping on a cold rum and coke. ‘Over where?’ asked a crewmate, already steering us between two islands. ‘Kind of our front-right, right ahead of us there.’ ‘At 2 o’clock, you mean – they’re already fighting each other!’ ‘Why don’t we lose these guys with them?’ Thusly, with this new course of action established, we discussed that perhaps a more specific discourse of orientation might be more appropriate moving forward. The traditional nautical terminology was logical, compelling, and quickly adopted wholesale. ‘Keep them on the starboard quarter! Prepare to drop anchor and circle back around the portside island! Yarrr me hearties!!!’ And with that, we were no longer simply playing at piratical evasion – we had become fully qualified Black Beards and Barnacle Bills (in our eyes at least) and what a rush! No ostentatious little black book required.
Sea of Thieves might yet need to establish just how enjoyable such encounters can be during prolonged playtimes, and what kind of endgame rewards await players willing to get lost amongst its compelling island vistas. Cosmetic items have been compelling enough seasonal rewards in FPS titles such as Overwatch, yet Destiny 2 has ingloriously struggled to maintain a playerbase uninterested in playing ‘dress up with their Guardian’ in the face of a perceived lack of worthwhile meaningful loot. On the other hand, the recent announcement that Sea of Thieves has been chosen as the game which will spearhead Microsoft’s refreshed approach to its Game Pass service, now including brand new Microsoft-published releases alongside the established staple of previously-available games. The effect of his decision has been to both bolster an increasingly unguarded, incautious interest in the game itself, but also to all-but guarantee a significant userbase at launch, which has been seen by the existing Sea of Thieves community as a resounding and welcome success.
Also welcome, and of immediate note, the eye-catching visuals certainly make for a compelling introduction to the title – Sea of Thieves can be simply jaw dropping at times, coming replete with a world-class lighting engine providing a stream of seemingly endless wallpaper-worthy dynamic sunsets. But gorgeous visuals aside (seriously, the water in this game is the most incredible I’ve seen since Wave Race 64), forked lightning, predatory sharks and newly- added pretty little fish adorning the coastline might be enough to spark interest during a feature-stripped beta, but none of that matters as much as the ability to keep players hooked in the longer term, if you pardon the pun. And we are yet to see how this might be achieved, despite rumblings of raid-style secret missions and a monstrous kraken lurking beneath the waves. Meanwhile, the uniformity of item design and lack of options regarding class or weapon loadouts, and the seemingly complete absence of item perks or any element of min/maxing for gamers interested in those facets of design, may yet prove objectionable to the very audience Rare wishes to capture, despite the promise of earnable pets (with as yet, nary a googly-eyed mascot in sight!)
A refreshingly-emboldened Rare have talked at length regarding emergent gameplay, yet this does not address the concerns of individuals seeking a relaxed, single-player story, in the face of what they might encounter, should various crews organise themselves into ocean-conquering fleets. The characters introduced so far have offered little of the personality that fans of older Rare titles might expect, beyond their basic storefront functionality; and it remains to be seen how extensive missions might become, or how a sense of narrative progress might be established. Yet despite this, many players, myself included, have attested that time spent within the alpha, beta and more recent stress test has provided some truly unique gaming experiences, and plenty of water-cooler moments to recount with friends and crewmates.
Rare’s Sea of Thieves will set sail March 20th.