What does a pirate say on their eightieth birthday? “I’m eighty” (“aye, matey”….geddit?)
Ahem, having picked up Xbox Game Pass a couple of months ago, I finally decided to give Sea Of Thieves a shot. I played some of the beta over a year ago and quite enjoyed it, but was running solo, so didn’t get the full experience and filed it away under “might get to it at some point”. Some of the DoD Storm crew have been playing pretty regularly and raving about it, so I thought I’d jump in and give it another shot.
The first thing that struck me was just how stunning Sea of Thieves looks. Despite its cartoonish graphics-style, the water and lighting effects are simply incredible. The day-night cycle leads to some beautiful sunsets and when the northern lights come out at night, it’s easy to get caught out just staring at the sky.
When it gets late in the day and the light starts to fade, it’s impossible not to take a moment to look to the west and appreciate the beauty of the sunset. The fading yellow light of the sun, the darkening orange glow of the sky, and the glinting sunlight catching your eye off the rolling waves; it all captures that real-life sensation of breathing in a stunning sunset on a warm summer’s evening. There’s something so simple about the game’s aesthetic that works incredibly well.
As someone who’s played their fair share of open world RPGs, looter-shooters (or stabby-grabby, for any DCP fans out there), and games with level-locked content, I know how frustrating it can be to arrive late to the party, only to find that your friends are miles ahead of you and either begrudge helping you through low-level content, or have to carry you through high-level content (assuming you even have access), where you may as well be shooting harsh words, for all the damage you can do while you continuously die/respawn.
One of my favourite things about Sea of Thieves is that the ocean is wide open from the get go. You see that island on the horizon? Go to it. Friends with a bunch of Pirate Legends who are running an Athena voyage? No problem, jump in and enjoy the mega-loot! Sea of Thieves lets you join in whatever your friends are doing, whether you’ve been playing for months or have literally just booted the game for the first time.
There’s a natural progression system, of course. You start with some free voyages that give you rather pathetic loot, and you can use your rewards, such as they are, to buy promotions and access to longer and better quality voyages, ultimately unlocking the prized Athena voyages once you become Pirate Legend. But whatever level you are, at its core, the gameplay loop remains the same. Get voyage, enjoy shenanigans, sell loot (assuming you don’t get mugged by a rival crew on the way).
Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of story-driven games. My first playthrough of Mass Effect remains one of my best ever gaming experiences. After playing through the (deceptively deep, IMO) Gears of War series, I went out and read all of the books, which give greater depth and backstory to the characters that is only hinted at in the games. Not to mention classics like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (yes, Bioware again), Max Payne (and the thoroughly misjudged Quantum Break - one of my top games of 2016), Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I’m a sucker for a good yarn. While I do like games without a narrative as well, I’m not normally one for “make your own adventure” type games. Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by years of Ubisoft icon-saturation, or the constant barrage of information from the Battlefield HUD, but I usually find games with a lack of direction a little disconcerting (a few exceptions aside).
So I was as surprised as anyone when the almost completely unstructured gameplay of Sea of Thieves grabbed my attention. But it did, and how! Maybe it was when a simple treasure run turned into a frantic race to the nearest outpost involving our brigantine slugging it out with a skeleton ship while being chased by a hostile sloop (thanks to one of our crew antagonising them earlier on) with a Megalodon circling hungrily. Or perhaps it was when we took down a skeleton fort with an allied crew, before shooting them in the back and taking all the loot.
These types of stories emerge from every play session, and despite your best laid plans to complete a certain voyage or whatever, you genuinely never know what’s going to happen every time you weigh anchor and unfurl the foresail into the wind. While this could prove extremely frustrating for completionists, there’s something incredibly freeing about the experience.
Rare have announced that they’re adding story missions at the end of the month. While I’m keen to see how this is implemented, and it might attract a new tranche of players to the game, it definitely feels like “added value” to me, rather than something the game has been missing all this time.
Amazingly, Sea of Thieves is incredibly well optimised to run on different hardware configurations, even on a fairly modest setup with integrated graphics. I don’t have a gaming PC, but do have a decent laptop (at least in terms of doing development work or whatever) that has one of those standard Intel integrated graphics setups. Thanks to the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative, my Game Pass means I can fire up Sea of Thieves on my laptop. And amazingly, it works! It doesn’t look anything like it does on my Xbox One X in 4K with HDR, and the frame rate is definitely on the low end, but I never thought I would be able to play a top-end current day release on an integrated 1GB graphics card. This is an incredible achievement by Rare, and something other developers should be working towards.
There are a few (minor) issues with Sea of Thieves however, although it’s testament to the work Rare have done that these feel like enhancements that could be made, rather than game-breaking issues.
First off, it’s a struggle to complete any voyages if you’re flying solo. Now, Sea of Thieves is very, very obviously intended to be a social experience. But there are people who don’t have easy access to online friends (or at least those who play Sea of Thieves), and flying solo can be a very daunting, and fruitless experience. Even completing a simple voyage to return a practically worthless chest to the next island over can end in disaster due to hostile players or random world events such as skeleton ships or megalodons, and the various mechanics needed to keep a ship going during battle (bailing, patching, steering, adjusting sails, loading and firing cannons) are just a step too much for any but the best and most experienced solo players. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that there’s a satisfying way this could be changed without breaking the game, although maybe if there was a way to hoist a flag that put you into a non-griefable state (like Fallout 76’s passive mode), this might make solo-sailing a little more pleasant.
At the opposite end of the scale, there’s a hard limit on the number of people you can have playing together in a group. The biggest available ship, the Galleon, supports a crew of four. Great for a lot of occasions, but it would be great to be able to have a group of five or six sailing together. Introducing some form of fleet/armada mechanic where you can spawn a group of friends into the same server on multiple ships would be absolutely incredible for living out those Black Sails fantasies. My DoD Storm clan-mate and general Pirate Legend PharoahCreator wrote a decent post about this a couple of months back that seemed to get some traction with Rare, so who knows if we’ll see this in a future update?!
Finally, the combat is the other thing that just doesn’t feel quite right to me. I’m generally just button bashing until I die or manage to kill my opponent. That’s not too much of an issue with the basic skeletons but can become problematic when dealing with groups or the metal ones that take 372 hits to defeat. This one may be fully down to a lack of understanding/ability on my part however! Perhaps I just need to practice combat more to get the timing down.
All in all, Sea of Thieves is an awesome, freeing, incredible experience that’s unlike anything else I’ve played. And with all the new stuff coming in the Anniversary update (video below), it’s just continuing to expand and improve.
If you perhaps played Sea of Thieves back when it first launched, or took part in the beta and haven’t checked in again then it’s definitely worth revisiting. If you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber then there’s really no reason not to give it another shot.