Sea of Thieves review - a Rare treasure
Put down the controller and close your eyes: there is no better game on earth to listen to. What do I hear? The creak of timbers, the flap of a sail, the thud and shudder and boom of the ocean.
So many of my very favourite things in Sea of Thieves are sounds. There's the wonderful snug internal clonk of the ship's wheel settling back into its full-ahead position (so subtle you have to really listen for it; at times I think I am imagining the whole thing). There's the strained, buckling groan of your hull reacting to a dropped anchor when it still has sails filled with wind. Best of all there's the neat, arresting, confirmative thwack of a shovel digging into sand and hitting - something! Something good! A treasure chest! Clonk, groan, thwack. This is a game you play with your ears as much as your eyes, and while your eyes get the glorious rolling, thrashing drama of the waters to look at, your ears get so much else besides. Your ears get the detailing that really sells the fiction.
That final sound - the shovel hitting a buried chest - helped orient me in the early stages when Rare seemed eager to abandon me, thrillingly, maddeningly, to the ocean itself. Sea of Thieves is a shared-world pirate-'em-up, but it explains almost none of its systems from the off. I chose a pirate avatar, I selected a single-person sloop rather than a multi-person galleon to knock about in, and then I spawned in a pub on a tiny island surrounded by raging waters. It was raining outside so I lingered in the pub for a while. I picked up some bananas and some cannonballs. I looked for obvious signs of a tutorial. Eventually I wandered into the downpour and found a dock with my boat - presumably it was mine - at the end of a jetty. And then I boarded it and set off.
Well, for 15 minutes I learned how to use that boat, and then I set off. Sea of Thieves is not a complicated game, but it is not fond of the helpful mechanical metaphors many games employ to make simple things completely easy. Often, these metaphors are employed to the game's overall detriment. Take Battlefield 1. The tank mission. A cutscene explains how terrifying tanks were in World War 1 - and how busy. Four or five people inside, all doing separate, inter-related jobs in close confines and near-total absence of the necessary information. And then you hop into a tank yourself and you're suddenly floating above it omnisciently. You steer and shoot and repair the tank all by yourself; the fiction is a sham, and while it's a pleasure to chug around so effortlessly you still feel like, right from the start, you've been robbed.
Sea of Thieves is different. You choose a quest by placing it on a table in the cabin and then voting on it. Once that's done you head down to the map room to see where you're going. The map shows you your position in Sea of Thieves' ocean, but this is its one main concession to fantasy. There is no mini-map, just this map down in the map room - and it will stay in the map room when you leave. You can place a circle around your target once you have picked it out, but the circle will stay on the map down here. The maps of individual islands you are given when you're hunting for treasure, meanwhile, do not even show your position on them, just the fiction-blooming big red X that needs no explanation.
Good, you now know where you want to go. Now you wind up the anchor - it takes a while and it delivers beautifully on the buried, out-of-sight mechanical truth of an old ship - and then you set the sails - how much canvas you're showing translates into how much speed you can expect. You angle the sails to catch the wind if need be and then you head to the ship's wheel and steer, one eye on the compass, no eye on the mini-map, because there is no mini-map. Occasionally, you have to run back to the map room to see how good your reckoning is. Or if you're playing with friends you can have someone installed in the map room, someone installed in the crow's nest, and people on deck to drop the anchor, trim the sails, load the cannons with cannonballs. You can do this on your own - it is manageable on a sloop, and wonderfully satisfying when it's done well - but Sea of Thieves makes few concessions, or rather it makes enough work for you to forget all the basic concessions it is secretly making in order to allow you to play this kind of thing at all. The end-result is that sailing in Sea of Thieves is a reward in itself.
The ocean helps. Sea of Thieves' map is roomy and scattered with islands, each one beautifully crafted, sand glinting with silicate giving way to rocks and tufts of wind-blown grass. These are places for procedural rewards to spawn - treasure to be pulled from the sand, skeleton crews to be shattered with cutlass or pistol, chickens or pigs to be captured and shipped where they are requested. But the islands are not procedural themselves, and they are filled with little details - a grotto where glowing water laps at the rocks, a hammock amongst reeds, a chair and table set to face the surf - that deliver a wonderfully characterful sense of the world and its often unseen inhabitants.
But good as these islands are, they are a distant second to the sea itself. I have never seen sea like this in a video game, sea that seems alive and wilful and prone to fits. It can be smooth and mediterranean, glowing an improbable Grecian blue under clear skies as if lit from below. And it can look mountainous as it bangs you around during a storm. In its ridges and walls of speckled surf you can look up from the ship's wheel and face an Andes, a Himalayas of angry water.
The sea has character, and in turn it gives your boat character, as it conspires with the weather to set the wheel bucking beneath you, juddering, requiring just a little more force to turn it now than it required a minute or two ago when things were fair. That weather! Sea of Thieves does a wonderful postcard rosy dawn, the perfect peachy tint to the sky to make you want to set out for the distant shadows on the horizon. But it also has a neat line in storms that seem entirely inescapable, grey monsters where the clouds are oppressively low and filled with rain, and where the whole landscape seems to have become monochrome.
All of which is to say that regardless how big your ship, regardless whether you are going it alone or playing in a group of four, you can feel very small when set against the world of Sea of Thieves. And the quests available - three types, from three pirating societies - reinforce this. These quests are almost comically simple, particularly in the early tiers. They amount to: go here and dig up treasure, go here and kill everything you see, go here and get me some chickens already. While they grow more complex as you rise through the ranks - Sea of Thieves is particularly good when it's dispatching you on your journey with a riddle rather than a map, since the riddle makes you peer at the world and makes the nearly-empty islands you visit feel more alive and bespoke - they all hinge on something very clever: they ensure that your hold on success feel precarious.
Take that treasure chest you dig up on a distant island. Nice work! Now you have to get it back to port and cash it in or it's worth nothing. And to do that, you have to physically handle it: you have to lug it aboard your sloop or galleon, you have to store it in the hold or wherever feels safest, and then you have to get it to one of the game's handful of Outpost islands which contain quest vendors and shops and pubs. Same with the skull of a dead pirate captain. Same with a crate of chickens or pigs. These are things you have to hold and carry around.
And protect. This is where the fiction of being a pirate suddenly starts to have consequences. Because there are other pirates out there, and the fact that they're pirates means that they have a licence to grief. Ship-to-ship battles are thrilling because of the wild card of the sea and because these battles hew to the same mechanical honesty the rest of the game employs. You need to load cannons and aim them and think about the kind of damage you want to inflict. Take out a sail? A mast? Or get them below the waterline? Sure, you can load yourself into a cannon and fire yourself onto an enemy deck, which probably strains credulity somewhat, but it feels like an acceptably entertaining solution for closing gaps and dropping you into the game's crunchy, pleasantly basic combat, fought with a variety of blades and a variety of sooty, unwieldy firearms. (Combat may be straightforward but there are some inspired enemy types and it's filled with the weird comedy that always accompanies shambling undead enemies. If you've longed for a game that will allow you to be strangely menaced by the sight of a skeleton advancing towards you while eating a restorative banana, your ship has finally come in.) It's fun enough in PvE, which means taking it to the skeletons of increasing deadliness who spawn on islands. But it excels when it's other players, either boarding you to steal your plunder, or harassing you for the hell of it - or being boarded by you because you're a pirate as well and why not?
This, combined with the ship management you have to do in the heat of battle, boarding up breaches in the hull, bailing out water with a bucket, means that a ship on the horizon is always a thrill. It's either something you can cause a bit of mischief to or something you really need to keep away from. There is no UI that tells you this. Everything, like the map, the ship's wheel, the treasure you are lugging back and forth, exists in the world and works because the game forces you to understand the rigour and fiction of the world as a thing in itself.
All of this is fun by yourself - Rare's latest is surprisingly entertaining to solo, in fact, because a small mistake can become a big problem terribly quickly. But Sea of Thieves is made to be played with others. With randoms, whether on voice chat or emotes and a selection of easily accessible phrases, jumping into a galleon can be a bit like playing Quantum Leap. Where am I now? I'm in the hold of a ship and it's filling with water. Better get a bucket. Better get out of the way of that guy who's come down to fix things. No! He's a boarder! He's coming to kill me! Oh boy!
With friends, though, there is simply nothing like it. Last Friday I set out with a colleague to see the watery part of the world. We followed the first line of a riddle to an island where the next line tasked us with finding a magic wishing well and walking seven paces before digging for a chest. On the way, we were bitten by snakes, attacked by skeletons, and generally muddled by the fact that the island was big and we had to work out how to orient ourselves in an absence of easy landmarks. When we had the chest and were headed back to the shore, I saw an object glinting in the sand: a book with a special message that took us to another island, where a fearsome skeleton boss was hiding out. To kill him, we had to take out a wave of enemies who were invulnerable in the darkness. We either had to light them up with a torch or string the fight out until sunrise.
That's just one mission, and a lonely one at that. Elsewhere I've been attacked after a long journey and seen my rewards sink to the bottom of the ocean in sight of land, I've whimpered during prolonged assaults on skeleton fortresses, where the simple PvE of sword against bone suddenly starts to look rather tactical. I've run myself aground while setting out on the first adventure of the morning, and I've stood on the shore of an island, carrying loot, watching with the rest of my crew as my boat sank in front of us, fatally compromised in a way that none of us had bothered to check on in our excitement.
Quests grow in complexity until you're a pirate legend; a Kraken appears at sea and menaces boats (this kraken appears far too often and is slightly disappointing as a result); players vote one another into the brig or drive each other to distraction with accordion music. At times, it can seem that the real treasure that players are hunting is the ideal circumstances in which to play - the right gang, the right quest, a clear run free from server issues and downtime. Even so, it's a mark of Sea of Thieves' charm and psychological nous that it can be a great game even when you're having a slightly lousy time.
How long will it last? The progression system might be a bit of a red herring here, ditto the outfits and weapon skins and whatnot that you are currently tempted to pay far too much in-game currency for back on the Outposts. Once you've mastered sailing and fighting, you'll discover that you're not really trying to level up your skills in the game so much as you're trying to level up your thinking about the game. Sea of Thieves is trying to make you look at the humble bucket, say, which is perfect for bailing out your own boat, and ask yourself - could I actually sink another boat by bailing in with this? It's trying to make you a more interesting person - and for that alone it is hard to fault.
And limited as the map is, and simplistic as the quests are, there is still a sense at the moment that Sea of Thieves is too big for any one player. As much as you investigate for yourself, there is still stuff to hear about from your friends. One says that if you play music to the snakes they won't bite you. Another has worked out you can puke in a bucket and throw it at someone. A third wonders if there are whales as well as sharks and a fourth says there must be, because, because... I reckon it was probably a bit like this with real pirates back in the day. Don't treasure stories always start that way, with "A friend of a friend once told me..."
And what keeps me going once I'm drunk on gold and battered by the undead is that splinter of defiance in the heart - that part of Sea of Thieves that is unwilling to devolve into helpful shorthand and UI tricks. The map you hold in your hands as you wade ashore is an actual map, and it works as a map works in the real world. It is a tool for finding your way, but it is not a complete solution. As a result I've been walking around all week thinking about east and west and how to tell the difference between the two when I haven't got a compass to hand. I have been thinking about reckoning. This allows the game's fiction to create compelling moments - I have been genuinely lost in Sea of Thieves at times. But it also allows it to do what every game like this truly hopes to do - to cross over, to seep into your everyday life.