Hot off the heels of the game’s second anniversary and ahead of the imminent Steam release, I thought it was about time to have a look at Sea of Thieves as it sails today; the good – and the bad. So let’s lower our sails, raise the anchor and take a trip through what has becoming an exemplary example of “Live Service” done right – and for good measure, let’s see how many nautical puns I can squeeze in here.
Tales of Legend
When Sea of Thieves was announced back at E3 2015, it sparked in me a childish excitement that I hadn’t felt in years. I’ve always held all things piratical with a certain amount of romanticism – to me, it meant freedom, just my ship and my wits and the open sea. I also have an enormous fondness for Rare, and the idea of a cooperative pirate adventure game in which I could form a crew, command a ship and roam the seas with friends was tantalising.
Taking to the beautifully realised world for the first time can be continuously breathtaking – the beauty of the sun as it sets on an azure sea, the wonderful soundtrack that captures and elevates both the moments of adventure as well as the calm ones. The creaks and groans of your ship as it forges its path through the crashing waves are immersive and incredibly well done. There’s also the downtime between those moments – managing your ship, adjusting the sails to catch the wind, navigating ferocious storms, patching holes in your hull and bailing water as you and your crew work together to sail is a joy, and it’s truly one of the highlights of Sea of Thieves. Here, and particularly with friends, the game soars for crews that set themselves defined roles.
A Pirates Life
Sea of Thieves is an always online, ‘shared-world adventure game’ (or SWAG for short). It’s important to make this distinction though – this is not an MMO. While your character and levels, such as they are in the game are persistent, the world is not. Every time you load in, you’re given a fresh ship to quickly customise as you’d wish. You can choose between 3 types of ship, the small but nimble Sloop with a choice of either solo or a 2 player crew; The fast but single decked Brigantine (or Briggy as it’s affectionately known) for 3 players, and last but not least, the impressive and formidable Galleon. Maximum firepower and the fastest ship with the wind, but slow to manoeuvre. Anything you’ve found, like storage crates or resources in your last session don’t come with you.
Each session will start much the same – you and your crew will spawn at a random Outpost somewhere in the world of Sea of Thieves – these Outposts are important, as it’s first where you can complete an initial stock run – collecting cannon, wood and fruit from the various barrels littering each island to enable you to power through whatever adventures you embark upon. It’s also where all of the main quest givers are in the game world, and where you can return to cash in most of the loot you will collect.
Each Outpost is filled with shops and buildings manned by NPC’s that either sell cosmetic items for your pirate, or they represent the main Guilds or Factions from which you can purchase an adventure. The Gold Hoarders, provide “X marks the spot” and “Riddle” maps that take you to various islands to dig up treasure. The Order of Skulls provide Bounty Quests, tasking you and your crew with hunting down Skeleton captains of various types and strengths. The Merchant Alliance instead ask crews to gather resources – animals mostly, be it snakes, chickens or pigs – or perhaps gunpowder. They may also provide delivery quests, tasking crews to carry items of value like Rum or cloth from one destination to another.
The objective with each faction is to raise your reputation – reach level 50 in each faction and you can become a Pirate Legend – at that point, you can access the legends hideout – accessible from any Tavern on any outpost – and obtain Legendary voyages – this allows you to rank up your Athena level, and are some of the more valuable quests in the game.
However, at launch, this was all there was to actually do from a quest perspective. It’s important to note that the game is designed in such a way that these quests and the loot you can obtain aren’t really there for much but to provide a framework of activity to go out into the shared world. As such, the game was rightly criticised for a serious lack of engaging content, but it’s been two years, and it’s safe to say Rare have more than righted the ship, and well – there’s a lot more going on out there now.
A Long Voyage
Looking back on Sea of Thieves at launch compared to now, the difference is truly remarkable. Rare have added a literal armada of new things to do, with fishing, giant megalodons, a new volcanic area called ‘The Devil’s Roar’, AI Skeleton ships (affectionately named “Skalleons” by my band of pirates). There’s also fog, fire, emergent loot, new trading companies like the Hunter’s Call, Pets, Cooking, Alliances, Rowboats, Harpoons, Seaposts, new chest types, pirate grenades (for want of a better term), Cursed Cannonballs, Chainshot and more. Each update has been free, and it’s only recently the game has added an actual store you can spend real money in – but again, it’s all cosmetic, and has no standing on your pirate’s abilities beyond making them look cool.
This is one of the first things you need to understand about Sea of Thieves – progression, such as it is, does not mean your pirate gets stronger or faster or has access to more deadly weapons as you invest time in the game. Instead, progression is flat – as you rank up with the various factions, you can access better voyages, you can obtain more cool ‘stuff’ – but you’re at the same level you were when you first started. The upside of this approach is that anyone can start playing game at any time, and they can be just as capable as someone that has been playing since launch – outside of experience and knowledge, which to be fair, counts for a lot. The downside of course, is that this goes against a lot of what we’ve come to expect from games in general, and you may personally miss the rush of ‘levelling up’ that other games usually provide.
The game-play loop is fairly simple – buy a quest from one of the factions, put it on your captains table in your ship, vote amongst your crew to do it, go out and collect the loot. Now you could choose to hand it all in at an Outpost as soon as the quest is complete, but you can vote on another quest straight away, and each crew member can carry up to three standard quests. As you can imagine, you could get to the end of all of those with quite a lot of bounty in your ships hold, and every item of treasure has to be cashed in at the Outpost or faction manually.
One of the latest additions to the game world is Emissary Voyages – instead of just doing a normal voyage, you can choose to raise an Emissary flag, which attaches itself to the back of the ship, and each flag can work it’s way up to a maximum of level 5. Every action you perform that furthers the faction with which you’ve chosen to align earns you reputation. Get to level 5 and it effectively acts as a multiplier to your loot and reputation as you cash it in. But be warned, you’ll be able to see how many other emissaries are out on the waves, and the newest company – The Reapers Bones – exists purely so other players can sink you, take your loot, and steal your flag – the higher the flag level, the greater their reward, and the greater the risk for you as a crew. If you do hit Level 5 with any flag, any would-be bounty hunters out there will immediately be able to see your location on their ship’s map, and may cut a swift path towards you for gold and glory.
This is a shared world after all, and it’s this element that is simultaneously the games biggest strength, and also it’s greatest weakness. Every ship you see out there (that isn’t a skelly-ship), every silhouette of sails through your spyglass on the horizon is another crew, out on their own adventure, and it’s when you encounter other crews that things get really interesting.
You see, this isn’t just a cooperative pirate adventure – it’s also an adversarial one. Sure you could encounter a crew, they could be jolly, friendly pirates, they may even want to raise an alliance flag and share the rewards of each crews adventures and loot – but they may also spy everything you have in your hold, and being pirates, decide to take it for themselves. And it’s in these moments – these encounters – that the game truly excels and becomes something truly unique.
Nautical ship-to-ship combat in this game is fantastic. Crews have to work together and manage their ship to take care of their sails, repairing the hull, wheel, masts or your capstan as well as manning the cannon and getting the better shot or angle on their opponents. And truly anything goes here – in true Rare fashion, if you think you can make the shot, why not climb in the cannon yourself and ask a crew member to shoot you on to your adversary’s deck so you can triumphantly drop their anchor and cause all sorts of panic? If you are successful in sinking an enemy ship, all loot they were carrying will rise to the surface of the water, while they enjoy a visit to the Ferry of the Damned. Death is not a punishment as such, and if you can get to a crew mate in time, they can be revived with limited health. Once the enemy has been dispatched, you’ll have to move fast to collect all their hard-earned loot, because you can be sure that crew will be on their way back as quick as they can. Usually, as they now have nothing to lose, they will be far more aggressive. And if the game decides to spawn a Kraken, Skeleton Galleon or Megalodon mid-combat, it can change the course of a fight entirely.
Sadly, while ship-to-ship combat is a polished, tense and occasionally hilarious time, player vs player – or pirate vs pirate in this instance, leaves a lot to be desired. On foot combat is clunky and laboured, with sword battles being a mash of swings and blocks, with little tactical manoeuvring involved. Gun play is rudimentary, with each pirate having access to either a pistol, a blunderbuss or Sea of Thieves version of a sniper rifle, the “Eye of Reach”. Combat in general, despite a number of tune ups over the last two years, is still only serviceable – at best. Overwhelmingly, this is the biggest glaring issue I have with Sea of Thieves. On PC, where 60 FPS is a given, I can live with it, but should you be playing at 30FPS on console, it can often feel like you’re fighting the controls as much as other pirates.
Rare has often said that Sea of Thieves is primarily about ‘Players telling stories together’ and the overall emergent experience that comes from being Shared-World, and I can only agree. Virtually every session I have played, there is always something that happens that burns itself into my memory as a highlight, that is recalled or talked about long after it happened. The game truly delivers crazy unexpected encounters and moments in spades, and can turn what might have been a fairly relaxed experience into an hour long battle across the waves. But it’s not just player driven emergent stories that drive the game, there is a sizeable narrative to engage with here too.
Tell me a tale or two
One of the biggest additions Sea of Thieves has had over the last two years was the introduction of Tall Tales, the first batch of which was titled ‘Shores of Gold’. At launch, players rightly voiced their disappointment at having such a lush and beautiful world to play in, but no real story or lore to enjoy alongside it. Rare, one year later with the ambitious ‘Anniversary Update‘ answered these voices with one of the most unique and enjoyable pieces of story content I’ve played in years.
Tall Tales are expertly crafted mini campaigns, that can be played in order or repeatedly, and offer fantastic swashbuckling action by the bucket load. Betrayal, love, mystery – it’s like playing through your own ‘Goonies’ adventure. And indeed, because this is a Shared-World game, though your crew may be focused on whatever Tall Tale you’ve chosen – you won’t be alone out there. During my first play session of these, my crew and I were relentlessly pursued by another player-manned Galleon eager to see us to the bottom of the sea – in a way, they, for that one moment in time, where our own unpredictable villain, constantly seeking to thwart us every step of the way. If you are new to Sea of Thieves, the very first thing you should do once you’ve learnt the ropes is recruit a crew of friends and take these challenges on.
But if you are new to Sea of Thieves, it’s understandably a large and complex game, that’s been live for over two years, with a myriad of tools and systems at your disposal. Naturally, this can be somewhat daunting, but thankfully Rare have created a nifty tutorial called the Maiden Voyage – this expertly introduces you to the world and the main game mechanics, in your own solitary session, before you take to the seas and take on the game fully.
This little island introduces a character you should hope to see later on as you progress, provides a nice chunk of backstory and gives you a glimpse at some of the things you’ll encounter out there. It also give you your first taste of gold, to enable you to brighten up your pirate’s image just a little bit.
Gold is the in-game currency you earn and with which you can purchase cosmetics from the various shops on the outpost. Every piece of loot you hand in will always give you gold, and the prettier cosmetics naturally cost more. But it’s not the only currency available – there are also dubloons, which are more limited and can be used to purchase special voyages from the Bilge Rats, who provide more of a variety of adventures across the Sea of Thieves compared to the usual trading companies. There are also ancient coins – while these can be found in the game world, carried by an ancient looking skeleton that plays some jaunty music, they are incredibly rare – Ancient coins are basically real money, and you can buy and spend this at the Pirate Emporium, Rare’s only micro-transaction store in the game. It’s here you can buy premium cosmetic items – from unique Ship skins, emotes and clothes for your pirate and even a pet – be it a parrot, monkey or cat to call your own.
Pirate VS Pirate
The main adventure game is the bread and butter of Sea of Thieves, and your experience can be different from session to session, but if it’s blood, gunpowder and glory you’re after, you will probably want to check out The Arena – it’s here that Sea of Thieves Game-play loop is distilled down into frantic 15 minute bouts of nautical combat. 5 ships, 5 crews, one chest. It can get pretty intense, and it also counts as another faction – The Sea Dogs – with which you can work your way up in reputation on your journey to become Pirate Legend.
While I understand why Arena exists, the main draw for me will always be the emergent stories and experiences I get from the main adventure mode, and I’m still grumpy that Sea of Thieves haven’t tried their hand at a fully fledged ‘Battle Royale’ with multiple Galleons all vying to be last ship standing. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Thoughts of the Damned
As well as all the emergent things happening across the Sea of Thieves, and the voyage system driving player movement and adventure, the game also has a few raid-like systems up it’s sleeves – these are either Forts or Skeleton Ship Battles, marked as such by giant skull or ship shaped clouds in the sky. Some of the games best loot is available here, so naturally is always sought after and they are usually always worth fighting for. To complete the fort, crews simply have to battle waves of enemies and then kill a final ‘boss’.
The best rewards can be obtained from the Fort of the Damned, a location in the middle of the map that requires a number of items that have to be collected in order to trigger it. Once triggered, a grey skull cloud with glowing red eyes goes up, so beware, every other crew on the server can see that ominous cloud too, and can arrive at any time. Constant vigilance is required. This is the case for all forts and battles – you never know who might turn up just when you’ve completed it, stealing the key to the vault, and all of your hard work and time along with it.
It’s worth highlighting that Sea of Thieves asks of it’s players a significant time investment. This is not a game that you can ‘hop on’ for a quick session – in my experience, there is no such thing. This is partly why I think Arena exists in the format it does – to allow players that do want a quick shot of Sea of Thieves’ ‘best bits’ to do so with the knowledge that there’s a definite end to the session, and that they can choose to do another one.
The main adventure mode of the game does not allow for that, and because literally anything can happen, your plans for a quick session may be quickly thrown out the porthole if another crew pulls alongside you and broadsides said plans into oblivion. I have found myself setting aside a good 3-4 hours minimum for a proper session with friends, so it’s important to bear this in mind if you’re thinking of diving in.
Legend Into Myth
If there’s one take away I have from my time with Sea of Thieves over the last two years, is that it’s been such a pleasure to see it evolve. I’ve been there for some amazing moments, from first uniting with another crew to take on a legendary megalodon, to battling relentless foes on a quest to keep every piece of treasure I could find. I’ve experienced the triumph of victory, the bitterness of losing everything as my ships sinks beneath the waves. I’ve enjoyed the quieter moments with friends just talking about life. I’ve undertaken amazing quests, solved unique and often mind-bending riddles, and have enjoyed bonds of fellowship and camaraderie. I’ve been burnt out and not played for extended periods, but there was no fear of missing out. My ship and my crew were always there, ready to pick up where we left off.
Sea of Thieves isn’t for everyone. After all, neither was the life of a Pirate. But if you have the time, the friends and the heart to take it on, it can reward you not just with treasure and glory, but with memories that will stay with you, long after your Pirate Legend has faded into myth.