Sea Of Thieves is possibly the most interesting AAA game of this generation.
Note that interesting isn’t necessarily the same thing as good — although, for what it is worth, I think that after a year of steady content patches, and especially the most recent Tall Tales update that adds around twenty hours of meaty quests to the game, Sea Of Thieves is finally an acceptably good game. It didn’t release that way. I played it for a few hours when it first came out back in March 2018, and while it was certainly pleasant to sail around on its incredibly calming blue ocean and the built-in PvP nature of the game threw up some excellent/panicked encounters with other players, there was ultimately nothing to do aside from sail around, dig up chests, and level up a bunch of reputation bars for the game’s paper-thin factions. The launch edition Sea Of Thieves had a very distinctive framework of cooperative gameplay systems that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in an AAA game (indie games, of course, have been operating in this space for years), but that framework wasn’t actually supporting anything, and if I hadn’t been trying the game on a free two-week Game Pass trial I might have been quite upset at how barebones it was.
As it was I didn’t have any skin in the game, and so I was quite happy to shelve Sea Of Thieves until such time as I heard it might be worth playing again. Rare have dutifully spent the last year adding new features that individually are nothing to write home about, but when taken together do at least add a little more meat to the game’s bones — things like haunted mermaid statues you have to find and smash for valuable gems, and megalodons that you can hunt and kill for money, and skeleton pirate ships that you can duel for treasure chests, and the Kraken which… actually the Kraken is one of my major beefs with Sea Of Thieves, so I’ll talk about that some more later. Still, these additions always struck me as never actually addressing the core problem with Sea Of Thieves: it had all of these great mechanics based around crewing and sailing a pirate ship, but unless you were particularly invested in watching a collection of reputation bars go up — and most of the additions mentioned above do, ultimately, result in a reputation bar going up — there wasn’t really much of a reason to actually go and engage with those mechanics for more than a couple of hours. Sailing is fun, and the new content has injected a bit more variety into it, but Sea Of Thieves always lacked a good long-term goal to sustain it after the novelty had worn off.
The Tall Tales update changes that. The Tall Tales are a collection of nine two-hour adventures which heavily leverage the existing SoT mechanics as well as introducing specific gimmicks for each adventure that give each of them their own flavour. All of them start much as a regular Sea Of Thieves “quest” would start: by talking to an NPC in port. However, where usually the NPC would give you a scrap of paper as guidance for an equally-thin quest — go to an island, go to the X mark on the map, dig up a chest, bring it back — embarking on a Tale chucks an entire book into your inventory. The book contains instructions on where you should go and what you should do when you get there, encoded in the form of riddles or diary entries or, in one memorable case, a child’s story. They are not trivial to figure out by any means, especially if you’ve been made lazy by years of games helpfully plonking objective markers on top of your next destination; Sea Of Thieves offers no help whatsoever beyond a single map in the hold of your ship that you can’t even write notes on, so you’ll have to go with the old adventure game standby of keeping pencil and paper handy to try and decipher just where in Sea Of Thieves 50-island archipelago you have to go next.
Then you have to sail there. Sailing is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in Sea Of Thieves, as it takes a good minute or two just to sail over to the next island, and the semi-randomised nature of the Tales (each Tale has at least one stage that can be set in one of half a dozen possible locations to provide some replayability as well as confounding walkthroughs) you’re equally as likely to be sailing halfway across the map as you are visiting the island next door. Sailing is mechanically quite simple — you can furl/unfurl the sails for more or less maneuverability at the expense of speed, and you can angle them to catch the wind, and that’s about it aside from having somebody on the wheel to actually steer the ship — but what’s interesting here is how it’s deliberately been designed to require a multi-person crew to do properly. You can’t adjust the sails without letting go of the wheel; you can’t see where you are to adjust your course without visiting the map belowdecks; and if you’re on the wheel you can’t even see where you’re going most of the time because there’s a bloody great sail in the way. One person can just about sail the smallest class of ship — badly — if they’re willing to do a lot of running back and forth between sails, wheel, map and bowsprit, but you need a minimum of two people to do everything properly.
And that means you have to communicate, and communicate well. I was playing with some of my regular multiplayer group, who I have been playing games with for over a decade at this point — and we still regularly screwed up telling each other where we were going and what we were doing. In particular I have learned that no two people think about direction and their position in the world quite the same way, and so it is really important to come up with a commonly-agreed system for navigation that doesn’t result in one person saying to turn to port and the other asking if that means left or right. There’s plenty of rocks and shallows that need steering around, and if you change heading you’ll need to adjust the sails to match the new wind direction, and when you get to where you’re going you need to drop the anchor before you run into it. If you’re in a storm you’ll start taking on water and will need to bail out the hold; if you’re in a particularly bad storm lightning will start hitting the ship and you’ll have to patch up the damage with wood; and if you get charged by a particularly aggressive example of the local sea wildlife it’ll hole the ship belowdecks and you’ll have to bail out water while hammering wood over the holes at the same time. And you need to do all of this while still sailing the ship, which means there’s several different strands of work to do all at once and everyone needs to be working together. I don’t think I’ve ever played a co-op game — and certainly not one in the AAA space — that was quite this committed to the idea of actually being cooperative and which has woven it so deeply into its core mechanics.
(And this is all without considering the presence of other player crews who might try to attack you and steal your stuff. Mostly people keep a wary amount of distance from each other, but you can’t even do that without everyone on the crew being fully aware of any sails on the horizon and which way they’re headed. If you actually want to get into a fight with either a player ship or an NPC ship full of skeletons that’ll require another level of coordination altogether as you load and fire the cannons while patching damage and maneuvering for position. However ship versus ship encounters are actually pretty rare if you don’t go looking for them, which is why I’m not going to spend much time talking about them here.)
It’s good that the sailing is so involved since you spend so much time in Sea Of Thieves doing it, but as I mentioned earlier there’s no point having a fantastic system for getting from point A to point B without there being anything at point B that was worth the journey. And this is where we come back to the Tall Tales; regular SoT quests would have just one generic objective to kill skeletons or dig up a chest and then you’re done, but the Tales have multiple stages and each of them has some special flavour to it, whether it’s exploring a shipwreck to find a logbook that’ll point you to the next part of the quest, or trying to solve a puzzle in a set of ancient ruins that’ll give you a key that unlocks a hidden vault in another part of the map. Many Tales have their own unique gimmicks that stretch across the entire Tale; in one you use a magic lantern to follow in the final footsteps of some doomed souls on a skeleton island, and in another you must navigate from place to place using the constellations, and in yet another you need to use a special telescope to line up certain landmarks on an island in order to find out where to dig. Even when mechanics are reused between Tales the designers put a nasty little spin on them; a common recurring theme to end a Tale is using the cluebook to solve what’s essentially a combination lock to unlock a vault. You’re given all the time in the world to do this in the first couple of Tales — which makes it a very nasty surprise when you activate the lock mechanism in a later Tale and the door slams shut and the room starts filling with water.
Sprinkling the islands with these miniature Indiana Jones-esque adventures gives so much more body to the rest of the game. What’s particularly striking is how combat-heavy they aren’t. Sea Of Thieves’ combat mechanics have deliberately been kept quite shallow in order to emphasise the cooperative parts of the game — this is not a game about hand-eye coordination or fast reactions or the ability to memorise an esoteric lexicon of weapons and abilities, but is instead all about “soft” skills like communication, coordination, puzzle-solving and orienteering. The Tales largely reflect this, with barely half a dozen combat encounters to be found across the twenty hours it takes to play through all of them. Most Tales don’t feature any fighting whatsoever, instead focusing purely on those soft skills, and that a marquee title from a major console publisher is doing something like this honestly something that blows my mind a little bit. Sure, you can argue that marquee status is more down to Microsoft’s lack of other options than it is because they wanted to take a chance on a game that feels largely experimental, but the fact remains I’d struggle to think of anything else from Sony or Microsoft — or hell, even Nintendo — that’s quite like Sea Of Thieves’ collaborative problem-solving at its best.
Or at least that’s the idea behind the design philosophy driving SoT. It’s a testament to the good work Rare have done with it over the past year that it comes as close as it does to fulfilling its design goals, but it’s still a bumpy ride in places. The Tales might not feature much combat, but those half-dozen scripted combat encounters they do have are utterly atrocious, and in particular there are three bossfights against undead pirate lords that are incredibly badly designed, partly because the combat mechanics aren’t complex enough to provide any challenge for a multi-person crew that’s not “Give the boss an absolutely huge sack of hitpoints, and also give them regeneration abilities when their HP gets low.” I think you’re supposed to burn them down with a damage burst when their regeneration kicks in, except a) you can’t see their health and b) you’ve got no way of actually bursting damage unless you get a little bit devious. The first two bossfights went on for nearly fifteen minutes through multiple deaths and respawns — not doing anything interesting, mind you, just chipping away at the boss’s gigantic health pool with swords and guns — and were only resolved when we kited the boss to the beach and opened fire with the ship’s cannons. Even then it took well over fifty shots to kill them, and this wasn’t even an option for the last bossfight capping off the ninth and final Tale since it takes place in an underground chamber well away from any sources of damage that aren’t your sword or your gun.
That last boss took well over twenty-five minutes of running around this stupid room shooting him with blunderbusses, and it’s here that we come to a second major problem with the Tales: you have to complete each of them in a single sitting, since it there’s no checkpointing during a Tale and it only records progress when you hand in the item required to finish the bloody thing. This is a bit of an ask since each of them takes around two hours to finish, requiring you to have a free evening if you’re going to attempt even one, but the last Tale is particularly complicated and took us just over three hours, the last half hour of which was spent in this purgatorial bossfight. We didn’t have the option to take a breather, to go away and come back later when we were a little bit fresher, as we would have had to restart the entire Tale from scratch. As I get older I get increasingly annoyed at games that don’t respect the player’s time since I have increasingly less of it, and that includes something like Sea Of Thieves which makes it very easy to flush hours of your life down the toilet if something unexpected causes you to have to end a session early for whatever reason.
And for all that the Tales are otherwise quite excellent, they don’t change the fact that every activity outside of them is just as one-dimensional as it was before, for all that there are more of them now. Sea Of Thieves does a very laudable thing by keeping its equipment structure entirely flat; from the moment you first log in you can do everything there is to do in the game because you already have everything you need, with the purchasable upgrades you can buy being cosmetic only. However, there’s no long-term hook to replace the usual ladder of equipment unlocks, unless you’re really really invested in watching those reputation bars go up. There’s a lot of stuff to do in Sea Of Thieves, and some of it is worth doing for its own sake (for a little while, anyway), but none of it leads anywhere.
This is the big misjudgement Sea Of Thieves made a year ago, I think: it released in an even more barebones state than usual for one of these newfangled “games-as-a-service” things, and seemed to be relying on its emergent player-versus-player encounters to carry the game. And since every piece of loot you obtain has to be carted back to a port in order to be cashed in, there’s a definite pang of nervous excitement when you spot a player ship coming towards your heavily-laden vessel. However, in practice Sea Of Thieves’ supposedly pirate-infested oceans have ended up in much the same place as The Division’s Dark Zones: while there’s a minority of players who’ll try to steal your stuff just for fun, the vast majority of players are engaging with the PvE content and see the actual piracy part of the game as too much of a risk. The numbers speak for themselves: in twenty hours of doing the Tales content there were only four occasions when we came close enough to other player ships to actually be able to see the players themselves. One of those occasions was entirely peaceful, and another had us on the receiving end of a daring heist from our anchored ship while we were trying to solve one of puzzles on a Tales island — we emerged from the caves just in time to see them leap back onto their ship and sail away. The remaining two were precisely the sort of bloodthirsty tussles Sea Of Thieves is trying to promote, but one ship-to-ship battle every ten hours isn’t exactly going to support the rest of the game through its dire lack of meaningful content. You could probably increase that frequency if you went looking for fights, sure, but since you can spot ships from halfway across the map and all ships go at roughly the same top speed, you are going to end up spending an awful lot of time just chasing your quarry down until either they get bored of running or you get bored of chasing them.
Finally we have the Kraken, which I said I’d talk about because, while Sea Of Thieves has plenty of stuff in it that’s misjudged or poorly-tuned, the Kraken is the only thing that’s so actively anti-fun it has me wondering why it’s even in the game. The way the Kraken works is that you’ll be happily sailing on to your next destination when some ominous music will start playing, the water around you turns inky black and your ship slows to a crawl. Then a bunch of Kraken tentacles appear and start attacking you. Your goal is to get clear of the inky water before the Kraken sinks your ship, but the ship is barely moving and the Kraken is batting it this way and that, occasionally wrapping tentacles around the entire ship and blocking the wheel position.
There are three things that particularly bug me about the Kraken:
- Unlike the other NPC threats to be found on the ocean — megalodons and skeleton pirate ships — there is no option to not engage the Kraken. Its appearances are entirely random, and if it appears you have to fight it, and the fight can go on for 10-15 minutes.
- Unlike the other NPC threats to be found on the ocean, it is not at all clear what you’re supposed to do during the Kraken encounter, other than get out of the danger zone. Shooting the tentacles doesn’t appear to do anything, or at least has inconsistent results; sometimes a couple of shots with a sniper rifle will cause a tentacle to vanish back under the waves, sometimes pounding it with a cannon for a full minute will achieve absolutely nothing.
- Unlike the other NPC threats to be found on the ocean, you don’t get a reward for escaping the Kraken.
So at best the Kraken is just an irritating time sink that sucks up those 10-15 minutes it takes to get away from it, time that you’d otherwise be spending more productively. At worst it’ll sink more than that quarter of an hour — it’ll sink your ship, along with any quest-critical items you happen to be carrying aboard. All loot from a sunken ship ends up bobbing on the surface so it is theoretically possible to come back and get it if you can remember where you were sunk, but this is yet more time wasted — and it’s not even guaranteed that you’ll find it, either, as the peaks and troughs of Sea Of Thieves’ excellent wave tech do a very good job of obscuring small items floating on the ocean surface.
So it’s not so much that Sea Of Thieves is now a good game as it is Sea Of Thieves now contains a good game within it, if you’re willing to ignore the sizeable number of things around the periphery that it doesn’t do so well. The Tales content is, for the most part, great, and there is more than enough of it to outweigh the content offered by many contemporary AAA titles. If you have a couple of friends who are interested in the idea of unusual co-op adventures and you can snaffle up one of the Game Pass offers that regularly come up 1, then Sea Of Thieves is well worth the hassle of dealing with the Microsoft Store to play it on PC. As for the rest of it, your mileage may vary; my personal opinion is that it’s very well-packaged but still incredibly shallow and doesn’t have any longevity once you’ve finished all of the Tales — Rare have made some respectable efforts to make them replayable by randomising the clues and locations you visit during each adventure, but once you’ve figured them out once it’s the matter of a few moments to figure them out again — but that arguably makes it a perfect game to try for cheap on a subscription service, since you know you’re not going to be playing it for multiple months. And I do think it’s worth trying, just to see something very different being attempted in the AAA space. When taken as a whole Sea Of Thieves might be something of a mixed bag, but I do like its attitude; it’s the first thing I’ve played from Rare in nearly two decades that’s captured some of the wild, experimental joy of their N64 years, and I would very much like to see more games like it.
- Currently Microsoft only sell the Xbox version of the Game Pass, which is still moderately useful for PC thanks to their Play Anywhere campaign for around a dozen titles — some of them are even worth playing. However, with E3 fast approaching they’ve announced a dedicated PC version of the pass that they’ll be keen to get people hooked into, so I foresee more offers in the near future. ↩