I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s genetic. My father spent 24 years of his life as a submariner in the Navy. We were always on the water. Even off of it, I was fascinated by the ocean. My preferred LEGO sets were submarines and pirate ships. I devoured novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island. And I read absolutely everything I could about pirates. Like most boys, I was obsessed. Who wouldn’t want to have their own ship, sailing wherever they wanted, hunting for buried treasure?
It’s a fantasy that hasn’t translated well into games. Sure, there’s Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but the former is old and the latter has all of that pesky Assassin’s Creed stuff in it. Yes, the sailing and ship combat is great, but imagine how much better all of it would be if it were married to proper pirate mechanics and not Assassin’s Creed’s.
Enter Rare, hoping to return to their glory days with Sea of Thieves, a persistent world pirate game that does things a bit differently than you’d expect. The first time you play, you’re asked to pick between pirates generated by Rare’s pirate generator. You can’t create your character, but the options are pretty diverse. You can have an enormously huge man with few teeth, or an old lady with some crazy tattoos, and everything in between. You can change some elements of your pirate later – hair style, clothes, whether or not you have a peg leg, a hook, or an eyepatch – but you’re largely stuck with what you pick here, at least right now. While some might bemoan the lack of a character creator when the options this diverse, what Rare has done here is good. You can refresh the pirate generator as much as you like, and even save your favorites.
"Aside from some tooltips explaining the controls and the tips you’ll see on the loading screen, Sea of Thieves isn’t really interested in teaching you how to play."
Once you’ve picked out a buccaneer, and decided whether to assemble your own crew, join up with other players, or sail solo, the game drops you into Sea of Thieves’ open world. Aside from some tooltips explaining the controls and the tips you’ll see on the loading screen, Sea of Thieves isn’t really interested in teaching you how to play. It would rather just give you everything you need out of the gate and let you figure things out. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to guide you along the way.
You can pick up quests, or voyages, from three different factions. The Gold Hoarders task you with deciphering maps and clues to hunt buried treasure, while The Order of Souls want you to track down an undead pirate crew and return with the skull of their captain, and the Merchants Alliance need you to capture and deliver varying orders of pigs, chickens and snakes and deliver them on time. On their own merits, the missions are pretty varied and they become more challenging and complex as you gain reputation with that faction.
Early Gold Hoarder missions, for instance, will usually only ask you to sail to an island a find island and find a chest. Later missions, however, will ask you to sail to multiple islands and solve clues to find chests. Some might be as simple as finding the burial place of a specific pirate, but others might ask you to find a specific painting on a rock and play music in front of it. The best part is that none of the voyages do anything other than point you in the right direction. The maps you get from the Gold Hoarders might tell you the name of the island or give you a picture, but they won’t give you both, or tell you where to find that island. You’ll have to do that by looking at the map on your ship. The Merchants Alliance won’t tell you where to find the chickens you need, either. That’s on you. There’s also no real HUD. Everything – navigating, sailing, firing a cannon, or firing a gun – relies on you using the items at your disposal or learning that specific skill, which only adds to the feeling of immersion the game sells so well.
"The appeal of Sea of Thieves comes from its core gameplay loop, which relies heavily on the game’s sailing."
While the missions themselves are pretty varied, they’re all fetch quests. Your job is the same regardless: sail to the island (or several islands, depending on what you have to find), acquire the thing(s), put the thing(s) on your ship, sail them back to an outpost (an island with merchants and faction representatives), and sell them to the appropriate vendor. This can be very repetitive if you’re playing solo, but these quests aren’t the point of Sea of Thieves. They’re just designed to get you out into the world, where the real action is.
What makes Sea of Thieves an incredible experience isn’t the voyages. They’re just there to give you a direction to sail in. The appeal of Sea of Thieves comes from its core gameplay loop, which relies heavily on the game’s sailing. The game features two ships: the 1-2 man sloop, and 3-4 man galleon. They play very differently. A journey generally starts like this: you pick a place on your ship’s map, turn the wheel in a direction, and set sail. But sailing is complicated. You’ll need to raise your anchor, which takes more or less time depending on the size of your ship and the amount of people helping you. Then, you’ll need to decide how much sail you need to use, and what direction you’d like to point them in to best catch the wind. You’ll probably have to adjust all of this – course, sails length, and sail direction – as you go.
A ship with less sail is able to turn more quickly, but won’t be as fast, while a ship with the wind will sail faster than one without it. That said, there are still differences. A galleon is faster with a wind than a sloop because they it more sails, but a sloop is faster against it. Sloops maneuver more quickly, even with full sail, and their light weight means they sink more slowly, but a galleon has 4 times as many guns (8, with 4 on each side, to a sloops 2, with 1 per side) and can take more damage before it starts to sink. Managing a ship, even alone, requires gauging all of these things at once. What direction are you sailing in? Are you turning fast enough? Are you with the wind or against it? How long is it going to take your anchor to stop your ship?
"Fighting another crew is when Sea of Thieves is at its best, as crews frantically fire cannons, repair leaks, and board one another’s ships."
Luckily, the ships are designed to play to their strengths. Because sloops are two-deck ships designed for small crews, everything is packed together. You can raise the anchor, adjust your sails, alter your course, check your map, man a cannon, and get below deck with only a few steps. The galleon, on the other hand, is a different story. That ship is absolutely massive, and you’ll have to work with your crew if you want to get anything done, from raising the anchor to checking the map, which is below decks. Because of the large sails, even things like looking out for rocks takes teamwork, as the helmsman usually can’t see the front of the ship. Everything takes more time on a galleon, so communication is vital, especially when you run into other pirates.
No matter what you do in Sea of Thieves, your goal is to get treasure so you have money to spend customizing your character and your ship. You can do this through voyages, finding messages in bottles, hidden items on islands, looting shipwrecks, or conquering skeleton forts, which require you to fight increasingly difficult waves of skeletons and reward treasure worth more than ten thousand gold pieces. But you also get it by stealing it from other players, which makes every set of sails on the horizon a possible threat. Some players will help you with quests or just hang out. But if you see a ship on the horizon and their lanterns are turned off, odds are they’re hunting and you might be on the menu.
Fighting another crew is when Sea of Thieves is at its best, as crews frantically fire cannons, repair leaks, and board one another’s ships. It’s at moments like this where the game’s sailing depth comes in. A crew that knows when to bail and patch their ship, how many resources – cannonballs, boards (for ship repair), – they have, how to accurately aim their cannons below a ship’s waterline, and how to manage their sails and turns has a huge advantage over one that might not, making each battle exciting and unique. There’s nothing more satisfying than dropping your anchor while making a hard turn – which will snap your ship between 180 and 360 degrees in the direction you’re turning – and bringing your broadsides to bear on an ship that’s chasing you before they have a chance to react, or stealthily boarding another ship and sneaking off with their treasure, or sneaking a barrel of gunpowder aboard another ship and detonating it, or dropping another ship’s anchor and peppering them with cannonfire, firing yourself out of a cannon onto another ship, or…. Well, you get the idea.
"There are no classes or RPG progression system. The only upgrades to your character and ship are cosmetic, so when you win a fight, whether on foot or on a ship, you’ll know it was because you communicated better, supplied yourself better, and outplayed your opponent."
The best part? Whether you’re a swabbie who doesn’t know port from starboard or a salty sea dog who has sailed for thousands of miles, your pirates are fundamentally the same. They have access to the same weapons, the same ships, and the same abilities. There are no classes or RPG progression system. The only upgrades to your character and ship are cosmetic, so when you win a fight, whether on foot or on a ship, you’ll know it was because you communicated better, supplied yourself better, and outplayed your opponent.
This emphasis on communication and player skill, and the sheer amount of stuff you can do, make Sea of Thieves one of the best games I’ve ever played for creating your own stories. Here’s an example: another galleon crew spotted my crews’ galleon docked at an island and rammed us before we could weigh anchor. What followed was an epic naval battle. We ended up winning, and headed to our next island, looking for chickens.
On the way, we spotted a sloop docked at a smaller island. We decided not to engage, but as we sailed past, we noticed another galleon bearing down on the sloop before it could weigh anchor. We decided to help, but weren’t able to make it before the galleon sunk her. We engaged the galleon anyway, which was piloted by the crew that had attacked us last time. Things were pretty even until they ran out of cannonballs, so they started sending people over to steal ours. They also managed to drop our anchor, leaving our ship at a terrible angle and freeing them to fire at us without fear of retaliation.
"This is a world where no place is safe, every sail on the horizon is a potential foe (or new friend), and possession is the only law that matters."
One of my crew managed to sneak over and kill some of them, and I managed to raise our anchor and get our ship far enough away that we could bail out and repair before turning back. In the meantime, however, the sloop from before had sailed back, and ended up sinking the other galleon. We exchanged words of support with the sloop, and sailed to an island that had the chickens we needed, to only to find that the other galleon’s crew had run off with our chicken coops.
Stories like this are Sea of Thieves’ best moments, and they happen all the time. This is a world where no place is safe, every sail on the horizon is a potential foe (or new friend), and possession is the only law that matters. I’m not going to pretend Sea of Thieves is perfect – I’ve ran into at least one minor bug ever time I’ve played, voyages can get a little samey after a while, you need to find a good crew to do some of the harder stuff ( like skeleton forts, fighting other ships, sailing through a storm), there’s only a few types of NPC enemies (many of which are various types of skeletons that require different tricks to defeat), and the pirate vs. pirate combat doesn’t have nearly the depth that sailing a ship does.
There are only four weapons – a cutlass, pistol, blunderbuss (shotgun), and eye of reach (sniper rifle) – and combat is fairly limited as a result, especially since the cutlass only has a light attack combo, heavy attack, and the ability to block. Part of this is mitigated by the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time, that each gun only holds one round at a time (five total) and reloading takes while, but the lack of depth is noticeable when compared to what ship combat offers. Even the cosmetic rewards system has issues. There just isn’t enough loot to buy for ships or pirates.
"Rare has changes to make, but for now, I’m happy with what Sea of Thieves is and I can’t wait to set sail again. I don’t care where we end up; just bring me that horizon. "
Rare will have to solve these issues in order to keep the game viable in the long term, but they fade into the background when I think of the pirate who tried to board our ship only to get eaten by a shark, or when lightning struck our ship while sailing through a storm and ignited our gunpowder barrels, nearly sinking us, or the joy of landing on a unique island and finding an unplundered sunken ship, or the first time we fought a kraken, which is pretty great, even if the thing is just a bunch of tentacles. I’m more than 20 hours into Sea of Thieves, and every time I play, I see something new that makes me want to explore further, sail better, and find new friends to play with.
The game ‘s lack of a narrative or RPG based progression will no doubt turn some people off. But Sea of Thieves is utterly gorgeous – this is the best water I’ve ever seen in a video game – and the core gameplay loop is exceptional, and there’s more than enough here to keep you busy, provided your tastes gel with the game’s design decisions. Rare has changes to make, but for now, I’m happy with what Sea of Thieves is and I can’t wait to set sail again. I don’t care where we end up; just bring me that horizon.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Fun core gameplay. The sailing. Interacting with other players is a blast. Voyages are fun but a little repetitive. The entire map is a PVP zone. The game is utterly gorgeous. No treasure is safe until you turn it in. Fighting the kraken is awesome.
Voyages can be a little repetitive. Customization options a limited. Pirate combat lacks the depth of ship combat. Lots of minor bugs. Limited PVE enemy variety. You need a committed crew for a lot of the good stuff.