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Hands on with Sea of Thieves

Piracy co-op game is an E3 hit

Sea of Thieves might be the most fun I've ever had playing an E3 show floor demo.

But I'm still not entirely sold on this Rare game for Xbox One.

If you saw the Microsoft conference earlier this week, you've got a pretty good idea of what to expect. This is a chaotic, multiplayer pirate game in which players co-operate (as best they can) to sail the high seas and sink anything that looks sinkable.

The E3 show-floor demo is like a microcosm of all that's great about Sea of Thieves, indeed all the virtue of the game espoused by devs and execs alike. It's all about working together and having fun.

Every single person on my five-person team (we were mostly strangers) did our bit to trim sails, steer course, lower anchor, shoot guns and generally keep lookout.

When one of us fancied a change, it just seemed to happen organically. I climbed up to the crow's nest, I went below to repair a hole and when I came back on deck, I saw that the wheel was unmanned, so I took over.

In a single 15-minute session we had a man overboard who managed to climb back (that was me), we ran aground, we sank a ship and we performed a 180 degree turn by steering hard and dropping anchor. It was all so terrifically cool, we were laughing and joking and someone started up with the "arrrrggghs".

What's more, we were playing against other teams doing the exact same thing. There are no AI players in this world.

Rare has captured some essence of fun and cooperative gameplay that many companies at many times have utterly failed to achieve.

It's worth remembering though, that this demo is just a tiny part of a much bigger game. Rare absolutely refuses to call it an MMO, but based on all the things it's seeking to do ... it's an MMO about pirates.

When the game goes into beta (at some unspecified date) you will explore the world, upgrading your person and your ship. You will loot and ally. You will take on monsters. If your ship is sunk, there will be penalty, though not so harsh that it makes you want to quit. You will play in an online world that evolves.

Rare has captured some essence of fun and cooperative gameplay

I've already forgotten the language Rare's representatives used to avoid saying that this is an MMO. Something about a shared experience. But for those of us not toiling in the mines of Microsoft marketing departments, this is an MMO. Not that this ought to be cause for judgment, especially in an age when single-player games have taken on so much of the language of MMOs. It just is what it is.

Rare's representatives like to talk about the "magic moment" when a crew spots a sail on the horizon. There is enough open sea in this game for such an event to be noteworthy.

Will your team try to sink and loot the other, or trade, or work together or just sail on by? That's the challenge for any MMO; to create a world in which such possibilities are real, in which it's not just an endless rote of battles which, while fun, will likely get old pretty fast.

This is also a big world, with islands and undersea wrecks to explore. How will players engage with one another when they are on land? Will it be just another series of sword fights and leveling up? Why weren't we able to board enemy ships for hand-to-hand fighting?

There's much for us to learn about Sea of Thieves. But one thing is certain. It's had a great E3. The lines for this game were immense, and everyone I saw went away looking entirely satisfied.

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