Sea of Thieves is not your typical video game. Rare have thrown out the notion of character progression, you can only pick your avatar from a randomly generated lineup, there’s no overarching story, no real end goal outside of becoming Legendary, and the few types of quest in the game are merely there to feed the delights and monstrosities of human interactions. It’s a game about nothing more than playing with friends, buckling swash and sailing the high seas.
It’s not a game for everyone, that much is certain, but I find myself drawn to it nonetheless. I can quite happily go on a solo expedition in a Sloop, I can (occasionally) endure the struggles of putting up with obstinately silent and wayward matchmade crew mates – the context sensitive text prompts are fantastic here – and there’s the struggles of getting people ready to play and set sail at the same time. Thankfully Rare have promised that private lobbies, so you can leave space for friends to join you later. There are barriers to enjoying the game to the fullest, compared to the instant gratification that most games offer, but when Sea of Thieves is at its best, it’s pure gold.
Get a crew of four chatty friends, or luck your way into a crew that’s willing to talk, and the “find your own fun” style of play excels, even if it does descend into getting drunk and throwing buckets of sick at each other. Just the act of sailing a ship is brilliant in its own right. You work together to set the sails to catch the wind, discuss the heading, watch out for rocks, and take impromptu breaks to soak in a gorgeous sunset with an impromptu accordion and hurdy-gurdy jam session.
It’s difficult to overstate just how pretty the game is. There’s a blend of cartoony visuals with realism of the ocean, finding an unusual middle ground that works surprisingly well. The procedurally generated character designs are broad and varied, and there’s some inventively crafted islands that are universally bright and colourful, before descending into pitched darkness at night. The ocean in particular is incredible, catching the sun’s light and showing off various hues and shades throughout the day, while also shifting from placid waters on a calm afternoon through to choppy waters in the middle of a storm. It’s beautiful on Xbox One, and looks incredible on Xbox One X.
The game can put you under real pressure when you take damage, as you’ll be frantically bailing out the lower decks with buckets while also trying to plug holes with planks of wood. You’ll want to beware of storms that buffet your ship, drag the helm off your ideal course, and worse, pops the patchwork of hull fixes to let water flood in once more. However, it’s when you throw other crews and ships into the mix that the pressure mounts and combat quite often ensues.
Spotting a set of sails on the horizon puts you on edge, but it’s up to you whether you try to avoid them or head to try and steal their loot and sink them. The battles that follow are tests of your cannon accuracy – you need to gauge the flight of the cannon ball in relation to your respective speeds – your ability to keep your ship patched up, and your stocks of cannon balls and planks of wood. Ramming other ships and boarding for fights on deck are common, but the most devious players will seek to blow up a barrel of gunpowder on board and then attack the crew trying to patch up the holes.
Starting off at an outpost island, it’s largely up to you what you do. Three factions hand out glorified fetch quests, whether to follow a treasure map or set of riddles for the Gold Hoarders, battle skeleton pirate crews for the Order of Souls through the game’s simplistic melee combat, or pick up pigs and chickens for the Merchant Alliance – these are by far the most tedious. They’re not terribly inventive, though the riddles are very nicely done and higher level quests have multiple steps to follow. Their main purpose is to raise the stakes as you then have a hoard to protect on your way back to port.
It’s really in the more dynamic and emergent feeling moments that the game shines. Finding a message or treasure map in a bottle is a neat touch, as is spotting seagulls hovering over a capsized wreck to explore for treasure, and then there’s special chests like the Chest of Sorrow, which weeps regularly and fills your ship with water. Sometimes a Kraken will randomly appear to attack your ship, while the Skeleton Forts marked by giant skull clouds require you to set aside your differences and work with other crews to overcome the defences for a share of a huge booty. Any truce is never particularly secure though and the entire game is, as we wrote last week, reminiscent of The Division’s Dark Zone in that regard.
Arguably, Sea of Thieves bereft of the kinda of content that keep people engaged in other games. Your progression is limited to earning more cosmetics on your way to becoming a Legendary pirate, not through getting more powerful weapons or boosting stats, so your advancement in game comes from becoming a better sailor and mastering the simplistic combat. It’s the player’s skill that grows as opposed to character skill, which means that the playing field remains equal between players.
And again, there’s just no instant gratification which will feel alien to many gamers. It could take twenty minutes to do another by the numbers fetch quest and you might not see another ship on your way, and even when you do engage in combat, it can last tens of minutes with no real sense that either side is gaining the upper hand or devolve into trolling. Thankfully I’ve not experienced that, but it’s a relatively common complaint in the community.
The high points of the game’s idiosyncratic design won’t be enough to sustain the game in the long run and Rare will need to act quickly to retain the early influx of players. It needs more variety in the kinds of quests you can take on, it needs more events and instances to surprise you out at sea, and most importantly of all, it needs many more sea shanties to play, preferably with singalong subtitles.
Sea of Thieves defies modern gaming conventions in brilliant and refreshing fashion, creating a fairly unique sandbox where you and your crew need to find your own fun. It might be in real need of more variety to the quests and activities, but Sea of Thieves’ curious charms are like a siren’s song that keep drawing me back for more piratical adventures on the high seas.
Version tested: Xbox One, Xbox One X.