Xbox teases next multiplayer franchise
VIRTUAL seafarers are already storing up grog barrels, salting pork and feeding parrots in anticipation of Microsoft's upcoming multiplayer game Sea Of Thieves on March 20.
The premise behind the game, developed by Rare and being released for PC and Xbox One with cross-platform playability, is fairly straightforward - a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game where you and a group of friends take to the high seas in a pirate ship and engage in old-school piracy, right down to the sea shanties, buried treasure and blasting cannons.
The game's visual design is intentionally and appealingly cartoony and silly and Microsoft had a working build of the game at the 2017 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, with a Closed Beta currently running until January 31 giving select players further opportunity to experience the game's world.
Having played the early demo with a group of fellow Australian games journos at E3, as well as having put several hours into the recent Closed Beta, I can confirm playing the prerelease Sea Of Thieves has been quite a lot of fun and the completed game looks somewhat promising - albeit with some caveats based on the limited nature of the content available in the Closed Beta and uncertainty around what additional content will be added at launch.
Basically how things come together and what features are present when the game is officially released and the oceans are opened to aspiring buccaneers from across the seven seas will prove to be the decisive factor in whether the game sinks or sails; but in the interim I've had quite a bit of fun with Sea Of Thieves - although will wait for the official release before getting into a more detailed review of it.
Unlike most games, where being captain means you just issue a command and sails are unfurled, anchors dropped, rudders trimmed, cannon fired and so on, in Sea Of Thieves each aspect must be done manually and at a specific location.
In an optimal situation with a full crew, each player on a Sea Of Thieves ship will handle a specific action - adjusting sails, steering, reading maps, loading cannon etc - and co-ordination is the key to success on the bigger ship.
With four people trying to work more or less together aboard a ship at E3 a lot of amusing hijinks ensued, partly due to the fact getting four games journos to agree on anything is only slightly less work than herding cats.
What is clear to me is Sea Of Thieves shows a lot of promise as a multiplayer game, provided you have people to play with.
But what about people without friends, or worse, friends who play different games to them? Are they doomed to sit on the dock, sadly playing their accordion and day-drinking rum while everyone else sails the Spanish Main in search of loot?
Fear not, says executive producer Joe Neate - the game's designers have been hard at work adding new features in recent months, including something just for the friendship-disadvantaged pirate - a ship designed to be crewed by one or two players.
"The small ship is designed for that but you'll always be in a shared world - that's very important," he said.
"It's an avenue for people who aren't sure about playing multiplayer; it brings them into the world.
"We wanted to take what was magic about those shared world encounters and to remove as many barriers to people playing multiplayer as possible; to create a fun, welcoming experience - that's been our vision since day one."
While the Closed Beta is missing most of the features and quests from the launch version, Sea Of Thieves does provide plenty of opportunity for wacky adventures and Mr Neate said even those without a pre-made crew of friends would still have a great time in the game.
"Our game is really fun. The way we designing it is really good at blending strangers together and getting them to laugh and have fun together," he said.
"The reaction is always great. We've got 140,000 people in the alpha (early prerelease version) - we send out surveys after each play session and some of the results are off the chart high.
"Our remaining work is about filling in the gaps - things like making sure we've got the right progression system and tweaking AI."
A lot of work is going into making sure toxic players can't wreak havoc in the game, which Mr Neate said was being helped by a fantastic and supportive community as well as gameplay elements including voting to put unruly players in the brig.
As well as being available for traditional purchase for $99.95, Sea Of Thieves will also be the flagship title as part of the Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-style games subscription service offering access to a huge array of Microsoft games for $10.95 per month.
While the official release date for Sea Of Thieves is March 20, Mr Neate said there was plenty of exciting content to come beyond that.
"The launch is just the start. We will continue to grow and evolve as long as people are playing it - we have a road map at the studio to 2019, 2020.
"It's all systems go across the teams and our ambition beyond making a fun and welcoming game is to be the next big franchise for Xbox - and I think we're well on the way to it."