On the one hand, Sea of Thieves is a game so empty that recommending it feels like a dereliction of duty. On the other hand, I just chased down a man who killed me and threw a bucket of my own grog-induced vomit over him by way of revenge.
It’s the small things like that that can make Sea of Thieves triumphant, which is just as well, seeing as there’s just an empty mass of very pretty water where the big things should be.
The most generous possible assessment of Sea of Thieves is that it’s a robust and attractive infrastructure within which to have a good time with other people. The least generous possible assessment of Sea of Thieves is that’s a glorified proof of concept demo with a gaping hole where a videogame should be. Both are valid. Hell, I feel both ways about Sea of Thieves, often simultaneously. I’ve had some of my most memorable gaming times in recent memory while out on its azure oceans, but I’ve also frequently questioned why I would spend even one more minute is its listless, often laughably empty world.
Let’s start at the beginning, which is to define the nature of this sea-beast. Sea of Thieves is a game about being a pirate in a sort of Pixar-vision Caribbean, occupied only by other players, NPC skeletons and a handful of scripted shopkeepers. It has one toe in the waters of MMO and another in sailing simulators, adding up to a freeform cocktail of low-pressure questing and high-pressure PVP.
Despite the presence of shopkeeper and quest-giver NPCs who will optionally offer banal smuggling anecdotes with all the dead-eyed enthusiasm of a WH Smiths employee asking if you’re interested in a large bar of Galaxy chocolate for a pound, it is not a story game in any way, shape or form.
Hell, even my references to quests are over-egging SOT’s unhurried pudding. There are a handful of looping activities you can do in order to earn coin you can then spend on primarily visual upgrades to your pirate character and their ship, but any sense of purpose comes solely from you and your comrades. My point being, this is very much a game in which you get out what you put in. It feels absurd to be comparing a first-party Microsoft game, whose primary purpose is to sell lots of Xbox Ones, to state-of-zen games such as Proteus or Euro Truck Simulator, but this is essentially what Rare have made here – if, at least, you’re being generous towards it. If you’re not, you might well question why Microsoft could charge sixty bones for something that, though glossy, seems to be fundamentally unfinished.
Again, both are valid responses. The fundamental issue with Sea of Thieves is that, outside of the constant random factor of working with (or against) other people, it only presents a handful of things to do, and you’ll have experienced all of them within a few hours of starting out. Thus, it lives or dies on whether you see them as the foundations for unpredictable experiences with friends or strangers, or as Kill 10 Rats ad nauseum. Again, it is both of those things. It is, honestly, it really, really is.
If I sound like I’m sat so firmly on the fence that there’s a white picket sticking out my nostril when I repeatedly say that, I can only offer my sincere reassurance that I myself feel both things about this game simultaneously. I’m disappointed in it but I adore much of my time with it. I can’t stop playing it, but I can’t stop telling people about everything that’s wrong with it.
‘Quests’ in Sea of Thieves fall almost exclusively into one of three categories:
1) go to an island and dig up a treasure chest.
2) go to an island and kill a skeleton.
3) go to an island and kidnap a pig or chicken.
There is no fluff, no lore, no jokes, no pay-off, no nothing other than a randomly-generated quest name like ‘the treasure of Brian Pirate’ or ‘the measly crew of Ian Skeleton’, and unfortunately the thin gags I’ve used there are ten times better than the ones actually employed by the game. You sail to the place, you get the identical chest, kill the identical skeleton or kidnap the identical farm animal, then you head back to a town, turn in the chest, skull or beleaguered creature, earn gold and reputation that eventually enables you to buy aesthetic upgrades or access to more lucrative chest/skeleton/kidnap missions.
No matter which side of the ‘ambient escapism/inadequate nothingness’ divide I happen to be standing on at any given moment, one thing my torn mind is absolutely sure about is that Sea of Thieves’ most disappointing pratfall is to do almost nothing of interest with its mission destinations. These are always islands, and these islands are always empty apart from chickens, pigs, skeletons if it’s a skeleton-mission and a smattering of incidental environmental art such as firepits and broken chests that you can’t interact with in any way.
Right now, still only a week into proceedings, I still feel a simmering hope that this next island will contain something to surprise me, but by this time next week that aspiration will be as dead as Captain Dave Pelvic Bone, or whoever the identical skeleton-before-last I fought was.
This is the lamest thing to say in almost any situation unless you’re talking to someone while destitute on your deathbed, but essential to getting anything out this to game is to enjoy the journey rather than the destination. I have had sea voyages that will quite likely be burned into my memory for the rest of my days, even though I struggle to recall anything particular that happened during them.
What I do remember, with a surge of warmth and pride and inappropriately immediate nostalgia, is how I felt during them. Me and two or three crew-mates, sometimes people I knew, sometimes perfect (and I do mean perfect) strangers, out at sea, performing our nautical duties. Hoist the mainsail, reload the starboard cannons, frantically bail water from below deck, raise the anchor, man the crow’s nest, all that good stuff. A tiny beehive of activity, one’s first experiences of which will be confusion and swiftly self-sunken ships, but which soon enough will blossom into wordless collaboration.
An old friend of mine spent her gap year sailing, and she spoke often and intoxicatingly of her desire to return to it, to a time in which life seemed to make sense, defined as it was by the rules of looking after a ship, and of switching from frenzied activity to endless downtime, of the promise of new destinations and the bittersweet tang of friends left behind. I have always wanted to be the kind of person who could and would do something like that, but I know that I am too much of a complainer, too much of a creature of home, and I would suffer.
Sea of Thieves, clearly, cannot recreate the cold and the loneliness and hard manual labour, but like my beloved American Truck Simulator before it, it emulates the fantasy rather than the reality. It indulges me in an impossible dream of a humdrum day made painless. Dropping anchor and adjusting sails is easy, one-button stuff – it takes time, yes, and Sea of Thieves is remarkably unforthcoming in terms of shortcuts to anything, but the rules are simple.
The rules are also very poorly explained, which I do think is a failing, but on the other hand there is a sense of satisfication from teasing it all out yourself. Things like: turn the lanterns off when you’re sailing at night, or you’ll be spotted. Things like: ‘park’ your boat side-on to an island so you can fire yourself to shore from a cannon. Things like: use the wind. Yes, it’s quite true that there are a small handful of things to ‘do’ in Sea of Thives, but it’s also the case that, due to how much you learn by playing it, your twentieth hour with it is very different to your first hour with it. Competency makes it a different game. For a while, anyway.
Better yet, it folds people into it. People who will laugh and cheer, or bungle a sail adjustment or fire themselves into the sea out of a cannon, or drink so much grog that they throw up, at which point they grab their bucket, vomit into it and then throw that vomit over their friend. People who stab Captain Dave Pelvic Bone in the pelvic bone just as he’s about to take your head off, or people who will wordlessly reach for their own accordions and start playing along with me when I take out my accordion.
People who will see me returning to shore with bounty in my hand and try to chase me down, only to end up being munched by a shark as they swim after me. People who sail right by my crew’s ship, offering one solemn wave as they do. People who unleash three cannons at us on sight. People who left their hold full of booty unguarded while they ran to an island’s interior, allowing us to make off with the lot unnoticed.
Not the people who camp at ports and kill every newcomer. Not the people who screech obscenities or try to kick you from their group if you try to do anything other than gank other players. Not the people who whinge endlessly in chat about how insulted they are by this $60 game. Yes, you have just cause, but jeez, why ruin it for those who are getting something out of it? But the rough must always come with the smooth. Sea of Thieves is a backdrop for adventure, presented with an overly-nonchalant shrug, and as such that means people are as free to indulge their worst instincts as they are their best.
This, for me, is almost a longer term problem than a mere lack of ‘content’ – how, if the playerbase grows and remains (though the opposite is probably more likely), can Sea of Thieves reconcile those players having a lovely time noodling about with those players who get off on making life hell for everyone else? The answer, clearly, is “c’mon, it’s pirates!”, but that doesn’t answer the looming question of what kind of game Sea of Thieves needs to be in order to stay alive.
And so to content: the crews of friends who keep to themselves need something else to do once mastering sail and wheel becomes routine, with no new jokes to be made and once every sea shanty has been heard a hundred times. The PVP fiends need an ultimate purpose to their relentless ganking, something beyond the occasional chance of finding a chest or valuable skull in the hold of a raided ship. The solo players, on their brutal, lonely odysseys, likely need some sense of narrative, as opposed to merely the pursuit of a differently-coloured telescope. We all of us need a world with more in it than Sea of Thieves has.
This is a shell of game. It is an uncommonly beautiful shell which allows, and in fact silently encourages, wonderful experiences with friends or friends you haven’t met yet, but its missions, its rewards and its lifeless islands are such that there is simply no way that can last more than a little while.
Rare unquestionably need to apply new meat to these beautiful bones. I’ve enjoyed the ambience of Sea of Thieves so much that I want it to be something that stays in my life for a long time to come, but, in its current state, I know that is impossible. There is a platform for wonderful things here, but if Rare don’t build new things atop it PDQ, it will soon crumble forever.
Sea Of Thieves is out now for Windows 10 via the Microsoft store for $60.