Sea of Thieves solo is maddening and brutal – as it should be

Walking the plank? Not exactly

My own jury’s still out on whether Rare’s newly-released online pirate sim Sea of Thieves deserves to sink or swim, primarily because, during work hours, I either have to play with black-hearted randoms or solo. A little later in the week I’ll be able to tell you all about how it shakes out with a full crew of trusted mateys, but for now I can tackle the question of exactly where on the sane>insane axis playing it solo lands.

The answer: pretty darned insane. It’s frequently a horrendous experience – but at the same time, that is both entirely appropriate and oddly satisfying.

Core to Sea of Thieves’ design is that almost anything we might take for granted in other mainstream games here involves an unusual degree of manual labour, meant to better evoke the there-but-for-the-grace-of-wood fantasy and to ensure constant collaboration between players. It’s great in concept and early execution, though I have my concerns about whether it can stave off feeling tiresome in the long-term, and a suspicion that basic systems have been over-complicated to mask a lack of much else to do, but we shall see there.

So, for example, something as traditionally routine as working out where you need to go doesn’t involve a mini-map on the corner of your screen, or even a pseudo-GPS in your inventory. It doesn’t go as far as requiring you to use an astrolabe, but establishing where you are in the world does necessitate running from wherever you are to the ship’s cabin and looking at the fixed map on its central table. This takes a few seconds, which is, trust me, more than enough for your ship to collide with a rock, turn wildly off-course or have a few holes shot in it by an opportunistic rival.

sea-of-thieves

In co-op play, which is absolutely what Sea Of Thieves is designed for, navigation thus involves a kind of relay system. One player’s at the ship’s wheel, controlling direction. Another player’s down at the map, working out where the ship is and where their intended destination is. Another player is in the crow’s nest or or standing on the prow with a telescope, manually looking for the island they want to fetch up at or keeping an eye out for trouble.

As such, silence is very much not golden – the ancient art of chat is essential if you don’t want to end up drifting in aimless circles. This is one of several reasons why I haven’t found playing with random strangers to be particularly edifying to date.

(On the other hand, the moments of wordless collaboration, during combat or when the ship’s taken damage, or simply playing the squeezebox to help pass a long trip, are my favourite moments in it, but more on that another time).

If you play solo, the only concession the game will make for you is to give you a smaller boat, the main benefit of which is that it simply takes a little less time to run frantically around it putting out fires. Or bailing out water, to be more precise.

Getting from A to B is a weird nightmare of scurrying back and forth between map and wheel, each time having to choose between the tedious safety of putting down then pulling up your anchor to spare you from collision or dift, or the high stakes gamble that nothing too heinous will happen during the 10 seconds or so before you’re back at the wheel.

sea-of-thieves-solo

It’s miserable. But it’s miserable in the way that hauling a one-man sloop across the turbulent open sea in a pre-tech era would be. 50% of me is dying of frustration when I play this way, but 50% of me glows with weather-worn pride at even minor accomplishments.

This reaches an apex in a situation like this: because you also have to manually raise or lower sails to control speed, I bungled switching between wheel and sails yet again and approached an island too fast. The water turned shallow, there was a terrible grinding sound and two holes appeared in my hull.

As the cabin filled relentlessly with water, I first had to drop anchor (turn, turn, turn another wheel) and raise sails (pull, pull, pull a rope) before I collided with anything else. Then I had to spring about hammering planks over the breaches, and afterwards grab a bucket, scoop up water then hurl it over the side. When playing SOT the way it’s meant to be played, you’d have a player doing each of those things in tandem and all you really have to worry about is wounded pride.

Unless that island happens to be a fortress, with cannons, which are manned by enemies. Or a ship full of other players happens to pass, who will quite naturally be hostile, given that the only thing less famed for hearts of gold than pirates are random internet people. In either situation, you’ve got to focus on getting out of dodge before – or if you have enough people, while – you do repairs and bail out water.

Imagine if that happens while you’re playing solo. Just imagine. Imagine how it feels. The panic. The fear. Most of all, the fury. The moment I finish patching up one hole, two more appear. By the time I’ve thrown one bucketful of water overboard, I’m up to my ankles again. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, but what I need to do most of all is get the hell out of there, but how can I do that when the boat will surely sink during the time it takes me to drop the sail or raise anchor.

Imagine how it feels if you actually pull it off. Back and forth and back and forth, from plank to bucket to wheel to plank to bucket to wheel and back and forth and back and forth and then, suddenly, the cannons’ thunderous belches fall silent and I am alone and safe on the open water.

Open water which is still bursting into my boat with the unbridled force of a man making his first visit to the public conveniences after an 8-hour ride on a coach with no toilet. You don’t get to relax when you’re sailing solo, not ever.

And then I ran out of planks, and had to limp to the nearest island with an unrepaired hole in my deck, switching frantically between wheel and anchor and bucket and anchor and wheel all the way. Again, I made it. I have never been more relieved to see a two-by-four in my life.

sea-of-thieves-singleplayer

Best of all, I still had with the treasure chest I’d embarked on this series of misadventures to find in the first place. If I could just make it back to a pirate ‘town’ island, I could turn it in for a decent chunk of change. Playing co-op, you’re generally supposed to rack up a bunch of these during one trip then turn them in all at once. I had spent a full hour and almost died more times than I could count just to find one, and boy did it feel like an enormous experience. Exhausting. Infuriating. Almost certainly not something I would want to try again on my own. But success was so, so satisfying: like I had won a war.

As the torches and candles along the settlement’s shoreline flickered into focus, I closed my eyes, smiled my broadest smile and felt my heart swell with pride. I turned to drop anchor as I approached the jetty, and then the game promptly crashed.

Though I roared and swore at the skies, even that felt appropriate.

23 Comments

  1. Michael Manning says:

    Been playing solo all day while sick off work, found it to be a pretty chill experience. Met 4 strangers who were all friendly. Spent an hour trying to find a chicken… felt like Kevin Costner in Waterworld but less shit.

    Reminds me most of Elite Dangerous, hauling shit back and forth also with initially satisfying and absorbing piloting mechanics.

    • jasta85 says:

      I was hoping this might be an elite dangerous where you slowly build up your ship the way you want, where you can take your crew out, upgrade your ship with chain shot, armored plates, maybe swivel guns, get a bigger, better ship, new pistols, different melee weapons etc.

      but NONE of that is here, there is zero progression, the only thing you earn is cosmetics. Sure it’s fun to dick around for a couple of hours with friends but I feel like saw everything there was to see in the game (aside from the kraken) on my first play through and I don’t really feel the motivation to play it anymore. Especially with Ni No Kuni II coming out in like a day.

      Was really hoping for a in depth pirate game, the wait continues.

      • Sandepande says:

        The lack of upgrades (which is too often more about numbers getting bigger rather than adding tactical/strategic depth or options) is something I like about this game. Now, I detest multiplayer/co-op, so I’m not going to touch this, but I very much approve of the idea of ignoring the usual level-upping and damage-increasing nonsense.

  2. Guvornatwo says:

    I enjoy it – it’s like being a smuggler rather than a pirate, running silent and dark. Also, if you are having trouble reading navigating and the compass isn’t helping, the brightest star in the sky is the North Star

  3. JimDiGritz says:

    If you’re solo in a Sloop you don’t need to run to the table to look at the map.. just peer over the railing behind the anchor…..

    You’re welcome!!!

  4. geldonyetich says:

    Seems like Alec is at that magical time in Sea of Thieves before he can look back and realize it was Stockholm Syndrome all along.

  5. GrumpyCatFace says:

    This game sounds brilliant, and calls to me… Then I look at the screenshots, and see Bubble Guppies.

    ::shakes his walking cane at the dumb kids::

  6. peterako1989 says:

    “50% of me is dying of frustration” more like 100%. They either make some bots you can boss around or it’s a pass. Uh. Well-It’s a pass anyway, since the store is not working for my brothers new laptop no matter what we tried. And my desktop is on win7, so theres that.

  7. JimDiGritz says:

    Haha well I just had some fun ’emergent’ solo gameplay.

    Was busy digging for a buried chest on a small island when a Galleon arrives, I scarper into the sea only to hear them laughing and opening fire on my anchored Sloop. (It’s a nice touch that VOIP is distance based, not simply squad/crew limited).

    While they were busy loading and firing (they hadn’t seen me) I swam round the back of their ship and climbed on board. Whilst they were arguing over whether hitting me below the waterline makes a difference I snuck into their Captains room and found 2 chests and a skull. I promptly threw it all overboard then swam off….

    Karma’s a bitch boys. Bet you get confused when you get to the Outpost!!! Serves you right for taking out an unmanned sloop….

    HAHAHA – I may be getting cabin fever out here on my own….

  8. Doug Exeter says:

    It took about 2 nights before my Discord got sick of the beta, cancelled their pre-orders and promptly uninstalled. This game has promise but it needs at least one or 2 more years worth of work and content before its worth its laughable 60$ price tab. The content is wading pool shallow.

  9. ark_quintet says:

    Hm, you almost convinced me to have a look at SoT, but when I tried to find out where I could purchase it … a Windows Store only release? Really? Nah, I’m good, thanks. Please Microsoft, just name a single PC game release exclusive to any of your digital distribution platforms that wasn’t a failure? Poor Rare, now I feel sorry for them =(

  10. FakeNewts says:

    I’m honestly surprised by this article, I generally agree the heck out of everything RPS writes but this one seems to have missed the point in a big way.

    Sea of Thieves would be an absolutely terrible game if it was PvE. Apart from anything else, I don’t know if you noticed – there are no NPCs (apart from a few skeletons).

    All the thrill comes from the tickling suspicion that players might be in the next cove, the constant weighing of greed/prudence, whether to sell your stuff at a distant port to avoid the sails on the horizon, whether to make a run for the shop anyway dodging fire.

    If you die it has no consequences, even if you lose treasure, because all the purchasable items are cosmetic only. By design. The game was specifically geared for this cat and mouse PvP, and steps were even taken to limit the dominance of the “1337 MVP” PC FPS players because guns fire so slowly, turn-rates are deliberately low while aiming down the sights, to avoid snap firing, you can’t kill anyone with one shot, plus you’re entirely able to out-think your enemy or even just run away at almost every turn. Sea battles are cinematic, but also haphazard and emergent, not just based on pure mechanical skill. Violent/Thieving player encounters is the linchpin of the entire game. It’s literally called Sea of Thieves.

    I know I’m banging on a bit, but you guys are professional games journalists and usually so on-point about game design. Whether or not you personally enjoyed the experience is one thing, but saying it’s a shame players aren’t being nice to each other, and complaining about having your stuff nicked seems to be misunderstanding the game’s intentions at a very, very basic level. That’s never what the game was supposed to be.

    P.S. I mean it, there really isn’t any PvE content, if you take hostile players out of the equation the game would be an insufferable grind to unlock… a new beard. So. I dunno, pretty happy we didn’t get that, to be honest with you.

    • Dave Mongoose says:

      The writer makes it quite clear in the first paragraph (in the title even) that he knows solo is not the intended way to play. He also explains why he’s playing solo, and mentions that later in the week he’ll be able to report on what it’s like playing with a group.

    • Mutak says:

      I have enjoyed the pvp for the most part, but I wish it would allow private instances where you could just quest and explore in peace. Sometimes you just want to chill.

  11. Caiman says:

    I’m actually enjoying it a lot at the moment, playing solo. But I think that’s entirely down to immensely enjoying the mechanics of sailing, navigating, finding treasure and sneaking back to town without being spotted. The sea is spectacular, the best representation in a game to date, and the feeling of immersion is complete.

    However, there’s really bugger all to do outside of this. Three or four different variations on essentially the same task (look at map, go to island, kill/find something, return to town), the rewards don’t even affect gameplay – it’s all cosmetic frippery. Other players are like playing on Impossible mode; avoid them at all costs or you will die. It’s actually fun at first, your ship splintering around you as you rush to patch up holes and fire cannons back at them, but you don’t stand much chance unless it’s another solo sloop player. It might have longer (sea) legs with a crew I imagine, the game is definitely not solo friendly even though you can get some enjoyment out of it.

    This has the makings of the best single player pirate game ever made, but instead Rare have taken that shell and put other players into it so it becomes just another ultimately pointless gankfest without any depth.

    Fortunately MS’s 14 day free Game Pass thingy saved me the cost of buying it and then regretting it.

  12. estallico says:

    Correct me If I’m wrong or already mentioned but wouldn’t pirates make more sense in a world where there are some normal people other than more pirates? I imagine them as outlaws pillaging defenseless vessels, sometimes maybe small isolated army ships, not always other pirates. Does the game have some npc/mechanic to let somebody roleplay as something different? Even if not entirely designed for that purpose.

    • Mutak says:

      Nope. It doesn’t even have any crafting. It’s questing and pvp. Questing gives coins, coins buy costume upgrades and alternate weapons. That is all. You can get coin through pvp by stealing other players’ quest items. You can also got coin by exploring and finding random vendor loot hidden on islands or shipwrecks.

  13. TerminatorJones says:

    I played a bunch of solo in the beta. I think that the biggest problem with this game is that the sailing mechanics aren’t complicated enough to allow for enough nuance in tactics.

    The only way you’ll run into any real risk once you’ve figured out how to play is if you get off your boat to attempt a mission. This is the equivalent of strapping some steaks to yourself and going on a hike through bear country. In all likelihood nothing will happen, but if you get unlucky you will be completely fucked. If someone happens on your ship when you are not on it, you will be destroyed and there is really nothing you can do about it. There’s no real strategy to this. You obviously look around to make sure you can’t see anyone when you disembark, but once you’re off the boat, it’s just a coin flip whether someone finds you.

    However, once you’re sailing, there’s really no way anyone is going to catch you. Even if you take a few hits, it’s easy enough to set your course on the best heading for the wind, make sure you’re not about to crash into anything, and then worry about repairs. Then you’re set up for a stern chase where either your pursuers will get bored, or you will.

    Tacking did not seem to be a valid strategy to me. Every time I tried to tack, I lost ground to someone sailing directly into the wind. This seems like a huge missed opportunity, since a competent crew would have a sizeable advantage in a tacking match, and it would give crews the chance to try to evade or follow as well as just plain giving them something to do.

    You end up in these chases where the better crewed ships don’t really have an advantage over a single-manned ship. If the person in the single ship turned to fight, they would be at a significant disadvantage. But there is no reason for them to do so other than boredom.

    I think that a more complex set of sailing mechanics would have solved this problem by allowing a larger competent crew to exploit advantages over a solo player, while still allowing a solo player with enough skill to overcome less skilled larger crews.

    Sadly, I think a lot of people would have been turned off or frustrated by figuring out that a sail boat can’t just sail directly into the wind, so I absolutely understand why Rare did not implement this. But I think that not doing so was a missed opportunity for allowing much deeper, more engaging gameplay.

    • Mutak says:

      Agree. It just comes down to being a little too noob friendly in that one area. If sailing into the wind were just a little slower then tacking would be a skill worth developing.

  14. Mutak says:

    I’ve had a lot of fun solo and have not found the pvp to be too invasive. I had some really good moments.

    Some other solo guy starts some shit and I sink him because his cannon aim sucks, then he tries to board me and I shoot him dead. He comes back and starts some more shit. I leave my boat sailing in a circle, swim over and board and kill him. He comes back and gets the drop on me, boards and almost kills me. I jump overboard and swim to his boat and sail off with it. He pursues in my boat. We fight, eventually I kill him, but my boat is sunk and apparently I can’t just commandeer his because…reasons? At any rate, I go get a new boat and decide that’s enough pvp, time to go earn some coin with quests. But he has other plans. He tracks me down and gets the jump on me – I’m dead. Ok, fair play. We even now? No. He seeks me out again and does the same.

    I’m frustrated and just want to get on with questing so I log off and rejoin to a new instance. Problem solved! If I’d run into more pvp-obsessed people that time I would probably have a significantly less positive view of the game, but I didn’t and I haven’t since. Most of the people I’ve met are more worried about me trying to jack their stuff than they are trying to jack mine, so after a quick emote or two we’re all good.

    Now those stories about solo players being ganked by full galleon crews? Those suck. Solos and crews should be separated.

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