PIRATES AND STUFF! Here’s why Sea of Thieves is shaping up to be one of the most memorable, compelling games of the year

We’ve already written several words about Sea of Thieves, Rare’s upcoming game of boats and peglegs and cannonballs and, presumably, pirates or something. But several words isn’t nearly enough words to give this game its due. IT’S SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH. Sea of Thieves is such a lovely, playful thing that I feel obligated to add my own words and thoughts and excite-vomit to the bubbling puddle of words and thoughts and excite-vomit we’ve already dedicated to the game.

In case I’ve not already made it blatantly clear, my brain is currently hopelessly fixated on Sea of Thieves. To help you understand why, let me tell you a story.

This past weekend, Rare hosted another scale test for the game. There are many complicated, technical reasons (yawn) why a studio creating a shared-world experience (wherein hundreds of thousands of potential players could flood the servers at any given moment) would do a scale test. Testing the stability of this awkward, fumbling thing you’ve made is a crucial stage in the development of a game like this, so I guess I COULD pretend I’m super-proud of myself for having helped them out with it or whatever.

Let’s not kid ourselves though: no player does this sort of thing with the express goal of “helping the developers”, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying – to you, and tragically, to themselves. That’d be like stealing your mom’s car, going for a joyride, crashing it into a creche full of defenseless children (or “miniature assholes”, if you want a more accurate description), and then explaining that “you only did it because you saw her petrol light was on and just wanted help out”.

Yeah, no.

In reality, whenever anyone sees things like “scale test”, what they really see is “I GET TO PLAY THIS THING AND THEN UNIRONICALLY BITCH AND MOAN ABOUT HOW BROKEN AND UNFINISHED IT IS AFTERWARDS BECAUSE I’M RIGHTEOUSLY SELF-RIGHTEOUS LIKE THAT”. Also, we all know you WANTED to destroy that creche, Janine. You’re not fooling anyone.

So I pre-ordered the PC version of the game, even though I’m usually very much against pre-ordering anything. I crawled balls-down through the muddy pit filled with leaking barrels of nuclear waste and shards of broken glass that is the Microsoft Store. I actively chose to punish myself in this way, and I justified it all by constantly reminding myself how much I love the Monkey Island franchise, and how that has cartoonish pirates in it too. I semi-patiently waited for the download to complete, shamelessly running around the coffee table in my undies, shouting things like “I’m Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate”.

Eventually, I was out on the open seas, one-hand-and-a-hook on my sloop’s steering wheel, in awe of just how outrageously pretty and atmospheric Rare’s game is. Naturally, at some point my girlfriend wanted in on this thing that had me so thoroughly enthralled. And so she pre-ordered Sea of Thieves too.

Before I continue, let me explain a few things about how Sea of Thieves works. When you first start playing, you’re given the option of captaining two different ship types: a sloop, or a galleon. Sloops are small, nimble things that can be comfortably crewed by one or two players, whereas galleons are big, bulky ships that must be crewed by three or four humans. Every aspect of ship management is handled by the players in your crew (or by you alone, if you’re soloing it). Raising, lowering and angling the sails to take advantage of the ever-changing winds, weighing and raising anchor, loading and firing the cannons, keeping watch from the crow’s nest – it’s all got to be maintained by you (and your crew of rowdy miscreants).

The game’s system of progression will supposedly always be limited to purely cosmetic stuff. Any currency you earn can be used to buy equipment that looks fancier, but functionally isn’t any better than what you get when you’re first starting out. The thinking is that over time, you’ll learn to become a better pirate and that’s what’ll give you an edge over anyone who tries to ruin your happy pirate times. You’ll never need to worry that some bilge rat will show up with vastly superior, high-level kit, jolly roger your ship in a single shot, and steal your hard-earned booty without so much as a yo-ho-ho. In other words, you’ll always have a fighting chance, no matter how small – even if you’re solo-captaining a sloop and facing off against a galleon with a full crew.

Earning the currency that buys you these cosmetic upgrades to the various thingies in your repertoire (which range from weapons like pistols and cutlasses, to items like buckets and compasses) is primarily done by completing Voyages – quests handed out by one of the game’s numerous factions, or Companies. The scale test seemed to only have one of these Companies on parade: the Gold Hoarders. Their Voyages focus on finding buried treasure. They’ll give you maps of various islands, each one complete with an X to mark the spot. You and your crew must use the map on your ship to identify these islands, sail to them, and uncover the treasures hidden within. Return said treasures to the Gold Hoarders, and they’ll reward you with some cash. You’ll also earn reputation with them, which will eventually lead to them entrusting you with more valuable Voyages.

Okay, back to the story. My girlfriend (we’ll call her GertrudeVonCrashalot69, or just “Gertrude” I guess) and I stacked up on Voyages, and then spent some time bickering about who would be doing what, where, and also how. Eventually we pointed our plucky sloop towards an island that on the map looked like a pair of enormous, lopsided boobs with The Grossest Nipples, but in reality was just two massive spires of rock, reaching for the sky above the waves, a rickety bridge connecting the two. Once we arrived, we dove into the murky waters, and immediately discovered the skeleton of some gargantuan, long-dead sea creature, the wreckage of some poor sod’s ship still wedged between the bones. Obviously, we dicked around there for a bit, before eventually making our way onto the rocky island.

Gertrude’s ADHD immediately kicked in, and she ran off in a thousand different directions all at once, all the while complaining about how she couldn’t see a damn thing in the dark. I tried to explain that, yes, generally The Night Times are quite dark. Apparently she was blissfully unaware that somewhere in her pirate-pockets was a perfectly useful lantern. And no, I didn’t tell her it was there, because entertainment. Thankfully, that didn’t stop her from discovering barrels packed with cannonballs, wooden planks and other arbitrary crap, and grabbing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Meanwhile, I searched for the spot where the treasure was buried. Along the way, I spotted a Captain’s Chest – an ornate, beautiful thing covered in gems and other fancy shit, just sitting out in the open. Once we’d found the buried chest, we grabbed ’em both and clumsily hauled them down the rocky steps, across a short, watery chasm, and into our sloop’s small hold. We headed back to the island in search of more Fancy Things. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea.

As we climbed the rocks, Gertrude pointed out that she could see a ship in the distance. My heart sank, because people are bastards. I whipped out my spyglass, but it turned out what Gertrude had seen was just the towers guarding some kind of fort, the silhouettes of which can be easily mistaken for ships full of bastard people. I breathed a sigh of relief, but my paranoia was now in full swing, so I kept scanning the horizon while we conducted our fruitless search for… well, anything at all.

At some point, I saw it: lights piercing the darkness, and the unmistakable sails of a galleon in the distance. I charged to the other side of the island, to see if our ship could’ve been spotted by them. It seemed unlikely they’d have seen it, because our sloop was safely obscured by the rocks. So we kept searching. Not long after, while Gertrude rummaged through a few more barrels, the paranoia kicked in again and I scanned the horizon. When I saw the ship, my heart sank. It was way bigger now, which is generally what happens when far-away things suddenly move closer. I could also see four blurry splotches scurrying around its deck. This… was gonna be bad.

Gertrude excitedly shouted something about another chest on the tip of a rock jutting out of the ocean, just beyond the shoreline. “Gertrude. GERTRUDE. We have to leave. Like, now.” I could practically taste the panic on my lips as I explained the situation. She asked if there was time to grab the chest on the rock. I showed her where the ship was. That was all the answer she needed, and with zero hesitation, she instinctively leapt off the side of the spire and into the ocean. Except she didn’t, and instead landed with a squidgy thud on the rocky shore below, probably shattering every bone in her body in the process. She also happened to be on the opposite side of the island to where our sloop was anchored. We may have had words before I launched myself off the other side, aiming for the water, but being rewarded with nothing but hard, unyielding rock for my efforts. We’re Real Pirates though, so we dusted off our shattered bones and painfully shambled in the direction of our tiny ship.

I reached the sloop’s ladder first, knowing full well that Gertrude still had some way to go. “I’M RAISING THE ANCHOR,” I shouted to her as though I needed her to hear me from the moon, even though she was sitting directly across from me, at a shockingly small table. “I’M GOING AS FAST AS I CAN,” she yelled back, practically panting as hard outside the game as she was within. The first volley of cannon fire hit the aft section. Debris flew everywhere. Gertrude reached the ladder as I dropped the sails, and she sprinted to take the wheel. “DANE, WE’RE LEAKING.” But there was no time to deal with that. They were right alongside us. I charged to the nearest cannon, and started loading it. There was a flash of smoke from the enemy deck, my screen flashed red, and I keeled over, dead.

“I THINK WE’RE SINKING.” Gertrude’s words meant almost nothing, because I was trapped on the Ferry of the Damned, waiting for its doors to open so I could be resurrected. “THEY’RE STILL CHASING ME.” By the time I reappeared on the ship, things… well, things weren’t great. The hold was almost overflowing with ocean-juice, and my bucket suddenly seemed impossibly small. “DANE, I THINK WE’RE SCREWED.”

The thing is, if our ship had been empty, this would’ve all been fine. Eating a faceful of cannonball and being sunk when you’ve got an empty hold ain’t no thang. Except our hold was currently carrying the haul from two successful Voyages. That’s four chests of loot if anyone’s counting – one of which was that snazzy Captain’s Chest, complete with shiny red gem above its keyhole. In other words, we were bringing Sexy back, and Sexy would reward us handsomely for our toils. So it was ON. Those bitches wouldn’t be having any of this.

“I’M TRYING TO SHAKE THEM, BUT LOOK OUT THE WINDOW.” Gertrude was right: their ship had crashed sidelong into ours. The scurvy dogs must’ve taken damage of their own thanks to this, because their cannons were silent, and I could see them scurrying in and out of their hold. I gritted my teeth, and grabbed my embarrassingly inadequate bucket. The next few moments were a frantic haze of me running back and forth between the hold and the aft windows with buckets of too-little water, stopping every so often to use planks to patch up the fountain-holes spraying sea-jizz all over our troubled vessel. “WAIT… I THINK WE’RE FINE!”

Gertrude’s words were cut short when a cannonball hit her square in the back, and she imploded in a spray of colourful, human-flavoured confetti – as though someone had just angrily squeezed a bag of Froot Loops sprinkled with micro-people. It’d take some time for her to respawn. The thing is, just before Gertrude’s tragic demise, she’d locked the sloop’s wheel hard to the right – which meant we were now travelling in a perfectly useless circle. I was too busy trying to expel the ocean from our wooden water-horse to rectify this bizarre battle tactic of ours, and so all we could do was wait. And, like, hope I guess. Bear in mind that at this point, I can’t see ANY of what’s happening above deck, and Gertrude and I are helplessly screaming at each other the entire time in between fits of hysterical, uncontrollable laughter.

When Gertrude reappeared, it took a while for us to realise that the cannons had stopped completely. She charged topside, and discovered that the galleon was desperately unable to find a way to capitalise on our strange death-spiral. They couldn’t line up any shots as we carved our Circle of Stupid through the waves, so we’d… kind of accidentally saved ourselves. Gertrude waited for the right moment, then yanked the wheel hard to the left and sent us on a cunning course to freedom. The galleon tried to follow, but it was too late. We’d escaped them, and they knew it. IT WAS ALL PART OF THE PLAN, OBVIOUSLY.

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t head straight to the nearest port to offload our delicious cargo. Instead, we dropped anchor and gave our heroic Super Sloop a well-deserved break. Back in the real world, Dane and The ‘Trude celebrated. We watched the galleon from afar as it combed the Boobies Island we’d just come from, waited until we knew they were gone, and then returned to that curious rock to grab the chest nestled at its tip.

Sea of Thieves is the kind of game that’s guaranteed to be full of tales like the above. Like this one time Gertrude and I found ourselves in a three-way battle with another sloop and a galleon, which ended with me getting distracted and crashing into the world’s most resilient pier, following which Gertrude dove into the ocean, swam underneath the anchored galleon, snuck her way onto their decks, and went full Stabby McStabberson on two players with her cutlass, because they were too busy trying to murder me with cannons to notice she was there. Not all of these tales will end in comedic triumph, obviously. I imagine Gertrude and I will shed many tears when luck finally leaves us and tragedy strikes our future Sea of Thieves adventures. But that’s not the point. The point is, I want more of it. I was genuinely upset when the scale test finally closed its doors. We played for maybe six hours in total during the test, and the ridiculous thing you read above is just ONE of the stories the game gave us in return.

Of course, I should mention that my excitement is tempered by a few concerns. I worry that the cosmetic progression system will eventually dry up. I don’t know how true a representation the scale test is of how much variety there’ll be in the full release’s content, but I fear Sea of Thieves may launch a bit too shallow on meaningful stuff to do, that there won’t be enough goals to chase, that it’ll ultimately be not much more than a beautiful world with a very low glass ceiling, that the game will become trapped in a vicious cycle wherein there aren’t enough active players to justify Rare’s continued support of it – which would cause the game to haemorrhage even more players, and so the snake would continue to eat itself until they announce they’re shutting the whole thing down.

Then there are the players themselves who, as Henry pointed out, are the usual assortment of rancid piss-barrels that the world continually insists on calling “people”. I’ve no doubt there’ll be racist dickbags, sexist dickbags, garden-variety dickbags, and everything in between. You know who you are. Then again, I’m also fairly certain that if you’re brave enough to set sail with a crew of strangers, maybe you’ll get lucky and find a group of non-dickbags, and true friendships will be forged on the Sea of Thieves. So that’s nice, right? Still, even dickbags need other dickbags to invite to their dickbag circle-jerk soirées, so maybe Sea of Thieves, like so many other unwitting video games, will become Dickbag Tinder.

Dickbags aside, I want more of Sea of Thieves. So much more. It’s not really designed for solo play, but even cruising the seas alone, exploring the small islands and admiring the sights and sounds of this vibrant world is strangely satisfying. I actually find it kind of calming, especially since it’s just so damn pretty to look at. The aesthetic is utterly breathtaking, and the water deserves special mention, because in my mind that alone could sell the entire experience. As excited as I am about what Sea of Thieves is, I’m even more excited about what it could be – because the immense potential of this thing is plain for all to see. Rare could turn this into a world of underwater adventures, player-run forts, vicious sea monsters, daring pirate raids, and endless adventures with friends.

Sea of Thieves is out on 20 March, on Windows 10 and Xbox One. Even if it all goes to the dogs, even if its potential is never fully realised, even if this thing comes out the other end a gleaming turd of missed opportunities, I’ll be happy if all I got out of it was a few hours sailing these beautiful, wonderfully cartoonish seas, and a handful of hilarious memories – including that one time I was Guybrush Threepwood in my undies.

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