There’s an unspoken genre of games I like to think of as “Having a Lark with your Mates”. These are games that, played by yourself, are usually pretty dull affairs, the core game loop not really being enough to sustain it for long durations. However when you get a few of your mates together and the inevitable happens (I.E. you begin to fuck about) things get a lot more fun, and suddenly the hours start passing you by before you know it. I’ve played many of these games with a core group of my friends and the latest game of this genre we decided to try was Sea of Thieves. I highly doubt the game needs much introduction, especially with the strange trend of sea shanties making the rounds on social media. For me it’s definitely a fun game, one that is full of nuance and intrigue should you go looking for it. It is also in need of a better new player experience as there’s a lot going on here and it’s not 100% clear how you should be going about things.
Sea of Thieves premise is simple to understand: you’re a pirate sailing on the high seas looking for treasure and mystery. You can play by yourself or with up to 3 of your mates and how many you play with determines the size of the ship you can sail. Indeed the simple challenge of getting from A to B is one of the game’s most fun and interesting aspects as the sea is anything but a barren patch of water for you to simply sail across. Of course you’re not the only pirate out and about, something which you’ll become quickly aware of as you’re chased off by fortresses, pursued relentlessly by ghost ships of the undead and left stranded on islands by other players when they think you might be a threat. Truly it is the pirate experience many have been seeking since Assassin’s Creed Black Flag all those years ago.
The art direction is heavily stylized, although there’s been a lot of attention paid to the details that matter. The water, for example, is simply amazing; taking on different forms according to the weather, rocking your boat gently and generally just being an ever present bit of eye candy that I really appreciated. The rest of the simple graphics kind of blend into everything else, ensuring that draw distances remain high so you can really soak yourself in the wonderfully detailed environments. Of course things do fall over a bit when you’re fighting enemies or when you’re up close to some things when the lack of detail becomes apparent, but you won’t be spending most of your time in such places. Overall it’s simple but very well executed, something you’d expect from a veteran game developer like Rare.
The core game play follows most of the standard open world/co-op tropes that you’d expect, although most of them are a little more simple than their more fully fledged brethren like say Destiny. There’s quests for you to do, most of which involve going to an island, finding the buried treasure and then bringing it back to someone for a reward. There’s factions for you to level up and they each have their own set of missions and benefits you get from befriending them. There’s a ton of random encounters as well, meaning you’ll likely pick up some additional things to do as you’re following your current quest line. All of this is wrapped up in simply making the journey itself, something which can be a boring slow crawl when the winds are low to a fearsome battle for dear life as you battle a ghost ship in the middle of the storm. There’s a lot more of course and if you’re the kind of person to lose countless hours on open world games then you’ll be right at home here.
Combat is a mixed bag as the ship to ship combat feels amazingly deep and complex whilst the first person parts are a little bit more…simplistic. Trying to coordinate between 3 people to ensure that your ship is positioned correctly, the canons are loaded and you’re not about to run aground is definitely one of the game’s more exciting combat moments. However that gets quite a bit less interesting once you board another boat as you either try to outmaneuver each other whilst you reload or you simply wail on one another until one of you falls down. The PVE combat is even worse than this as most enemies simply walk directly at you and won’t change off you even if someone else hits them. It’s clear that combat isn’t meant to be the focus though, that is exploration and the sailing itself.
Which, honestly, was one of my favourite parts of the game. Paying attention to the wind, your sails and the direction of the boat is an ongoing challenge to make sure you’re getting where you need to go. Of course this is also when an appreciation of sailing vocabulary can help immensely as trying to figure out which way is left all the time quickly loses its hilarity when someone doesn’t realise which way you’re facing. You’ll probably then also have to deal with the slings and arrows your shipmates will throw at you for being a “sailing nerd” but hey, that’s a small price to pay for taking 5 minutes to get somewhere rather than 50.
The quests were pretty fun for the most part, even if they were pretty basic. Like I said earlier the journey just to get to your quest’s destination can be quite an eventful affair so just digging up a treasure chest at the end of it can be seen as just the icing on the cake. We did try to do one of the tall tales and, if I’m honest, that was probably the most boring hour or so we ever spent in the game as most of it was just trying to figure out where the hell we needed to go. Couple that with the lack of any meaningful rewards along the way and we were convinced that they probably weren’t worth the effort, at least for now.
Progression comes in the form of loot for your character as your ship is essentially meaningless to you in the game. This means that most things you’ll get are better/different weapons, cosmetic upgrades and probably some other things I didn’t end up coming across. It is a bit of an annoyance that once you’ve built up a good hoard of supplies that you won’t be able to come back to them when you next login but, given the utterly disposable nature of the boats, it’s not the biggest deal in the world. It’s clear that the devs did not want have everyone running around in bedazzled galleons, owning poor noobs who didn’t know any better.
Most of the issues we encountered were due to the Windows Game Bar integrations not working as seamlessly as they really should. Indeed it’s very reminiscent of the old Games for Windows Live days as even basic features like voice chat just simply didn’t work reliably. The game itself was pretty good though, the only breaking issue I encountered was getting stuck between some trees at one point which no amount of jumping or screaming could get me out of. A quick bounce out and back in again fixed that though, so no harm no foul.
Sea of Thieves is definitely worth the time if you’ve got a regular crew to play with. Whilst many parts of it are focused more on simplicity it’s clear where there’s been significant effort dedicated to make the whole experience a lot better. However it’s a game I’m pretty sure I’d find incredibly boring if I played it by myself, those long stretches of sailing really not being as fun if you can’t riff off your mates or annoy them with a weird shanty. It’s something I hope we come back around to again, maybe after we’ve finished tooling around in GTA V online again (now that it loads…a little faster).
Sea of Thieves is available on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S right now for $49.45. Game was played on the PC with a total 5.4 hours playtime and 4% of the achievements unlocked.