Sea of Thieves is an ambitious and risky outing for Rare. It's the studio's first wholly new IP since Kinect Sports back in 2010, and you'd need to look even further back in the developer's timeline to find anything matching the open adventure vibe this is going for. In essence, it begs the question of whether the studio still has what it takes.
The answer is a rather emphatic "yes". Sea of Thieves is a triumph of open-world adventure gaming, packed with the same delightfully cheesy humour and groan-inducing puns of Rare's N64 golden age, but with a vast, quest-filled world that the likes of Banjo-Kazooie could never match.
This is piracy by way of Captains Jack Sparrow and James Hook.
There's no central story to Sea of Thieves — only the ones you make for yourself. Simply craft your pirate – first from an endless array of physical templates, then through cosmetic items ranging from hook-hands and hats to glamorous admiralty gear – pick up a voyage from one of the three Trading Companies present on each outpost island, and set off in search of treasure, glory, or at the very least some tame pigs for the Merchant guild.
You probably won't want to do any of that solo though, even though you can. Sea of Thieves makes a pass at being accessible to single players, with smaller boats that can just about be managed by one, but the game is really structured for crews of four. That gives you access to bigger galleons with deeper holds to store more treasure, and means you can collectively rally to deal with hazards such as hull damage and flooding, raids from other pirates, or even attacks by gargantuan kraken that rise without warning from the briny deep. Having allies also helps on missions, allowing one person to carry spoils back to the ship while their crewmates fend off enemies.
A first-time player can also hold their own alongside a seasoned veteran thanks to melee combat that favours speed and skill rather than the player who's boosted their stats the highest. Progression is instead made through increasing your reputation with each of the three guilds, which unlocks more challenging missions to tackle, and more elaborate customisation items and weapons. Contrary to a lot of online games the multiplayer focus here makes the game wonderfully accessible, as higher ranked players can take newbies along on the more prestigious missions they've unlocked and all players share equally in the spoils.
Some elements of the player interface are clumsy though, with a two-page dial of usable items accessible from the left bumper, another dial for maps and other quest items on the right dial. This can get overwhelming if you need to switch between items rapidly. There are also some uncomfortably long wait periods before you can actually get into the world – hopefully just early teething troubles as Rare gauges the server load.
It's worth putting up with those quibbles though, as Sea of Thieves’ sheer pirate fantasy, the sense that anything is possible and the unexpected can occur at random, is enough to keep you coming back. This is piracy by way of Captains Jack Sparrow and James Hook more than anything approaching historical accuracy, and it's clear that in bringing this world to life, Rare's developers are having a lot of fun. Play it with the right group of friends and you will too.