In the sweet, short time I had with Sea of Thieves at E3, I looted bananas from a lonely island, scooped buckets of water out of my ship to prevent it from sinking, and played an accordion from the masthead of my ship while my lackeys fired cannons at an enemy boat. Sea of Thieves is the closest realization of my childhood pirate fantasy come to life in a video game, and it was the most special game I played during the conference.
Appropriately, my demo started in a seaside tavern, but my co-op buddies quickly left the pub for our man-o-war waiting at the docks. In Sea of Thieves, you and your friends sail a ship across an open world spotted with exotic islands. I’m still unsure what the ultimate mission is in the game, but for the purposes of my demo, my team and two other teams agreed to meet in the eye of a menacing storm out in the horizon and let chaos ensue.
I didn’t get to sail the ship (sadly), but teamwork is a key component to Sea of Thieves’ design, and there’s always some other task that needs doing on your ship. The captain, for example, can’t see past the sails, so one lackey needs to man the crow’s nest to spot islands, storms and enemy ships. One person might operate the cannons in battle while another rushes below deck to unpack more cannonballs. And the anchor takes forever to lift, but if each member of your crew chips in, you can raise it faster and be sailing in no time. You’d imagine these tasks to be menial and tedious, but the satisfaction you get from helping your crew manage the ship makes them quite fun.
Once my team figured out how to work all of our ship’s doodads, we sailed toward the storm on the horizon — a behemoth black mass of swirling clouds and crashing waves. Developer Rare has a pension for crafting stylized, cartoony games, and here, that pedigree is on full display. Jagged rocks claw out of disturbed waves, lightning flashes across the sky and somewhere off our starboard side, a cannonball streaks toward our ship like a firework. The scene sounds menacing, but the art style is color-soaked and playful. With so many dark, gritty games on the market — including Skull and Bones, Ubisoft’s own upcoming pirate game — Sea of Thieves is deliciously lighthearted.
Our ship is locked in combat with an enemy boat now (except I’m standing on the masthead, playing my accordion), and we circle through the waves taking shots at one another when my teammate concocts a plan to board the enemy ship. The four of us gather on the masthead and leap from our ship onto the enemy’s deck below us. Combat here felt less refined than the rest of my demo; swordplay didn’t offer enough feedback to inform me when I’d made a hit, and pistols, like the cannons, lack a crosshair for aiming. Perhaps this was an intentional design decision — Sea of Thieves is generally a frenetic, chaotic experience — but when an enemy cut me down, I didn’t feel like I’d had any control over the situation in the first place.
When you die in Sea of Thieves, you’re summoned to the Ferry of the Damned, an otherworldly ghost ship where you and your friends must wait to respawn. Once back in the game, we decide to attempt a stealthier attack. The four of us jump off our ship into the stormy deep and swim undetected beneath the waves until we reach the enemy ship. We climb the ladder on the ship’s hull, but to our surprise, the deck is deserted. Two of our teammates scout for enemies below deck, but when they return, we all see it together: our ship, sailing off into the distance. The enemy team had used our very own strategy and stole our ship in the process!
Sea of Thieves is so much fun because it enables, begs even, emergent stories like this one. Perhaps it’s less concerned about the overall goal than it is with letting players run wild with a toolbox of piratey mechanics to exploit. I don’t know how Sea of Thieves starts or how it ends, if there’s a progression system or what my ultimate objective is. But what I do know is that Sea of Thieves is a heck of a lot of fun, and one that had me and my team laughing obnoxiously the whole time we played it.
Sea of Thieves is expected to launch in 2018.