Hands-on: Sea of Thieves review

Xbox fans would be forgiven for feeling that Rare hasn't always lived up to their hopes since the developer was acquired by Microsoft back in 2002, mostly producing remakes, Kinect party games, and the commercially disappointing Viva Piñata - all a far cry from the studios golden years for Nintendo, producing the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, and GoldenEye 007.

Enter Sea of Thieves. The vast online multiplayer pirate game has sparked hopes of a return to form for the fabled developer - not to mention a promising exclusive for the Xbox One at a point where those look rather thin on the ground.

We went hands-on with the game at Gamescom to see for ourselves, joining up with three other swashbucklers to hunt for treasure, evade sharks, and get drunk - all in the name of being a pirate.

Pre-order Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is due out in 'early 2018' with no solid release date currently in sight, and will be exclusively released on Xbox One and Windows PC. With Xbox Play Anywhere support, players will be able to play the game on both platforms after buying just one copy (as long as it's through the official Microsoft digital store), and their save data will even be synced across both platforms.

You can currently pre-order the game through both Amazon and Game. The PC version of the game is currently listed at £54.99, while the Xbox One version is cheaper at £39.99, while both versions are $59.99 in the US, but those prices are probably placeholders for the moment.

If you don't want to wait until 2018, you can play the game early as part of the Xbox Insider Program, which gives members access to previews of various games, apps, and system updates.

If you want to join the program, follow Microsoft's instructions here, though be warned that there's no guarantee that you'll be selected to test Sea of Thieves.

Sea of Thieves preview

Sea of Thieves sets you upon the high seas as a pirate, free to loot and plunder as you please. But any pirate is only as good as his or her crew, and the game is designed to be played in crews of four, coordinating to find treasure, survive fights, and sail your ship.

Our demo saw us start out on an island, equipped with treasure maps showing the way to four hidden chests. This is where the first bit of cooperation comes in, as we actually had to hold maps up for each other to look over, coordinating over voice chat to spot landmarks and figure out which spot the X was meant to be marking.

The map is one of a few items accessed through a radial menu, along with things like a lantern or a shovel. That's used for unearthing the all-important treasure - how many other games can claim to have co-op digging? - at which point you have to worry about actually getting said treasure chest back onto the ship.

With some chests, that's just a matter of carrying it. Naturally, not so for us - the first chest we found had the magical property of making us blind drunk, meaning as soon as we picked it up everything began to sway and distort. Carrying quickly became staggering, and a more sober player even had to chaperone us back to the ship.

Little touches like that speak volumes about the tone Rare is trying to strike with Sea of Thieves. Later in the demo, the crew realised that we'd missed a chest, but only once we had already started sailing. Obviously, someone had to get back to the island. Not so obviously, the solution we landed on was to fire ourselves from the ship's cannons and hope for the best. And it worked.

Finding treasure is only part of the game of course - you also have to defend it, because you're not the only pirates out at sea. Other players can appear at any time, ready to raid you and steal your winnings, meaning there's a constant tradeoff between hunting around for one more chest, or scarpering to safety to sell your treasure on.

Other pirates aren't the only threat though - some rather lively skeletons populate the islands, and at times you'll have to fend them off. We were equipped with both a cutlass for melee and a pistol and rifle for ranged combat, though as suits the period, these guns are firmly 'fire once, then reload' - don't expect to go full auto on anyone.

If teamwork is central to the island sections of the game, it's essential to sailing. Sure, you only need one person at the helm, but you also need to worry about raising and lowering the anchor, adjusting the sails, and manning the crow's nest to keep an eye out for threats. There's little handholding in how any of this works, and we suspect that learning how to coordinate and sail with any degree of competence will be one of the game's hidden highlights.

OUR VERDICT

There's a lot more we've yet to see from Sea of Thieves, and the core loop of finding treasure, carrying treasure, and selling treasure needs plenty around it to keep things interesting. But so far, Rare's proven it has a solid foundation in mechanics, graphics, and, perhaps most importantly, tone - Sea of Thieves is shaping up to be a boatload of fun.