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Sea of Thieves: A starboard story

Ever since that first teaser showing Sea of Thieves, courtesy of E3 2015, I knew it was something I had to be a part of. I have always been a massive fan of Rare games, especially from their Nintendo era and if it meant getting the crew back online it could only be a bonus. The last game I really put any online time into was the GTA heist missions. They were a blast, assembling a crew of four, it truly forced us to work as a team for the first time. Sea of Thieves promised to offer that same experience but with a pirate setting and what’s not to like about that.

Sadly there were a number of drawbacks to the plan, only one of our group had an Xbox One – that was a major stumbling block seeing it was exclusive to the system. Luckily with the recent release of the Xbox One X, one group member decided to trade in his PS4 and the other upgraded for the additional power, meaning I had first dibs on the leftover original machine.

Next up wasn’t essential but I decided to pick up a V2 controller which included that all-important headphone jack for online chat. I know that I could have just bought an adaptor for my original pad but at £20 it seemed a little excessive. Alternatively, I could have bought proper Xbox headphones but that would have been too easy. I also needed to sign up for Xbox Live Gold after previously converting to PS+ a number of years previous. Unfortunately Gold would be essential if wanting to play online in any form. Luck had it that when ordering my controller it came with a voucher code that entitled me to four months subscription for only £9.99, I can’t complain with that. The final curveball in my set up was the late announcement made by Microsoft ‘Going forward all Microsoft Studio games would be included from the day of release with Game Pass’ this was very interesting. This meant games like Sea of Thieves, State of Decay and even the much-touted Crackdown 3 were all going to be on there – it was a balls out move but it now left me with a conundrum. Do I pre-order the disc at £40ish or try Game Pass on the 14 days free trial. Looking at it Game Pass seems like a pretty good deal, £7.99 a month giving you access to a library of 100’s of games. A Netflix for gaming but also another subscription cost to fork out for. I think I’ll have to decide on the day.

Release day, 20th March, I decided to purchase a physical copy of the game using a £50 prepaid card I had been awarded at work for going ‘above and beyond’ get me! So for a quick sanity check here’s a catch up of where I had got to preparation wise, Xbox, V2 controller, headphones, Xbox Live Gold and finally the physical game… all check… all set. That night I got in from work, spent a little time with the family, put the boys to bed, cooked dinner and then I eagerly installed the game. Naturally, there was a day one patch to download but at 9GB it was ready to play within the hour, the patch was around double the size on the Xbox One X as that additionally included 4K textures.

With my two friends online we entered a voice chat party but oh no! they couldn’t hear me? For some reason, my Sennheiser Momentum headphones were incompatible even though they work perfectly on the PS4. Not to worry as I had a pair of iPhone headphones as back up, wrong again as when plugging them in all we could hear was a high-pitched squeal. Now hilarious as this was, it wasn’t going to help the matter. My last resort was to use the mono earpiece that came packaged with the PS4, voilà it worked. Years of waiting, around £200 in setup cost and it was finally time to set sail. Well, that was until we couldn’t connect to the server due to teething problems. Rare had even successfully completed a number of beta tests to make sure the servers were ready, what a bummer! After about 30 minutes of failing to connect we decided to play Steep instead, which incidentally was pretty good fun. Our maiden journey on the high seas would have to wait until another day.

The following evening I made a second attempt at getting online and with much relief, it connected the first time. After choosing a character from a randomly generated selection of pirates I was presented with two game settings, Galleon or Sloop. The difference being the number of players that were allowed to join the crew, up to four and two respectively. Our first outing was on a Galleon with a crew of three. Once loaded we spawned inside the local tavern and began to explore the island in an attempt to find our bearings, looking for things to do. The game literally throws you into the world, there’s no hand-holding here or tutorials which I guess all add to what Rare is looking to achieve. After stopping to speak with a number of the local proprietors I had secured a couple of missions, we continued to explore the surroundings collecting supplies along the way. Supplies can be found hidden within barrels and consist of essentials such as bananas, cannonballs and wooden planks. All of which would come in handy when setting sail.

We congregated on our Galleon and set down our first mission, missions are agreed by a voting system and currently come in the form of three varieties. Gold Hoarders in which you must locate a hidden treasure, Merchant Alliance whereby you have to return with a specified item and finally Order of Souls which takes the form of a bounty hunting style quest. By completing each mission type you and the crew receive gold, used to purchase new items, and importantly notoriety points which level you up in the specific area to the mission type. The higher the level the greater the mission selection becomes, each with greater rewards. After loading the cannons and giving the ship a once over we took to the map room to locate our destination. This in itself was a fun show of our teamwork, one reading the mission map while the others located the island on the main map, directly north was our planned route. We set sail, again, this was another great show of our new-found teamwork. We all took on an area of responsibility, with one lifting the anchor, one dropping the sails whilst the other manned the wheel. Instantly we slotted into our roles and it paid off, the ship was out in the open seas cruising.

My experience with Sea of Thieves so far had been immensely enjoyable. Playing online with my friends gave us a chance to catch up on what each of us had been doing in our real grown-up lives and also helped to galvanise the crew. The mission, however, was less than successful, halfway to our destination we hit a massive storm. The sky turned black and the sea started to roll, our poor ship was getting battered and started springing leaks from every angle. We tried our best to save the ship but it was just too much, we couldn’t patch it up in time with the amount of water we were taking in. It was a disappointingly harsh lesson but one that we wouldn’t forget.

Our second attempt played out much better with us finding the island and collecting the chest before returning it to the closest outpost to collect our reward.

The gameplay mechanics feel super polished and every button press works as you would expect. It all helps to make the game feel natural to control and intuitive. On a long voyage, there’s nothing better than setting a course, playing little sea shanties while the others dance, drink and be merry. An occasional lag issue can cause players to jump around or even fall overboard but I’m not sure that’s entirely down to the game. Sea of Thieves is absolutely stunning to look at whatever iteration of Xbox you are playing on. The character and ship models are solid with a cartoon-like quantity. The sea is probably the best looking in any game to date but it’s the little touches that really make this stand out, the sunsets, for example, are simply stunning.

I’ve been playing for around six hours now and am still having a great time. Our group is really coming together as a fully functional crew, we have even started to fight back rather than shying away from conflict as our confidence grows. I mean just tonight we snuck up on another player’s Sloop and stole it while they were off treasure hunting on an island. I managed to get away with it fairly easily, taking all their loot before deciding to sink the ship. There is a real freedom in what you do and it’s totally your call in what you get from the experience which is the key part.

There is much to like about Sea of Thieves but it’s not perfect at this stage. The game is fairly limited and the only reward seems to be collecting gold and raising your level on each of the three mission types. Apart from that, there is no real progression or end game in sight but I don’t think that’s what this game has set out to offer. Rare has promised updates galore over the next few years but ultimately that will depend on how successful it is. As with a lot of online games released nowadays, I am certain that in six months time we are going the be dealing with a completely different beast. We already know that Rare are intending on introducing items to buy with real money but have noted that these will be purely cosmetic and not break the game. Things like new clothes and pets, I’m holding out for the parrot personally. I hope to revisit this blog over the coming months as it will be interesting to see what my views are then.

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