We’re anchored between two tiny islands, rocky spires jutting from the ocean. While exploring it, we got caught up in a storm. With the island’s treasure chest back on our sloop, we’re ready to set off, but we can barely see the islands we already know are there right in front of us. My shipmate and I go back and forth about whether we should try to explore the island in the meantime or just wait it out. Hopping into the water could mean getting turned around long enough that we give the nearby shark a chance to grab some lunch from the all-pirate buffet we’d be offering. So instead we weathered the storm in real time, watching the way the boat rocked in the rough seas. It was a better alternative to ramming headlong into jagged rocks or accidentally catching the attention of a bigger, braver ship.
This is Rare’s Sea of Thieves, the company’s first original game after a too-long period of being relegated to making Kinect games for Microsoft’s now-dead peripheral.
Ahead of Sea of Thieves‘ March 20 release date, we had the chance to dive into the game’s beta and spend a few evenings tooling around the tropical island, to see both what the game has going for it and what it needs to do to be successful in the long term. Keep in mind that this is a beta, and features we can expect in the final product may well be missing entirely or in a wholly different form.
Simple, deep, and fun
When you begin Sea of Thieves, you choose first whether you want to fly solo or join a two or four person group. Once you’re past that, you’re dropped into the game world on one of the small island outposts, each of which has a set of small shops and a tavern for you to appear in, acting as some of the very little civilization you’ll see in the game. What’s immediately apparent is just how good-looking this game is. The pirate-y world of Sea of Thieves feels like equal parts Monkey Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even a little The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The art design is cartoon-y and gives an amusement-park feel to all of the structures and characters. It feels clean and fresh and it’s immediately enchanting.
In Sea of Thieves, wind direction becomes your life. What direction the wind is blowing will help determine where you’re going and how fast you’re going to get there, so the flowing, ethereal strands floating in the area are as functional as they are aesthetic. Starlit nights are stunningly gorgeous. The water and rain contrast against the limited cartoon palette by being some of the most believable water around. Light filters through calm and rough seas differently.
These beautiful visuals are the perfect introduction to a game that is equal parts simplicity and depth.
Right now, Sea of Thieves asks you to figure everything out. Much of it is self-explanatory, but there’s plenty of room for that that sort of community-driven learning that games like Monster Hunter and Dark Souls excel at. When you hop into a ship the first time, it makes a lot of sense that you’d raise the anchor and let down the sails. Then you figure out that you can aim the sails, and suddenly you’re cruising along at full speed.
It’s not until you’re hit by a cannonball shot that you figure out you can repair your ship with the planks of wood hidden in the barrel below deck. Or that you can use that bucket in your inventory to bail out water. It’s not until you’re sailing at night that you realize you can snuff out the many lanterns on-board to give yourself a much lower profile at night, making you harder to pick out as a target for enterprising pirates.
Exploring islands is rewarding and organic – doubly so if you have a quest associated with the exploration that will surely lead you to a chest full of booty to take back to one of the outposts and sell, though that’s not necessary. The smallest islands are barely the size of a small sloop, but will often have a buried treasure chest to dig up somewhere on-premises. Bigger islands house caves and rope bridges, and if you don’t keep your eyes open you might end up with a skeleton at your back.
All of this feels good already, even though there are clearly parts of the game still missing. Half of the shops don’t have shopkeepers, and even the ones that do don’t necessarily do anything. On the dock of each outpost is a shipwright that looks ready to upgrade your vessel but doesn’t respond to any prompts. The magic shop is disappointingly empty, but the glowing green look of it is promising.
One of the highlights of all of this is the presence of Xbox Play Anywhere. The friend I spent the most time playing with played the game on PC while I played exclusively on Xbox. We had no trouble partying up, chatting, or playing together even once. It was flawless and seamless. The game performed admirably on her system, too, something that Play Anywhere titles haven’t always been able to boast.
There’s a lot to love here, but I worry about how it’ll actually be to play in the long term.
Don’t go in alone
If you’re looking for a single-player pirate experience, I’m still going to send you back to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. You can play Sea of Thieves alone, but it’s not very fun. A two-sailor ship is already tough to run. If you get into trouble alone, you’ll be in charge of steering; manning the sails length and orientation; loading, aiming, and firing your cannons; patching up any holes that cannonballs might punch in your hull; bailing out any water those might let in; and of course fending off any boarders.
Sea of Thieves feels very much like it was built for four players or more – not less.
The bigger your party, the more fun you’ll have. People can concentrate on their individual jobs and provide enough hands to keep your ship afloat even in tough circumstances. The fewer people you have, the more time you’ll spend surviving instead of thriving.
And woe to the poor souls who end up facing the wrath of griefers. Small boats right now don’t seem to have any advantage against big ones. They’re no faster, and have fewer cannons and pirates aboard. When I found myself in the sights of another ship, it became apparent before too long that it was better to just log out and back in after a certain point. Outrunning a ship just isn’t possible – you have to fight. And being in port isn’t safe, either, as a ship can come crashing into yours and its crew can respawn more frequently than you, meaning that even fighting hard and fighting well aren’t enough to get you ahead. Until you’ve really mastered the game, you need a crew to roll with – it’s simple as that.
And if you do want to go in alone and hook up with some randos, there’s trouble there, too. If the group you get match-made with is waiting on a friend, these groups have taken to throwing the errant players into their ship brigs to punish them for getting dumped into their crew. Right now there’s no way to differentiate your search to say you’re okay with random players joining your game or that you only want to join games welcoming random players.
All of this makes the game griefer-friendly. That might seem perfect for the pirates theme, but it can be frustrating at times.
Trying to outrun another ship can be exhilarating, but sometimes you want to just explore the open seas with your friends. To build up a bit of treasure and finally get that dope hat. But Sea of Thieves is unapologetic about being a multiplayer game and leaving you open to the whims of strangers. there’s no way to mark yourself as looking to just explore – either with a white flag that makes you invincible and disables your cannons, or with a separate server for those who want to tool around the islands fighting only the non-player characters.
This is likely going to be a point of pain for those who love pirates but aren’t part of the communities that love games like Rust, Day Z, and ARK: Survival Evolved. The game is good about not being punishing about these moments – a mermaid can teleport you back to your boat. You don’t lose anything except un-sold treasure when you die. Respawning takes just a few seconds. But the game does nothing to deter that kind of behavior, either.
The progression path through the game – that feeling of growth and advancement – is nearly nonexistent right now. There are built-in quests to go through, and they’re fun, but that’s about it. The game evens the equipment field by giving you a basic set of weapons and tools to start with, and any upgrades are purely cosmetic. But that also means your sense of growth is stunted and left entirely up to organic growth like improving your skills and remembering which islands you have and haven’t explored – things everyone has time to do. As the game community digs in, it seems like starting out in Sea of Thieves could get tougher and tougher. If you get dumped into a pool with a bunch of big fish that love chowing down on little guys, your fun could be short-lived.
Ships are, right now, simply vessels to move around the map. There’s no way to customize your ships. With the shipwright not yet implemented, it’s hard to tell how much that will change things. I would love to have a clear way to feel like I’m growing, such as new tools, new mechanics, and new activities. As it is, it feels like you can get a taste of just about everything you can do within an hour.
But it’s really, really fun
With that said, Rare is definitely onto something. There’s a wildly fun base game in Sea of Thieves. The basic loop of sailing around, finding treasure, and fighting off skeletons and pirates feels really good. They’ve put together an amazing base world. What I’m waiting for are more ways for people to play, more unique places for people to go, and more emergent activities. If you’re a particularly troublesome griefer who only logs in to hassle other players, maybe a kraken will occasionally take down your ship to ensure that you give people some peace and quiet or a bounty system will be implemented to encourage players do to things other than hunt (but without limiting it as an activity). Some of the larger islands and coastal cities would be nice to visit. Maybe some ghost-pirate NPCs to fight, too.
Sea of Thieves hits Xbox One and PC on March 20, and we can’t wait to see where it goes. If you’re not ready to pick it up brand new, Microsoft will be putting all new Microsoft Studios games, starting with Sea of Thieves, on the $10/month Xbox Game Pass, so you can try it out for just a few dollars.
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