Sea of Thieves is Rare's grog-drinking, accordion-playing pirate silliness simulator

Sea of Thieves was our favorite game of E3 2016—at least, what little of the game currently exists.

Sea of Thieves

“What’s SprintyJohn doing?” I heard one of my teammates say over chat. Let me tell you what I—SprintyJohn, world-renowned pirate—was doing: I was standing on the prow of our ship, playing my accordion as we sailed headlong into battle. While others unfurled the sails and manned the cannons, I played accordion. As cannonballs flew over my head, I played the accordion. As my fellow pirates patched up holes in the ship, I played accordion.

And what was I playing? What song rang out across the waves? A wheezing version of “Ride of the Valkyries,” of course.

Sea of Thieves is amazing.

Drink up, me hearties

More than amazing. Sea of Thieves is one of the best games I played at E3 2016.

It took me by complete surprise. Prior to getting my hands on it, the most exciting thing about the game was “It’s made by Rare,” and that’s not exactly saying much in 2016. Rare has a great pedigree but not much to show for the last decade or so barring Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and a few Kinect games. A pair of trailers during Microsoft’s E3 press conference didn’t inspire me with any more confidence, and so when I sat down to play Sea of Thieves it was with zero expectations.

Sea of Thieves

And then I spent twenty minutes laughing my eye-patch off.

At least in its current incarnation, Sea of Thieves puts you into a crew of five, gives you a ship, and bids you set sail. That’s it. No goals, no objectives, no missions. Just you, four strangers, some mugs of ale, and the sea.

It’s still enthralling. One of the key features of Sea of Thieves is that you’re actually responsible for manning the ship. Everything from the sails to the wheel to the anchor is under the crew’s direct control. (And while five people were in our crew here, Rare says there is currently “no cap” planned for how many crew members you can have on the same ship in the final game.)

So a typical session might look like this: Four crew members grab onto the wheel to raise the anchor. The fifth takes over steering. Once the anchor is up, one member lets down the sails while a second climbs to the crow’s nest to look out for enemy ships. The other two play accordion, or maybe get drunk off grog.

Sea of Thieves

Spotting an enemy ship, the lookout yells “Hard to...wait, is starboard left or right? Ah, screw it. Go right!” Then he jumps out of the crow’s nest and lands on the deck without a scratch. One crew member starts firing a cannon into the air for no reason. Another crew member falls overboard and then says “Hey wait! Wait for me!” The person steering crashes the ship into an island because he also drank his grog.

And SprintyJohn climbs onto the prow and plays accordion.

That’s pretty much how our session went. Eventually the enemy ship caught up with us, which led to us frantically broadsiding the aggressor while also trying to patch holes in our ship—another key feature in the demo. Each hole lets in water. Water makes you sink. Nailing boards across the holes stops the flow of water. Obviously.

Sea of Thieves

We also got a taste of some high-level features, which we might’ve pulled off were it not for the fact our crew was universally dismal at piracy. You can e-brake drift your ship if you let down the anchor, causing it to swing around in an ultra-tight turn and position you to shoot the enemy. Problem being you then have to raise your anchor again, which I imagine is a lot easier to do when your crew is competent.

We just kept drinking grog instead.

Down to Davy Jones’s locker

It’s hilarious. Simply hilarious. My biggest fear with Sea of Thieves though is that it’ll lose what I currently love about it, as it becomes “more of a game.” Right now, it’s so low-stakes as to encourage goofy behavior—playing the accordion as you go into battle, or watching your ship go down while drinking grog in the ocean.

But that might not last. There needs to be more to the game in order to keep people’s attention, and that has me worried. Meeting with Rare, hearing them talk about missions and ship customization and monstrous boss encounters like the Kraken—well, that all sounds rather serious.

Sea of Thieves

Which means Rare’s in for a bit of a balancing act. They need to figure out how to turn Sea of Thieves into a great game, not just a great demo. At the same time, I’d hate for them to lose the sense of “Anything can happen” absurdity on-hand right now.

I’ve seen and heard so many great stories about Sea of Thieves this week. There was the crew of five all standing on an island playing accordion. There was the moment we hid in the bushes, trying to lure in an enemy ship so we could swim aboard. There was the guy who got onto an enemy ship and put down their anchor, leaving them dead in the water. They tried to get him off their ship, but there were no personal-use weapons in the current build so they were helpless to counter his mischief.

Sea of Thieves is chaos and joy. It’s all those absurd moments you hear about in DayZ and Rust and what-have-you, but put into a setting that matches tonally. I rarely let myself get excited about games coming out of E3, and Sea of Thieves still has a long way to go before it’s ready for release, but caveats aside I am totally ready to crew up for this one.

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