Skeletons and pirates on a beach in Sea of Thieves

Rare and Ninja Theory are blazing a trail as Xbox Game Studios

Things are heating up at Rare. The UK studio teased a new game – Everwild – at X019 recently, and followed that with a fire-filled update to the smash-hit Sea of Thieves.

Both announcements created a buzz inside and outside the Copper Box Arena in London, where the Xbox event was held, as did a playable version of Bleeding Edge from Ninja Theory – the studio behind the hugely popular Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

As one of the oldest studios overseen by Xbox, Rare has seen the industry evolve through releasing games on tape, to disk, to CD and now digitally. Its fans have followed it through that journey, too. With such a rich history that includes titles such as Atic-Atac, Banjo Kazooie and Battletoads, any release from the studio is greeted with delight by gamers.

The latest is The Seabound Soul, a new update to the pirate-themed adventure Sea of Thieves. It includes a Tall Tale that tells the story of Sir Arthur Pendragon, an aristocratic adventurer who killed and saved people using his enchanted blade, and his shipwrecked vessel – Blackwyche.

For the first time in Sea of Thieves, players can use fire as a weapon. Firebombs can be shot out of cannon at enemy ships, setting them ablaze, as rival crews rush around with buckets of water to put out the flames. The new water barrel on ships – or just praying it starts raining – can also stop your boat turning from wood to ash. Firebombs can also be thrown, giving players a grenade-like weapon they haven’t had before. Gunpowder explosions, volcanic rocks, lightning and even cooking mishaps can also start fires, so pirates are advised to keep their buckets close.

There are also five Ashen Tomes hidden in chests to find, collect and then sell. These are watched over by Ashen Guardians, while the keys needed to unlock the chests are guarded by Key Masters. While the quests may be tough, the rewards are huge. Selling a Tome unlocks a Commendation, allowing you to purchase a certain Ashen cosmetic item. Turn in all five of the Tomes and you unlock a bonus Commendation, allowing you to purchase a special Ashen weapon.

It’s safe to say the team at Rare are very excited about introducing fire into the game.

“When you think about all the effort we put into how good the water looks in Sea of Thieves, you can imagine how good fire looks in this game,” said Mike Chapman, Design Director at Rare. “You are master and commander of your vessel, watching all these other ships on fire during an epic battle with firebombs. It’s really cool, and we think players are going to love it.”

Introducing fire into the game is certainly going to be fun. Imagine sneaking on board an enemy ship when the crew aren’t looking, stealing a chest and then setting a fire just for good measure, making your escape amid the panic and chaos.

That’s exactly the sort of high-adrenaline adventure that Rare had in mind when they were planning the game. The idea was to “bring people together to go on fantastic adventures where anything can happen”, Chapman added.

That philosophy is being helped by the preview launch of Project xCloud in the US, UK and South Korea. At X019, Xbox announced that the game streaming service, which lets users play their games on mobile devices using their own controller, is being expanded.

Chapman said: “The fact that you can now play Sea of Thieves on your phone while someone’s playing it on an Xbox in the same room… that’s the magic of Sea of Thieves. The more barriers we can remove between players, the better. It shouldn’t matter where people play, it should just be about wanting to play with friends and going on adventures together.”

Craig Duncan, Studio Head at Rare, revealed he was playing Sea of Thieves on a tablet in his hotel room before heading to X019 to showcase the Battletoads reboot.

“Part of being an Xbox game studio is also being at the forefront of new technology and platforms,” Duncan said. “In the very first conversation we had with the xCloud team, we asked ‘when’s the preview and how can we get Sea of Thieves on it?’ It’s a game changer for unlocking a new way to play your games with your friends. Being able to play Sea of Thieves using my controller on my phone in a hotel room is just mind blowing.”

Having Sea of Thieves in the Project xCloud Preview will also introduce a new generation of fans to Rare. That generation is growing up with mobile phones and tablets as the primary way to communicate, collaborate and play.

A pirate stands in front of a desk on a ship in Sea of Thieves

Having cutting-edge technology that connects people will also help newer members of the Xbox Game Studios family, too. Ninja Theory was acquired by Microsoft in June 2018 and unveiled a playable version of its latest game, Bleeding Edge, at X019. Demand for time with the team action/combat title was high, following the huge success of Ninja Theory’s previous game – Hellblade. The story of a Pict warrior who sees visions, hears voices and has delusional beliefs was lauded for its depiction on mental health issues and won numerous awards.

Bleeding Edge is a very different game, but the early feedback has been positive.

Rahni Tucker, Creative Director at Ninja Theory, said: “Ninja Theory has a strong heritage in combat action games, and it’s a genre that I specifically like to make. I also play competitive team games in my spare time. So I thought, well, why don’t we take this thing that Ninja Theory is good at and that I really love, and see if it works.”

Bleeding Edge is a third-person, four-on-four, multiplayer, melee combat game in which players can choose from one of three classes – assassin, support or tank. The idea is to work with your teammates to take down your opponents; rushing in alone and trying to do everything yourself will not end well.

“We’ve seen gamers just run in with their sword and try to take on four guys,” Tucker added. “That’s not going to work. These aren’t minions that you can hack apart, these are four people as good as you. I think a lot of people associate third-person combat with ‘I can run in and kill everything on my own’ but Bleeding Edge is very much a team game. There are obviously moments when you’re locking on, evading and doing combos but there’s a massive focus on working together with your team. If you don’t do that, it’s really hard to win.”

Bleeding Edge will be available in Xbox Game Pass on the same day as it’s released in stores on March 24, 2020. With more than 100 games available to players on Xbox and PC for a single monthly price, it’s a risk-free way for people to try to new titles.

“Game Pass is a great way for people to try something in a genre they wouldn’t normally, for people who are coming to the game from other genres, who don’t play competitive games,” Tucker said. “It’s an awesome thing for the game. It means a bunch of people will get hold of it who otherwise wouldn’t have.”