Thus far, we’ve gotten a chance to see the game’s ship navigation, treasure hunting, and even some player-versus-player combat in action. We’ve compiled everything that we know so far about the game, compiled primarily from Gamescom hands-on impressions, developer interviews, and official videos. We will update this piece as more information arrives.
Pirates and ships
Central to the experience will, of course, be the player’s pirate avatar, which they will be able to customize with gender, physique, appearance, and outfits. In order to keep the focus on player skill rather than stats, there are no classes or specializations in Sea of Thieves. Players that crew together may find themselves organically falling into particular roles to support one another, but keeping it informal prevents the game from forcing pirates into a particular style of play.
A pirate wouldn’t be anything without their ship, of course. Ships range in size from a little one-person skiff to towering galleons brimming with cannons, with smaller ships trading power for speed, maneuverability, and ease of piloting for one person. Sailing a larger ship will take a crew, however, with ropes around the deck that need adjusting, navigational charts below deck, and the helmsman unable to actually see for him or herself where the ship is going through the sails when unfurled. While not quite as complicated as actual sailing, the developers are striving for that sweet spot between simulation or automation, where teamwork and skill are rewarded, but without punishing players without any nautical expertise.
Both pirates and ships will be upgradable and customizable through gameplay, both aesthetically and functionally. Pirates will be able to wear new outfits, find new gear, or even replace their limbs with classic prostheses. Ships can be fitted with custom figureheads, sails, upgraded cannons, and the like. More advanced items and upgrades will be readily apparent from their flashier appearance, making more dangerous rivals obvious from a distance.
Sea of Thieves’ ocean will be expansive and dotted with islands. It will apparently take six to eight hours to circumnavigate. The world will be subdivided into different regions that have their own feelings, such as a classic Carribean environment, or a denser wilderness dotted with lost civilizations. None of this will be procedurally generated filler, however; every area of the game is bespoke, crafted by designers to be unique and evocative. Players will be able to rely on navigation by landmarks once they become more familiar with it. The world will be populated by all manner of dangerous foes like skeletons and krakens.
In addition to wilderness full of adventures, there are also a variety of ports, outposts, and cities throughout the world, populated with typical NPC merchants and quest givers. Apparently, NPCs will be largely landlocked, however, since the developer has stated multiple times that every ship you see on the horizon will be another player.
During the game’s E3 2017 demonstration of the “Voyage of the Secret Shrine” mission, we saw a group of pirates enter a tomb inside a cave, loaded to the breaking point with skeletons. After grabbing a treasure chest, they quickly dive into the water and re-board their ship.
As a storm picks up, the pirates are attacked by a nearby ship, and we see individual holes from cannonballs forming on its side. A pirate then climbs into the cannon themselves and lands on the enemy ship, engaging one of them in a sword fight before taking him out with his pistol.
Xbox One and Windows 10 PC players will be able to play Sea of Thieves together across platforms. Unlike in Gears of War 4, which initially limited the ability to play with other platforms, there don’t appear to be any limitations on cross-play in Sea of Thieves.
Console players don’t speak using headsets as much as they did during the Xbox 360’s heyday, but Rare doesn’t want this to stop players from communicating with each other in Sea of Thieves. By pressing up on the directional pad, players can pull up a radial wheel that looks similar to what we’ve seen in the recent Battlefield games — the wheel contains phrases like “follow me” and “need help” so others can easily take action without ever having to say a word.
One key difference in the Sea of Thieves system, however, is that it’s contextual. If a player were to take control of a ship’s steering wheel, for instance, the options available to them let others know when a repair is needed or the anchor should be dropped. A navigator below the deck can even use non-verbal communications to help the captain determine his trajectory and reach the next objective.
These contextual phrases will also apply to certain items when exploring islands on foot, and PC users will be able just hit one key in order to communicate. Phrases will also get translated automatically into players’ native language, so you’ll be able to work with others who you can’t actually speak to.
Although the world will be full of lore and narrative color, it will not feature an overarching story, per se. Instead, it will be filled with a plethora of smaller stories that can be completed in one or two sessions. In addition to structured, narrative quests, there will also be procedurally-generated quests to supplement them with typical tasks like searching for sunken ships or digging up treasure.
Treasure makes the pirate world go round, and of course, it will feature centrally in Sea of Thieves. In classic form, players will be able to find maps to buried treasure. Rather than just adding a pin to a mini-map, however, players will have to actually take out the map and look at it, first comparing it to the larger navigational chart in the ship in order to determine which island it is, and then using landmarks on the island itself to locate the X before digging it up. Like the map, however, treasure also exists physically in the world. Players will have to haul it back to their ship and then sail to a safe port in order to cash it in for rewards.
Perhaps the greatest danger for treasure-hunting players will be other players. Outside of designated safe harbors, players will be able to attack and steal treasure from each other. Fights can happen ship-to-ship, circling and firing broadsides into one another, or more directly with cutlasses and blunderbusses. The dangers of being ambushed out in the world will encourage players to stick together in crews so they can watch each other’s backs.
Davy Jones’ locker
The occasional death is inevitable in this sort of game, but it won’t be too punishing. Players will be sent to a ghostly ferry of the damned, which the developers compared to the waiting room for the recently dead in Beetlejuice. After sharing a few stories with fellow ghosts about their untimely demises, players will be able to convince the captain of the ferry to send them back to the living, but they may have to perform unspecified tasks for him first. Sunk ships will remain intact, with any treasure left on board vulnerable to enterprising divers. Once the player has returned, however, they can commission a magic mermaid to restore their ship.
When can I play?
Sea of Thieves will launch on March 20, 2018. Pre-ordering the game will earn yourself the “Black Dog Pack,” which includes “stylish clothing and items” as well as an invitation to the closed beta. Rare has already invited fans to try the game in several technical alpha play sessions.
Good news! We'll have a bonus Technical Alpha play session this weekend and more invitations will be sent later this week! Updates soon… pic.twitter.com/C0AHNjZtX0
— Sea of Thieves (@SeaOfThieves) January 16, 2017
Update: Added release date and pre-order information.