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You will either love Sea of Thieves and have loads of fun with it or you’ll find it dull and repetitive and everyone you run into in it will be an unhelpful prick. Your opinion may change over several months. Days even. It may happen in the space of an hour.
The letter that exec producer Joe Neate sent out with the game said, ‘We set out with a vision to make a multiplayer game that broke down barriers between players, that encouraged players to be co-operative, to bond together, and to embrace the positivity of social interaction,’ which is a very nice but very optimistic sentiment on Rare’s part. In practise Sea of Thieves works exactly like any other PvP game with teams: people on your team will generally work well together either because you already know one another or because you have to get shit done, but literally anyone else is fair game and We Will Destroy Your Tiny Boat Because It’s Slightly In Our Way And We Can. Diplomacy in Sea of Thieves is conducted via the explodey end of a cannon, for the most part. Either that or frantically playing your accordion in as unthreatening a way possible.
There are a lot of lovely Rare-esque touches in Sea of Thieves. You can play your accordion or hurdy gurdy with others and the song layers up differently depending how many of either instrument there are. The songs sound all clangy if you’re underwater or off-key when drunk (you can get drunk and throw up). Treasure map clues and achievement descriptions are all in authentically piratey rhyming couplets, pigs make amazing pig squealing noises and skeletons eat bananas to recover health, just like you do. The wonderful wrenching noise the ship makes when you drop anchor and are moving too fast is like a violin being played with a bread knife. The world design is beautifully colourful, with bright green trees and grass on white sandy beaches, and the sky ranging from a stormy blue and purple bruise to clear blue sunshine to a pink and orange sunset not unlike a giant Fruit Salad chewy sweet looking upon the water with beneficence.
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And what water! It’s no exaggeration to say that the sea (thieves, of) is the best you’ll have seen in a game yet. It grows turbulent and heaves you up and down quite alarmingly, it rolls and fills the hold if you turn side on to the swell at the wrong time in a storm, it sparkles in the sunshine and flicks spray playfully at the prow. There are moments of exhilaration when your ship is at speed and the crew is all bent to their different tasks: one at the helm, one up the crow’s nest watching for other sails or rocks in your path, another checking the map, another trimming the sails to catch the wind full.
The fun in Sea of Thieves are the things that happen by accident. Maybe you got to an island and spent a full in game day and night trying to figure out the clue to the treasure, before another ship sailed in and stole it all. Maybe you attacked a fort and one crew member had to spend ages hiding with the key to the treasure room until the other gang of players got bored and sailed away again. Maybe you had to spend an entire game communicating with players speaking a different language by jumping up and down, spamming the in-game dialogue options, and playing the hurdy gurdy. Maybe (almost definitely) you spent the whole thing doing terrible pirate voices and calling your ship The Salty Chicken.
As pirates you have to go on voyages to fill your purse. Voyages are commissioned by three companies at outposts. The Gold Hoarders will send you to dig up treasure chests, the Order of Souls send you to hunt skeleton captains and get their skulls, and the Merchant Alliance request delivery of goods and items. So the game is go to island, collect thing, return to outpost, over. And over. And over again. And sometimes nothing else happens. For hours. I’ve been on a crew that rammed an island at full speed just for something to do (it momentarily broke the physics and the ship bounced into the air).
The players make Sea of Thieves. But they also break it. When your crewmates are boring or hostile then that’s what your entire game is. It’s normal for games like this to take a lot from the unpredictability of human interaction, but with Sea of Thieves the whole thing lives and dies on it because the main loop of the game becomes stultifying without players working hard to make it not that. The sound and the fury of the waves is lovely, but for Sea of Thieves to be a properly good game it needs to give the players a bit more to work with.
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: March 20, 2018
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