Sea of Thieves is the first game from legendary British gaming developer Rare in three years, and the first in even longer to be so front and centre relevant in Xbox's lineup.
As a first-person cooperative multiplayer open world game, it is in part a return to Rare’s heartland. Early on in the game you are presented with a choice of having your own four player galleon or a sloop designed for just one person. I was quite surprised to have either vessel offered so freely and not have it as a deeper experience to get a ship and kit it out to start. While in theory the second option of a solo ship accommodates a full and valid single player experience for the player without a group, that is not what the game is designed for and a player on their own will fall short of being able to fully experience it. In a way this is a major failing of Sea of Thieves as it is often better to make a complete gameplay experience multiplayer only if that is the intended experience. Adding a token single player option, if at best only for inclusivity or at worst an executive decision to sell more copies of the game, is always a tricky concept. I was able to progress through the basic entry level quests quite easily however, working on my own. It is a bit of a struggle after that, and then it becomes a very watered down version of what can be achieved in a larger group. That said, the game does fully encourage groups to form up by allowing a lot of communication in the game world. The idea is that you are not intended to remain playing alone, even if you can start that way.
Once in a partial or full crew, each role on the ship has to be operated independently. Given that, the beginning of Sea of Thieves is a bit jarring as it does not exactly hold your hand in terms of teaching you what your gear does or how you work the ship. There is a gloriously old school moment where you walk around pushing everything and seeing what it does. This reminded me a lot of games of old where you literally had no clue for much of the first hour. Maybe it is intended that new players will be helped by more veteran players. In practice this requires twenty minutes of trial and error and skipping through menus but once you have it down it is fairly innovative and makes sense. The basic controls are all very accessible to you on deck. You control the speed of your ship using the sail controls that are connected to a rope line near the rudder controls. There is a map screen where you can figure out your course and use your compass to manually follow it. Often this means that one of the crew has to steer the ship, another to operate the cannons, and another to control the speed of the ship. For so long these tasks have been connected by single player gameplay so combat really is a test of communication and teamwork.
On foot, in a settlement or on an island, you have a series of weapons to be able to engage in combat. At the start this is fairly basic: a cutlass, a power cap rifle or a flintlock pistol. The ranged weapons effectively have infinite ammo as you can refill while back onboard your ship. On islands however you will have to judge carefully how to take down enemies. There is also the added element of player versus player combat that is relatively unannounced. I had a player attack me just after completing the first quest to retrieve one of the game’s loot chests. Luckily he was low level like me and I was able to fend it off with my loot intact. Finding treasure is key to upgrading and unlocking new items and progressing through quests in what is very like a role playing game set in a multiplayer open world environment. The quests all belong to different companies and each has its own character and flavour. You may be fighting sea monsters or undead pirate captains for one company or finding lost treasure for the next. The world is shared among players on a server, so random encounters are always possible. Legendary battles and creatures are also available to all players.
The pirate gameplay elements of Sea of Thieves are innovative in that they are designed for full cooperative multiplayer. While adjusting sails are old hat, having one teammate do that while another has to captain the ship is just so much fun. Fun really is the positive keyword for this game if longevity is the negative one. The simple and the mundane become hilarious when someone falls overboard. The experience you have is very much connected to those you experience it with. The overriding feeling you have after playing Sea of Thieves is that it was really a missed opportunity to make a frontline multiplayer pirate game and not a filtered and distilled pirate themed gimmick.
Sea of Thieves is an interesting take on the both the pirate and the cooperative game concepts. Since Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, this genre has become more and more popular. Whether Sea of Thieves offers enough to make it a fully fledged open world multiplayer game and more than a weekend jolly among friends or a fun stream on Twitch is another question. I tend to believe it is the second.