The Sea of Thieves is a risky place, though. You don’t want to complete five missions in a row, your lower deck piled high with booty, only to have another crew sink you and steal it all. But even if you stop at an outpost after every quest, there’s no guarantee that goons won’t be camped out, waiting to ambush you before you can turn that chest over to the Gold Hoarders for your due reward. You could, of course, sack off doing quests altogether and spend your entire pirate career profiteering from the labors of others. Interactions with other players is part of what keeps things interesting, after all. That said, mastering the art of warfare on the waves is where the biggest skill cap in Sea of Thieves undoubtedly lies. The few battles I’ve experienced could be described as clumsy at best.
The big galleons are not at all agile, cannons are hard to aim even in the calmest seas and, while you’re fumbling with the wheel, sails and everything else, an enemy can easily sneak aboard with a gunpowder barrel (a recent addition to the game) to decimate your hull from the inside. Though not a particularly menacing sight, a smaller, nimbler boat can easily run rings around a galleon and pepper it with enough point-blank shots to send it sinking to the seafloor in minutes. I’ve no doubt, however, that a well-oiled and battle-hardened crew could be confident that their chances of success are well beyond the flip of a piece of eight. That’s assuming they want to engage in the first place, of course. Everyone has something to lose.
There’s a charming rock-paper-scissors simplicity to almost everything in Sea of Thieves, and one that doesn’t change, however legendary you become. You may be the richest, most reputable captain around, but that doesn’t make your cutlass any sharper, nor your cannon more powerful. Every buccaneer is on a level playing field, making your skills as a deckhand, strategist, marksman and the rest what distinguishes one player from another. Keeping all sailors on an even keel extends to making sure the experience is the same, whether you’re playing on an OG Xbox One, a One X, a powerful gaming rig with three-monitor setup, or a beat-up old laptop. Resolution doesn’t have a significant impact on gameplay, thanks to the cartoony art style, and you can’t turn the wheel any faster or swing the sniper rifle reticle any quicker on any one platform than on another.
There are two types of primary quests, three sizes of ships and four varieties of weapon: sword, pistol, blunderbuss and the pirate’s equivalent of a sniper rifle. Similarly, there are three main types of resources. Bananas restore player health, wooden planks are needed to patch holes in your hull and the purpose of cannonballs is pretty obvious. While it’s not hard to find these on the sea’s many islands, you can carry only so much to store back on your ship, making a good stockpile key to a long, healthy voyage. Also, you can reload your guns only from an ammo chest on your vessel, so bullets are just as valuable a commodity.
The game is designed to be simple and accessible on the surface, withholding nothing from any player from the very outset, for a specific reason. Rare doesn’t want the quests or your reputation level or the size of your wallet to be the reason you play the game. It’s the adventures you have, and the stories you create organically while inside this sandbox — think something akin to Eve Online, but where the ships are waterborne. The tale of escaping an ambush by the skin of your teeth, only for a cursed chest that cries water to sink you on your way to an outpost. Or that night you almost collided head-on with another galleon in the eye of storm, only for the ship to disappear into the darkness a second later before either crew were able to fire a shot or exchange a friendly word. One player has already gone down in community history by swimming the length of the Sea of Thieves while ships sailed alongside him, sniping at snarks eager to thwart his progress. In-game folklore is already being written, which Rare is embracing with Easter eggs referencing such feats dotted across the world.
Game mechanics are one thing, but the backdrop to your tall tales is just as important. With Sea of Thieves, Rare is attempting something that’s immersive on the one hand, cartoony and fun on the other. The water, for example, is basically photorealistic. Wave and wind physics, driven by ever-changing weather patterns, as well as how the different sizes of ships handle at sea, also feel lifelike. The various shanties you can play on your character’s concertina and hurdy-gurdy were recorded on real, creaky instruments, not cooked up on a computer.
But just as some aspects are designed to anchor you in a believable, engaging world (excuse the pun), others are heavily stylized and overly colorful. The pirates, ships, sharks and skeletons are all caricaturish. These elements look like they were made from plasticine, not created digitally, and there’s nicks and scuffs everywhere to reflect the battered, worn nature of things recycled at sea. There’s a certain hidden depth to characters and ships that may not be immediately obvious, which Rare calls the “wonky” factor. On the initial character select screen, which wasn’t in the recent beta but will be present in the shipping game, you’re presented with a selection of randomly generated pirates. These are of various ages, ethnicities, genders and body types; some look like ruffians, others like chiseled heroes. The idea here is that you don’t spend forever selecting what eyebrow width, etc., most closely matches your own, but go through a few cycles and pick an avatar you just like the look of. Wonkiness, one of the hidden values, is how symmetrical various parts of the character are, contributing to its uniqueness.