On paper, Sea of Thieves sounds like a dream come true. Ever since I sailed the open ocean of Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of crewing a sailing vessel, flying across an open ocean, exploring islands, discovering treasure, and engaging in swashbuckling combat. Many gamers can relate to this desire, seeing how titles like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag have captured this feeling of adventure, while smaller releases like Blackwake and Holdfast: Nations at War have sought to simulate the experience of Age of Sail naval combat mechanics. When Sea of Thieves, a first party game published by Microsoft and developed by Rare, of Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark fame was announced as a cartoon, open world multiplayer driven cooperative naval pirating experience, it immediately got my attention. I had the chance to participate in the closed beta over the weekend, and managed to experience a taste of what this game has to offer.
After spawning on small island outpost and accepting a quest to retrieve buried treasure, a friend of mine and I boarded a small vessel designed for two. He was playing on an Xbox One, while I was playing on my PC. The Windows 10 store on PC was a nightmare to interface with as usual but after wrestling with the system, we managed to play cross platform without any hitches during the actual gameplay. As expected, treasure maps are vague interpretations of island formations and landscape features, and locations must be deduced from the main navigational map located in the ship’s cabin. Using the navigational map, we found an island that looked similar to the one on our treasure map, charted out its location, and set off on our journey.
As we started set out on our voyage, the true grandeur and majesty of the ocean opened up before us, brilliant turquoise blue waves undulating and crashing against the hull, our sails opened fully and picking up the breeze, the ship fighting and pitching defiantly against the power of the ocean’s massive swells. What Sea of Thieves does better than any other game is selling the experience of truly “sailing” in an open ocean. The ocean is rarely a placid place, and just traveling from place to place is an enjoyable, beautiful experience. With nothing but the wind in the sails and the sound of crashing waves, I was constantly stunned by how jaw dropping and gorgeous the ocean looked in motion, and nothing else in gaming can really quite compare.
The sailing mechanics were easy to understand and simple to execute. There are options for dropping anchor, unfurling sail length, or changing the angle of the sail to capitalize on the wind’s direction. I believe there is a trend for newer games to try and shift towards “emergent gameplay” compared to scripted sequences, as seen by the popularity of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Minecraft. Player driven stories have the capacity to be more memorable than written and directed sequences, since they are truly special to the player. A perfect example of this was when we first came across another player ship in the midst of a torrential storm. Barely visible through the crashing rain, momentarily illuminated by the brilliance of occasional lightning strikes, it was an exciting moment to come across another crew of players in the middle of the ocean.
We chased them for a while through the rainy haze. Eventually, they must’ve spotted us tailing them, since the ship made a wide turn, and started facing us head on, hitting us with heavy cannon fire. The previously leisurely pace of the game was gone, as we frantically tried to man the wheel, fire and reload the cannons, and repair the ship’s leaks as the enemy battered us incessantly. It was an unfair fight, as their ship was much larger and crewed by four sailors, versus our two. With our two pitiful cannons against their eight we had no choice but to make a last minute desperate ramming attempt, after which our ship promptly sank, leaking from dozens of cannonball wounds. It was not an elegant or valiant defeat, but one that seemed appropriate considering our ineptitude and inexperience with the game.
Respawning alongside a brand new vessel, and after a period of peaceful sailing, my partner spotted the island we were initially searching for from the crow’s nest. Dropping anchor as close to the shore shore as we dared, we jumped off the vessel and awkwardly swam to a secluded beach. Following the map and the notable terrain features, we managed to locate the treasure, but some skeletons did not appreciate our intrusion. Using our pistols and swords, we managed to defeat the skeletons in disappointingly boring and simplistic on foot combat. There are no other enemies in the beta except for sharks patrolling the open ocean, but I’m hoping that the actual full game has much, much more to offer, since I can’t imagine just fighting these garbage enemies for the entire length of my island exploration adventures. Even if there were other enemies, the fact is that the hand to hand combat system is basic to the risk of becoming condescending, as it requires no effort or brain power at all to complete. This is when Sea of Thieves’ shortcomings began to show, and my hype began to wane.
For every enjoyable moment, there are possible pitfalls that may still end up damning Sea of Thieves into obscurity. The lack of enemy variety is one, but another concern is the lack of content. The nightmare scenario I envision is a game packed full of boring collectathon quests that don’t have any depth to them other than the map navigation mechanics, interspersed with brief moments of player PvP. I hope that this isn’t all the game has to offer, since as fun as it is for the first 10, or maybe even 20 voyages out onto these islands, it’s going to inevitably become boring. I’ve read and listened to developer interviews, and there is a clear intent to provide additional content, but it still remains to be seen what actually makes it into the full game at launch. Not to mention as of right now, the game world seems noticeably empty. This is such a beautiful landscape that should be full of goofy characters and interesting locales, but there is nothing on these islands except for a couple NPCs or a few skeletons littered about, which gives everything a barren, desolate feeling, creating unfavorable flashbacks to No Man’s Sky.
With the caveat that this is a “closed beta”, everything is subject to change, but how much can they possibly change before release date is an iffy proposition. The community has fanatically data-mined the Beta for all of the possible inclusions in the game, and these have offered tantalizing glimpses at the possibilities out there, but unfortunately it is still too early to tell if this is truly the dream pirate sailing adventure game I need.
However, by the time we explored the island and loaded the booty back onto our ship, the sun had nearly gone down, so we stood on the island’s idyllic beach and watched a perfect sunset, casting brilliant orange and gold rays across the environment, and shimmering against the ocean’s waves. It was a picture perfect scene in a wide expansive world, and in the end, despite my worries, I am tentatively optimistic for Sea of Thieves’ release, slated for March 20th of this year.