When Rare first announced Sea of Thieves at Microsoft’s E3 conference back in 2015, the response was equal parts enthusiasm and scepticism. On the one hand, it was a sign that the studio was moving away from developing for the Xbox Kinect – a decision many welcomed — but, on the other, it was a type of game the studio had never attempted before. With the advantage of hindsight, and having played countless hours, it is clear the risk has paid off.
Sea of Thieves is a hilarious sandbox game, giving players the tools to get up to all sorts of pirate hijinks while sailing out on the seas. There is no real objective or story. Instead, you progress by collecting and completing quests from the non-playable characters stationed at the different outposts in the world. These jobs increase your pirate legend and will reward you with coin to buy harder missions and acquire new cosmetic items for both your pirate and your ship.
You can capture animals for the merchants at port, find and dig up buried treasure to sell to the Gold Hoarders, or take on undead pirates for the Order of Souls. These missions comprise the core loop, with each becoming more involved and adding new mechanics as you rank up. What may start as a simple hunt for treasure will eventually require you to solve riddles, interact with items, and cut down skeleton hordes.
There are also random encounters you can get into while out in the world. You can hunt and kill a Kraken, pilfer loot from shipwrecks, or take on pirate fortresses for rewards. But these aren’t necessarily what will keep you coming back to the game. Instead it will be the friends and foes you meet along the way.
Before entering a game, you can select the number of crew you want to play with. Choices include joining a three or four-player crew on a galleon, teaming up with one or two players on a sloop, or going it alone. Regardless of what you pick, you are going to encounter other online players at some point though, and this is where the game produces some of its finest moments.
You can get up to all sorts of mischief with others in Sea of Thieves; exploring islands, stowing yourself away on ships, and getting drunk together on grog. There is tons of potential, with the game having plenty of fun systems that let you interact with other players without having to use voice chat or resort to violence.
On one occasion, I was stuck on a puzzle on an island and saw a galleon approach. My first response usually would be to run away, but this time I approached and challenged them to a dance off with an emote. Rather than pulling out their pistols and blowing me away, they joined in and then asked me if I needed any help. I showed all four of them the puzzle map in my inventory and they led me to the treasure, helping to fend off the skeletons that spawned around us.
That’s not to say the multiplayer is entirely without fault. The matchmaking does sometimes produce some mixed results, putting you in a crew with people who have completely different in-game goals and no real desire to communicate. When this happens, it can make the time you spend playing Sea of Thieves feel aimless as you float around trying to co-ordinate others and only ending up sailing in circles. This is probably to be expected though and you can always team up with friends or go it alone if you become impatient with random players’ questionable pirating.
However you play, often you will find yourself simply gawping at the horizon. Sea of Thieves combines cartoonish character designs and colourful environments with realistic lighting and water effects to make the world feel believable, while retaining Rare’s trademark style and visual humour. The resulting aesthetic is gorgeous, evoking the sense of wonder and awe you might expect from an open-world pirate adventure.
This level of polish and quality extends to the music and the sound design too. Aboard your ship, you will hear the creaking of timber beneath your toes and small musical motifs that come and go. These motifs help to elevate the mood, but never become overbearing or repetitive. Instead, you will spend more time listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the hull, the mechanical clanking of the ship wheel twisting as you steer.
You can even find a concertina and a hurdy-gurdy in your inventory, which you can play if you want to contribute to the game’s soundscape. This is a welcome addition and gives you a way of interacting with your crew and other players without firing a gun or swinging a sword. Even better, if another person starts playing an instrument nearby, you can join in with them on the song and harmonize with the melody. This is just one of many excellent design choices you can find in the game that promotes player unity.
It should be mentioned, however, that there is one big uncertainty hanging over Sea of Thieves at the moment. Though the game is a blast to play, its longevity for more goal-orientated players still remains in question, as some players will likely settle upon the look for their pirate after a few hours playing and see no need for unlocking any further cosmetic items.
Rare has stated that it will continue updating the game, but at the moment it is unclear what this will entail, which has left some players doubtful about whether or not to invest. New quest types, more inventory items, and random encounters wouldn’t go amiss, as well as the introduction of temporary bounties or events to encourage players to keep logging on.
Sea of Thieves — at least for the moment – is more about the journey than the destination. This approach to playing obviously won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you do give it a chance, you will likely come away with tons of great anecdotes as a result of its emergent action. Rare have been clear about their goal of wanting players to create their own stories within Sea of Thieves, and it is safe to say they’ve succeeded. Let’s hope they can keep the ship on course.
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