One more Sea of Thieves hands-on cements our positive impressions, but good co-op partners are required.
"It can't be stated enough: Sea of Thieves is a game meant to be played with friends. "
It's always strange to know exactly how to approach a preview of a game that's appeared at the same trade show more than once. Such is the case for Sea of Thieves - around this time last year I called it the surprise hit of E3 right here on VG247 - and a year later the game still isn't out and won't be until early 2018. Pretty much everything I wrote about last year still stands, but I wanted to check in with my thoughts on Rare's latest once again since a year is quite a bit of time and distance and the game has come on quite a way since that first hands-on experience.
I honestly found the Xbox stand at E3 2017 to be a little disappointing. I like the look of Forza 7, but these days I'm more of a Forza Horizon man. I'm excited for Crackdown 3 but was unconvinced by what was shown at the show, and while the likes of State of Decay 2 look plenty good, it doesn't exactly light a fire in me either. Sure enough, the new Xbox One X hardware seems pretty beastly, but I couldn't see much on that stand I was actually pumped to play on it exclusively in the near future.
Except, of course, for Sea of Thieves. How excited and interested I am in this is a part of the public record, and after the excellent press conference demo which for my money is the best hands-off demonstration of just what the game is yet I was keen to get hands-on and see what had changed. So I did. Sea of Thieves was certainly once again the brightest, most interesting and vibrant title from Microsoft this year, albeit in a fairly pedestrian showing.
This demo of Sea of Thieves actually goes some way to teaching me a lesson about the final game: your mileage is going to vary a lot depending on who you play with. Initially in my session there's a bit of confusion at first. It's clear that some of us have played past demos before while others haven't. Developers from Rare and others man the stations to assist people in getting to grips, but the first few minutes are still a muddled, stumbling start. I worry, for the first time, that this is an easy game to get a bad first impression of - something I mercifully avoided last time.
A few minutes later and things are beginning to click, however. The team of four strangers begin to actually act like a pirate crew. Once people interact properly many of Rare's design decisions begin to shine. It can't be stated enough: Sea of Thieves is a game meant to be played with friends. Without it becomes a much more difficult sell.
Take navigation, for instance. As far as I can tell there's no way to 'drop a waypoint' to agree a direction - you really have to talk and make a decision as a group, consulting shared maps before taking on different roles in order to successfully steer the ship to your destination. In this demo, our basic objective is to sail to an island and retrieve some treasure, much as in the Xbox press conference demo that everyone should've seen by now.
Sea of Thieves is basically a pirate fairytale come to life, and so it relishes in all the tropes and traditions of that much-loved genre of storytelling. Our team isn't all that competent at sailing the ship, to be honest - the guy at the wheel almost grounds us and then loses his bearings because, again, there's no obvious mini-map and the only way to see a compass is to switch to one and actively look at it in real time.
"In a weird way this becomes a simulation, albeit one with very deliberately gameified rules that wouldn't be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. "
In a weird way this becomes a simulation, albeit one with very deliberately gameified rules that wouldn't be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. Pirates didn't have a mini map HUD and so neither should you - if you want to see which way West is, pull out your compass for real. It makes sense, it's fair, and it makes splitting duties among your crew of four all the more important.
All of this hinges, like I said, on getting a good squad. If you're in a group that isn't coordinating properly you're going to quickly be sunk, and in this game that can be quite literal. Our group was fairly decent in the end, but I watched others struggle through the demo with great difficulty or worse still outright crash and burn through players fighting over who got to sail the ship or simply by not listening to each other.
Sailing and sea combat is fun and something I'd experienced before, but new for this build since last year was proper combat on land. I'd heard Rare reps talk at Gamescom about the struggles of balancing firearms, and these slow-reloading, powerful musket shots feel fun to use and well-balanced against the undead enemies that can quickly swarm you if you're not careful.
First-person melee feels as you'd expect - responsive but also vaguely clunky, with attacks and moves you can use to block. It's all fairly slow moving, but that's very much by design. It fits the game and it's fun.
Teamwork is again emphasized here - many tasks you'll need to perform will remove your ability to participate in combat, so as a team you'll have to decide who is going to undertake what task, with the others endeavoring to shield and protect them. Even in this area Sea of Thieves emphasizes its intent: you should play this with others, and specifically with people you know.
The worrying thing is that this might turn a number of people off Sea of Thieves, which looks to be a particularly fresh and exciting experience. If you can find a crew to play with, however, I continue to suspect this might turn out to be one of 2018's best.