Sea of Thieves – Beta Preview
Have you heard it? The story of Rare, that is? Pull up a chair in a pub with a pint in your hand – one of the many that litter the isles of the developer’s newest game will do – and you’re bound to find someone worth their (sea) salt willing to tell it.
And it is, like most of this industry’s stories, very much worth telling.
With a swig of their ale, they’d start where all good stories do, at the beginning, recounting fond memories of the developer’s gold, glinting logo gracing the splash screens of some of the finest games to appear on Nintendo’s consoles of the time. From there? The tone would shift, telling of the developer’s inevitable sale to Microsoft, the departure of its founders, and the remaining skeleton crew’s disappearance over the horizon to while away the hours on Xbox Live Avatars and titles for the equally doomed Kinect.
Truth be told, the story of the seclusive developer has seen its fair share of embellishments over the years, like barnacles latching onto a boat. Rare never really went missing. Studios may be shuttered, yes. Left to die? At times. But lost? Rarely. Instead, a more accurate retelling would say that Rare’s creative flare was sorely missed in the intervening years, which is why, when Microsoft took to the stage at E3 in 2016 to herald their return, excitement was palpable: here was the Rare of old, it seemed, returning to port at long, long last with a splash, and a splash of colour, even if their logo now resembled aged bronze, all battered and bruised.
A fitting metaphor for the state of the beloved developer?
Still, their return to the stage that day was nothing if not serendipitous. Twenty two years since the company rose to fame on the back of Donkey Kong Country – a similarly piratical game brimming with bananas, palm trees, and a pirate captain by the name of King K. Rool – the idea that Microsoft and Rare were themselves setting out atop their lovingly rendered sea, chasing tall tales and ghost stories of the developer’s golden days as if they were some long-buried, magical treasure was heartbreakingly poetic.
With Microsoft facing sparse coffers (or, in this case, a lean release schedule), they find themselves in need of a little of that magic now more than ever.
It’s All Just A Little Bit Of…
Setting sail on the titular Sea of Thieves, it’s clear there’s more than a little of Rare’s past present in this, their future seafaring title. Back in ‘94, Rare found themselves in the enviable position of launching Donkey Kong Country on the SNES with some of the most advanced rendering tech to grace a console. Now? History’s repeating, only now they launch on the Xbox One and Windows PC with the most meticulously rendered recreation of the sea yet crafted from virtual 1’s and 0’s.
God, what a sight!
For all the shambling skeletons guarding buried treasure, sharks watching over sunken treasure, and other players roaming those lovingly rendered seas in this, Rare’s first attempt at crafting a shared world experience – a literal sandbox, if you will – that sea is, fittingly, your major adversary in Sea of Thieves. As it should be. It’s also far from the only homage to Rare’s past: Donkey Kong Country’s staple ingredients are remixed to great effect, for one. Bananas? They’re a salve for your wounds now, simply chow down! Cannons? They’re capable of a devastating volley, sure, shredding the ships, hopes, and dreams of other players, but they’re that much more fun when you’re firing crew members out of them across vast stretches as if one of Nintendo’s other great mascots: Mario.
As for the Crow’s Nest? Diddy Kong may have clambered to the top of one to fight a pirate-hat toting bird, but here you perch atop this outlook to watch for other players closing in behind, gaze out over the rolling seas ahead, and plot the course to the next treasure-filled island, map in hand.
A Far Cry From Home
In any other game, the act of hunting treasure would be a simple affair. After all, the modern pirate doesn’t need a map when they have quest markers, objectives, and breadcrumb trails on their side, surely? Not so here. Sea of Thieves’ high-seas setting is the perfect excuse to rid the world of fast travel and GPS tracking systems, and Rare jump at the opportunity: if they know anything, it’s that maps – not clothes – maketh the pirate (the hats are pretty cool, mind).
Purchase one of those maps from the treasure-hungry Gold Hoarders – the only faction of the three present in the Beta – and Sea of Thieves will invite you to set sail and earn the reward, physically travelling, digging, and hauling – chest in hands – the treasure back to your boat before setting a course for home with the wind in your sails and any number of other players at your back. It all makes for a tense affair.
Once you’re back at the port? You can sell that treasure for gold, which can then be used to buy more maps, which leads to more treasure, which then leads to more gold, to buy more…you get the idea.
The loop at the heart of Sea of Thieves may be disappointingly simple, at times, but it’s also both just enough of a nudge in the right direction to spark the player-driven adventures at the heart of this game, and a glowing endorsement of Rare’s purest act of game design to date. Here, atop the high seas – water, water, everywhere – the developer draws inspiration from the parched deserts of Far Cry 2, favouring the physical act – and physicality – of doing over timers and quick time events. If you can’t hold it in your hands? “It doesn’t exist!”, says Sea of Thieves. In that way? The game joins the most illustrious of sailing crews: immersive sims that regard their worlds, their players, and most importantly their maps as physical objects.
Take those maps, for example. There’s no quick tap of the ‘M’ key here. No no no. Instead, select one from the radial menu that drives the game’s UI and you will, quite literally, take it into your hands. Need a closer look? Hit left mouse and you’ll hold it up. And the right? With a flamboyant flick of the wrists that never quite grows old, you’ll turn it to another player as if shouting “See? Thar be treasure!”.
This philosophy permeates everything Rare touches, turning it to gold. The act of sailing may be a busy job, and yet somehow it never feels like busywork. It’s an important distinction to make. If you need to empty a flooding ship – whether from a rainy day or an encounter gone awry – then you’ll need to grab your bucket and make the return trip below deck to toss the water overboard. Setting course or setting off from port? Drop the sails, position them to catch the wind, and then take up your position at the helm. Chances are you might well grow seasick (I’ve never felt seasick on an actual boat, and I’ve never felt motion sick while playing a game, but Sea of Thieves is as close as I’ve come to either), but you never grow sick of it. It’s a wondrous thing.
A harsher critic or wearier cynic might be tempted to call this No Man’s Sea: a subhead worthy play on words that skewers the shared similarities of Hello Games’ and Rare’s latest tiles, and their apparent lack of depth. It’s true. To some extent, at least. The depths of this sea are yet to be tested, that task weighs heavy on the days and weeks following its release, but for now? It’s clear this isn’t an open world as you might have come to expect it. You won’t, for example, be hunting ‘The Cutlas Of +5 Attack’ or ‘The Pirate Hat Of +10 Sailing’. Far from it, in fact.
Instead, bored with the busy work of open worlds and their maps that resemble crime scene investigations – all push pins and red thread – Rare pull a Nintendo and pull the plug, flooding their world ala The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The resulting game feels tailor-made for the crowd who cut their teeth on the brutal wastes of DayZ Mod’s Chernarus back in its heyday, or who spent the hours following No Man’s Sky’s release not gawking at forums but, rather, staring slack-jawed into the vastness of space, embracing the opportunity to simply traverse the stars.
In time, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky buckled under the weight of the same demands that are undoubtedly awaiting Sea of Thieves’ launch – you can feel it – with each update taking it one step farther from its initial, 80’s sci-fi cover art appeal of living a nomadic space existence. But if you’re holding out hopes for a similar fate for Rare’s latest? Chances are you’ll return to port disappointed. Yes, Sea of Thieves can feel a little like an Early Access title at times – the Beta’s cut content is as much to blame for this than anything – but there isn’t, nor should there be, a long developer roadmap plotting the addition of base-building or resource gathering. For one, it’s at odds with the very wild, seafaring philosophy at the heart of this game: a pirate’s home is the sea. It simply wouldn’t make sense.
And what of the question that will plague Sea of Thieves upon release: why? It’s simple. The creeping urge to return to the high seas, even now, some weeks after the Beta’s end, is the same one that might bring someone to spark the vastness of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule into life some 300+ hours of game time and 12 months since its initial release. It’s the same reason a Paladin might wander the vast, empty spaces of World of Warcraft’s starting zones long after the challenge and grind for loot have passed into memory. And it’s the same reason why, locked in an intense ship-to-ship battle that was more Master & Commander than Pirates of the Caribbean, sailing through the wind, rain, and a booming thunderstorm overhead, that a member of your crew might stand on the bow and play a merry tune on any one of this game’s musical instruments, rather than lend a hand that could swing the tide of battle: because you can, and it’s bloody brilliant.
As for Microsoft and Rare’s great treasure hunt? They don’t find it, of course. It was, after all, a fruitless search chasing tall tales and ghost stories off over the horizon. But while Sea of Thieves might not see the developer at their Saturday morning cartoon best, with it Rare manages to craft a pirate playset of a thing that perfectly captures those Saturday afternoon play sessions. You know the ones. Where sticks doubled as swords and hastily drawn treasure maps were chased around the makeshift seas of your neighbour’s backyard, the local park, or your brother’s bunk beds.
Like those Saturday afternoons, Sea of Thieves is the latest in a burgeoning genre of ‘doing’ games: games that exist for the sake of it. For the sake of exploration, of virtual tourism, of exploring the stars or the deep, gorgeous, white-capped seas. No reason or reward? Pfft, hardly. This is a journey simulator and tale maker that ensures you return to port, time and again, with the greatest treasure of all: countless tales that you could see yourself sitting down at a pub with, surrounded by your seafaring friends, each one very much worth telling.
Jamie’s love of the Souls series is only bettered by his ability to refer to himself in the third person. When not found wasting away the hours on Twitter, you’ll find him vanquishing beasts in Lordran or watching a sunrise on the shores of Chernarus. The Dread Pirate Roberts of videogame journalists.