Being a pirate is fun. You’ve probably always suspected as much – what with the funny way they talk, the outrageous hats, and owning their own boat – but Sea Of Thieves confirms it. We’ve played the game before, but now Sea Of Thieves has officially been released to the public. But as with any online-only game there’s been no way to get a review done before now, so we started playing it for real today just like everyone else. And by today we mean yesterday, because despite the fact that the game wasn’t supposed to live till midnight it was working fine all afternoon. We’ve had a good five or so hours on it now, and while there were a few problems with items disappearing from the menu and bought objects taking ages to appear in your inventory, the whole thing seems to be working well and we didn’t once get booted out or suffer any serious lag issues. We’ve been playing as a two-man team on the smaller, faster sloop and at one point one of us appeared to be naked to the other but thankfully Sea Of Thieves pirates are not anatomically correct. Whether you’ve played Sea Of Thieves before or not the big question that still hangs over the game is, ‘What do you do?’ We already knew the basics of captaining our ship and using maps to search for treasure, but how much more there might be to the game was a mystery. And it’s still a mystery because that’s not a question we were ever going to answer after just five hours. It seems fairly clear though that the game’s appeal does not lie in complex gameplay or missions, but in the social aspect. We found a few suspicious-looking caves on some islands, while others seem to be populated by legions of animated skeletons that make them impossible to even approach, and that does hint at what more veteran players might be getting up to later in the game. At the start though you just need to get your sea legs and start earning a reputation. The game’s open world map is filled with a number of islands that act as safe ports, and contain a pub, shops, and three different pirate merchants. It’s these who provide the treasure maps and if you manage to find the treasure and bring it back to them you not only get paid whatever it’s worth but also earn reputation with them specifically. And the more reputation you earn with each group the greater access you have to their more lucrative maps. That’s a pretty simplistic set-up but it’s perfectly adequate for giving you an excuse to get out on the (amazingly beautiful-looking) ocean waves. Piloting a sloop isn’t any more complicated than the larger four-man galleon and once you’ve angled the sails to catch the wind properly you really only need one person to steer and another to keep look out. Usually in a co-op game it’s the arguing that’s the most fun, and that’s true to a degree here. But getting to know the controls and shouting out terms such as ‘Trim the sails!’, ‘Hoist the anchor!’, and ‘No, larboard means left!’ feels somehow magical – as you use such cliched terms for their actual real purpose. You soon begin to realise that the game’s a sort of live action role-player, and the fact that the first person combat is so clunky and imprecise really isn’t the point. Or rather it is, because it just means you end up panicking and relying on the rest of your crew even more.
Very quickly players begin to specialise, and in our case we found one was better at piloting the ship and another at working out where exactly X marks the spot when reading the maps. This served us well enough to pick up a couple of treasure chests, as well as a note in a bottle that said the Merchant Alliance would pay for barrels of gunpowder. We found these on the beach too, so without thinking too much about it brought them back to the boat and stored them on deck before heading to port. And then we saw our first rival ship…
We’re sure it must seem all very obvious to you reading this, but the most upsetting thing about what happened next was not the stupidity of storing highly volatile explosives on an open deck but how ecstatic the other crew must’ve been when they managed to one-shot us. We’ve seen galleons go down before in the game, during previews, but it took a long time and a lot of cannonballs and ramming. We however managed to make it look very easy. Luckily, death is not a major inconvenience in Sea Of Thieves and we were quickly respawned in a new ship back at port, although – a little like a roguelike – we’d lost all non-permanent belongings such as treasure maps and the contents of the boat. Failure is the greatest teacher though, so we set off again and this time made sure to lay off the gunpowder barrels. Instead, we found something much more exciting on the next island: a pig cage. Animals, including chickens and a wide variety of snakes, can be found on most islands and the Merchant Alliance seems to deal in their trade. You do have to catch them though, and so after running around the jungle after a particularly plump looking porker we stumbled upon a beach littered with extra treasure, including new maps, a mysterious bronze vase, and a crate of rare tea.
Getting them off the island was tricky though, as you can’t defend yourself while carrying something and skeletons have a nasty habit of appearing as soon as you pick one up. So we carefully escorted each other back and forwards between the ship. This proved a useful tactic when getting back to port, where a rather imprecise bit of parking left our ship some distance from the safety of the island. This encouraged a rival pirate to try and board our ship, while we were busy boarding his. The only problem being he didn’t seem to have anything – and he was a better shot than us. After respawning yet again we vowed to do a better job and after a few successful spots of map-reading came across a sunken wreck out to sea. Diving down we found it filled with treasure, but also sharks. Our solution was to have one person stand on the prow of the ship, rifle at the ready like Chief Brody himself, while the other dived down. It was definitely worth the effort too as we found a barrel of special grog that was so potent it made you drunk just picking it up. Which made outrunning sharks all the more difficult but was thankfully worth a pretty penny back at port. It feels worryingly like marketing speak when we put it like this, but Sea Of Thieves really is a different story every time. Reviewing online games is difficult at the best of times but here it’s compounded because no two people are ever going to have the same experience. But even when our incompetence was revealed in the most embarrassing manner we still had a huge amount of fun with the game, and frankly can’t wait to get back to it.
Co-op games like Destiny have been popular for years, but the amount of actual interaction and genuine co-operation is always at a grudging bare minimum. Sea Of Thieves though is almost like taking part in your own improvised comedy sketch, with a much tighter comradery needed to achieve even something as simple as making your ship go forward. You can play on your own if you absolutely want to but that’d feel like attending a birthday party where you were the only guest. That’s not a flaw, just an indication of how intrinsic player interaction is to the game. So that’s the answer to the big question of what you do: you mess around with your friends and maybe pick up some treasure along the way. But the next question is how long will that stay entertaining? That we can’t answer, and we are concerned that although there are lots of hyper expensive weapons, clothes, and boat ornaments to save up for, and spend your ill-gotten gains on, they all seem to be purely cosmetic. There doesn’t appear to be any equipment that actually changes the gameplay in anyway, like scuba gear or some such, and not even a more powerful gun.
Or maybe there is and we just haven’t got far enough to realise it yet. But there are a few other annoyances, such as the very short night/day cycle and a complete inability to customise your character (you just pick them from a randomly generated carousel) or even rename them or your ship. You also can’t make your own flag or paint your boat, and while we suspect that’s to avoid anyone trying to be offensive it does seem strangely restrictive in a game that’s all about going out and doing your own thing. Rare’s plan is to keep Sea Of Thieves updated with new content for years to come (we’re assured that parrots are top of the to-do list) so we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ve got a long term plan for all this. They’ve earnt it after creating a game this entertaining out of such a small collection of gameplay mechanics. As far as we’re concerned a pirate’s life is definitely for us.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Rare Release
Date: 20th March 2018
Age Rating: 12