I’ve spent hours pretending to be a pirate, eating bananas in a peculiar fashion, smiling until I cried, and getting drunk to the point of dizziness — all with the help of an Xbox controller. British video game developer Rare, creator of classics like Battletoads, GoldenEye 007, and Banjo-Kazooie, has moved in a new direction with the upcoming pirate game Sea of Thieves. The studio has been stuck making Kinect games for Microsoft’s discontinued Xbox accessory in recent years, and Sea of Thieves is an impressive return to form. It’s been teased for years, and it sets sail next month as Microsoft’s big new Xbox One and PC exclusive where console players can battle PC gamers for buried treasure.
Sea of Thieves is a refreshingly ambitious game, aiming to tempt players into a big, open world multiplayer environment where you can get attacked by rival pirate ships, fired upon by skeletons from islands you’re passing by, or be snatched from your crow’s nest by giant sea monsters. It’s an experience I’ve enjoyed playing both during the beta and a visit to Rare, all while blasting rival pirate ships with cannon balls and digging up secret treasure chests from islands. It’s a game that’s had me smiling almost as much as playing Super Mario Odyssey.
Despite its impending release, Sea of Thieves still feels like a work in progress, a constantly evolving and living world. It’s the kind of online game that will clearly change over time, and it could be a surprise hit this year after months of careful game tweaks in response to community feedback. Microsoft and Rare now need to harness that early fun to steer Sea of Thieves in the right direction so it’s lively for years to come.
When you first set sail in Sea of Thieves, it’s a relatively simple experience. There’s no storyline, no dedicated single player experience, and not even an on-screen HUD to distract you from your surroundings. You’re thrown into a pub on a safe harbor island with your fellow teammates, where you can get drunk (a process that will literally make you feel physically and virtually dizzy) or set sail aboard your ship. Your ship will differ in size depending on how many other players you’re playing with. If you picked the three- or four-player experience, then you’ll get a larger pirate ship, or you can play alone or with a friend on a smaller ship. But the game is best enjoyed aboard the larger four-player ship.
Sea of Thieves is designed around friendly teamwork and communication, so players can go on joint adventures together as a team. You’ll need to raise the anchor, set the angle of the sails, and lower them to gather speed. Someone will also have to steer you safely around random rocks, away from enemy pirate ships, and toward the correct island to find hidden treasure chests. There’s no on-screen map in Sea of Thieves in the traditional sense, as it’s stored on a table on board your ship. This means the person sailing the ship can’t see the map, and will need directions from someone below deck. This world map will also help your team complete voyages (the in-game term for quests), and these provide you with rewards to progress and level-up.
Quests include everything from finding treasure chests or skulls on islands to collecting resources or killing an army of skeletons. From what I played, the quests felt varied; in particular, the ones with treasure chests have challenging riddles to solve and “x marks the spot” maps to figure out before you can get loot. Each player has a lantern, compass, and shovel that will come in handy during the adventure quests. A knife and pistol will also be essential for the combat tasks, but ammo is limited so you’ll need to find some on an island or reload from your ship. Likewise, you’ll use bananas to replenish health, and you can only carry five of these at a time.
You don’t need to select quests to earn loot, though. You could stumble across a shipwreck and dive into the ocean to find supplies for your ship or treasure chests that can be exchanged for gold coins and reputation at one of the non-playable characters at dedicated outpost islands. There are also messages hidden in bottles, or goblets in the ocean you can collect. You could even board an enemy pirate ship, pretend to be friendly, and then steal their treasure. It’s this mix of gameplay that ensures Sea of Thieves feels different every time you play.
Voice chat is an essential part of the experience; while you can communicate via text, chatting with audio is easier and quicker. You can even hear rival pirates by default. It’s based on proximity and can be a little confusing at first, but when you come across enemy pirates it’s a fun way of teaming up with each other or battling it out to sink each other’s ships. One of the best moments I’ve had with this shared voice experience was when a Rare developer (on a rival team) jumped aboard my ship secretly and then shouted “surprise” as he knifed me off my ship. While I was shocked and swimming along in the ocean, he was busy laughing at me telling me to “enjoy the water” before I managed to return to my ship and no-scope him in the face with the game’s musket. It was a hilarious moment made even more amusing because we could both speak to each other.
Running into rival pirate ships is a somewhat rare occurrence, but there’s always the fear they’re out at sea nearby. And the fact that they’ll also be filled with real human players rather than computer-generated enemies makes the battles all the more intense when they do occur. This enemy fear ramps up even further at night when the skies turn dark or a storm is overhead. It’s essential to turn off all lanterns on your ship so you can’t be spotted in the dark, and keep an eye out for rival ships when the seas are choppy. If you do find friendly pirates, then you can team up and take on hoards of skeleton armies in public events that will provide a lot of loot. Whether you share the rewards with your rivals is entirely up to you, but your teammates will always share your rewards.
Outside of these pirates battles things can get a little… strange. Some quests will direct you to collect chickens, snakes, pigs, or gunpowder kegs. What they won’t tell you is you’ll need to charm the snakes with musical instruments or they’ll poison you, or that you’ll need to feed the pigs bananas during your voyages to keep them alive. Gunpowder kegs are always dangerous on board a ship, not least because a teammate could blow you up for fun. Rivals can also fire at your kegs, or even float them toward your ship and fire at them from a distance. You’ll also have to worry about shooting sharks if you jump overboard and venture out into the ocean.
There are also plenty of things you can do in the game that have nothing to do with progressing — they’re just fun ways to interact with other players. You can play musical instruments together, fire each other out of cannons, drink to the point where you’re drunk, dizzy, and barf (you can collect the barf in a bucket and throw it at teammates), or lock someone in the brig below deck. The brig is also a great way to deal with annoying teammates you might have been matched with, or those who go AFK. Even the islands are full of little Easter eggs, including Polygon founding editor Griffin McElroy’s skeleton after eating a banana in a really odd way.
From a visual standpoint, Sea of Thieves is beautifully designed. The sea is extremely realistic, and the first time I played through a storm I actually felt a little seasick for a few moments. After playing for a few hours during the beta, I left my PC and felt like I’d actually been out to sea. It was an odd sensation. Sea of Thieves also tries to stay at least somewhat true to how pirates lived with physical maps, old guns with poor accuracy, and the need to navigate constantly with a compass. A lot of attention has been paid to the cosmetic details.
It’s also one of the best examples of Xbox Play Anywhere, the ability to buy an Xbox game and play it on a Windows 10 PC free of charge. Sea of Thieves will sync across the two, and you can even play your Xbox friends from a PC and vice versa. It’s something I hope will come to more games in the future, or even the ability to cross-play across Xbox One and PlayStation 4. (Come on, Sony.)
A big question around Sea of Thieves is what incentives will keep players coming back to the game. Rare is betting on customization / progression, and that players will want to become pirate legends, the highest point in the reputation scale. Once rep has increased to a certain point, players will be able to discover a secret hideout area with a custom ship and some hints from the game’s developers about what’s to come in the future. “The dream here is that a couple of weeks after launch, the first person to get to the hideout becomes a celebrity in the Sea of Thieves community,” explains Mike Chapman, lead designer at Rare.
These pirate legends won’t get better guns or faster ships, but you’ll be able to spot them instantly in the ocean. Other players will probably want to team up with them for better rewards or attack them to experience the thrill of taking down a famous (virtual) pirate. Through all this reputation building you’ll also be able to customize pirates with hooks, peg legs, beards, hairstyles, clothing, equipment, and weapons. Even the quests will become richer, and players at a lower level will be able to reap the rewards by playing with more experienced pirates. This means you don’t have to wait for friends to catch up, and no single pirate has a more powerful set of weapons than anyone else.
Whether this is successful will depend on whether Rare can adapt the game to how players ultimately end up playing Sea of Thieves. It’s hard not to compare this to Bungie’s Destiny, which I’ve clocked far too many hours in. It’s different in many ways, obviously, but both games are focused on open-world multiplayer gaming along with public events, quests, reputation, and customization. Bungie really struggled to capitalize on the social elements of Destiny and listen to player feedback, and now Destiny 2 is facing lots of criticism from players over its reputation system and use of in-game currency to tempt gamers to spend real money. The in-game economy of Star Wars Battlefront II and loot crates in general have also been highly controversial recently.
“We also want to add the ability for players to spend money optionally,” says Joe Neate, the executive producer of Sea of Thieves. This option will be added a few months after launch, with the game’s first major free update. Rare plans to offer items that are optional and don’t influence gameplay; for instance, players will be able to buy a pet monkey that will make silly noises on board a ship that other players can interact with. “You’re not going to be buying anything that affects power, or progression and you’re going to know what you’re getting as well so no loot crates,” explains Neate.
I’m not sure if this will be enough to keep players coming back to Sea of Thieves on their own. Rare has done a great job at the fundamentals of pirate battle, exploration, and the truly quirky aspects of Sea of Thieves. It’s a game that invites you to go adventuring with teammates, and you’ll discover more about the ships and lore of the world as you play. Once that initial exploration wears off and pirate legends are aplenty is when we’ll start to see if Sea of Thieves is an amusing flash in the pan or a true hit. I personally want to see fishing on board ships, the ability to link up with teams of pirates and rule the oceans, and massive raid-like activities for pirate battles. Rare now has a special opportunity with Sea of Thieves to harness player feedback and keep this virtual world growing. There’s a good chance that six months after launch the game will look very different from what I’ve played.
“We’ve built Sea of Thieves as a service that we can continue to evolve and add to,” explains Rare studio head Craig Duncan. “We want to make Sea of Thieves the friendliest, most successful, fun multiplayer game ever made.” If Microsoft and Rare manage to pull off this ambitious goal, it will be exactly what the Xbox One needs: an exclusive, ongoing game that competes with the biggest titles in the medium.
Sea of Thieves will be available on Xbox One and Windows 10 on March 20th.