Sea of Thieves well and truly busts the commonly held myth that videogames are all about full-on, constant action. At times, it can be positively restful, and it must be the only game out there which can sometimes feel like taking a yachting holiday.
Developer Rare Software - which, in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s was one of the most revered games creators in the world - has been in the doldrums lately, but Sea of Thieves marks a truly original and properly risk-taking return to the fray.
A PC/Xbox One-exclusive - Microsoft bought Rare Software for a still eye-watering $375 million in 2002 - Sea of Thieves is perhaps best described as a multi-player pirate-life simulator. But one that needs more content to make a great idea truly enthralling.
Four makes for fun
Although it's possible to play Sea of Thieves solo, the game is really designed to be played by four people sharing a ship. There are two types: proper, bulky pirate ships for four people; or smaller schooners that can be crewed by one or two people, which are easier to sail but much less robust should you come under attack.
In practice, we found that Sea of Thieves is way more fun when you play it as a member of a crew of four. Especially when your crew-mates are real-life friends. This is the game at its best, making for some irresistible play.
However, jumping into the game with three random ship-mates threw up some very variable experiences indeed, which ranged from bonding with some lovely Canadians to being given the complete cold-shoulder by a bunch of Scandinavians (who refused to pursue the same missions and operate as a proper team, which was particularly frustrating).
The multi-player angle, while Sea of Thieve's best feature, is also a potential hitch as far as getting the best out of the game is concerned. Assembling three other mates for regular play-sessions of a game which is a real time-sucker is very tricky indeed.
Write your own tales
Interestingly, Sea of Thieves has no pre-defined narrative whatsoever. Which is bizarre yet refreshing.
Rare Software's intention was to craft a game in which every player essentially creates their own storyline. Initially, that approach creates much hilarity, and a sense of group bonding, as everyone begins to work out what they have to do, and to sample some of the game's amusing touches (such as an unlimited supply of grog, two tankards of which will render you unable to walk and make you throw up spectacularly).
Teamwork is vital, as Sea of Thieves' sailing ships are surprisingly rigorous (given the game's excellent but cartoonishly stylised visuals). You'll need someone manning the wheel, while someone else keeps an eye on the map, which lives below decks. Sails can be individually trimmed and angled, and you'll all want to head to the cannons when hostile ships pull alongside. Sometimes, it's handy to have someone keeping a lookout up in the crow's nest.
You're given an extensive inventory which includes a sword and at least one gun (guns of increasing sophistication can be acquired), a shovel, a bucket, various musical instruments (at times, a Sea of Thieves session can feel more like an aquatic camping session than anything else) and a telescope.
Hunting for treasure
Once you get to grips with piloting your ship, it's time to embark on some expeditions. Initially, those tend to be pretty trivial, such as visiting islands and catching specific types of chickens in traps. But once you start building a bit of a reputation, and amassing a bit of money, you begin to get hold of a collection of treasure maps and other quest items, each of which leads to what feels more like a proper mission. You'll soon be sailing to islands, following the clues and digging up chests of buried treasure.
Spawning skeletons and sharks which attack when you're swimming back to your ship with your loot provide hazards to be dealt with. Exploration is rewarded with random chests, messages in bottles, shipwrecks and the like. And you still have to get your chests back to trading outposts in order to sell them - made especially tricky as all your efforts can be rendered in vain by a hostile attack from rival pirates or a kraken.
Repetition is rife
There are three organisations that provide quests – the Merchant Alliance, the Order of Souls and the Gold Hoarders – and each sets you a distinct type of task. But the problem is that, after a while they become too samey. To be fair, there's plenty of joy to be had from messing around in Sea of Thieves' gloriously atmospheric Caribbean-style world, but once you've put a certain amount of time into the game, you hit something of a wall of over-familiarity.
Randomly spawning Skeleton Forts, signalled by skull-shaped clouds that appear over islands, do add a welcome element of variety, as they attract any other pirate crews in the vicinity, and in order to overcome the hordes of skeletons (some of which are boss-like) and even transport the vast amounts of loot back to your various ships, you must form alliances – uneasily, since the default approach of any pirates you meet in other situations is hostility.
Unfortunately, Sea of Thieves is crying out for new forms of content – different types of quests, maybe some complex ones that resemble Destiny's raids, for example. Its game-world is a fine place in which to bimble around, and the way in which it approximates the experience of being a classic pirate is superb, but it feels like a brilliant framework which is desperate need of some extra flesh.
You have to admire Rare Software for the way in which, with Sea of Thieves, it has taken a risky approach to create a gameplay experience which feels fresh and unique. Sea of Thieves might just be the first game to nail the knotty conundrum of providing the tools with which gamers can create their own narratives.
But what happens to Sea of Thieves next is crucial – not dissimilarly to PS4 exclusive No Man's Sky. Rare's game desperately needs to evolve into something more substantial and varied, which can only come about through the addition of a large amount of new content. Until that happens, it will remain a curiosity which is fabulously good fun for a while – but from which you will ultimately drift away.
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