You Were Wrong to Sleep on ‘Sea of Thieves’

Jack Yarwood
Games Xbox
Games Xbox Indie Games PC Gaming

Whenever anyone talks about Sea of Thieves, they often hear the same types of comments — stuff like “This game has no content,” “More like No Man’s Sea,” or “Oh my god, do people still play that?” Even positive coverage of the game follows a particular narrative: Sea of Thieves released, was disappointing, and is only now becoming interesting with each passing expansion and Bilge Rats adventure.

But this unfair narrative tends to ignore some of the great design that’s been present ever since Sea of Thieves‘ original release. Now having finally reached Pirate Legend status, the closest thing to a traditional endgame, I want to explain what I love about Sea of Thieves and, hopefully, provide an alternative perspective on it. To do this, we’ll need to take a look back at how the game was received at launch.

When Sea of Thieves first released, a lot of people misunderstood the game’s release plans and what it was trying to accomplish. Rare always intended for the original release to be a foundation, to be built upon later in collaboration with its community (something that Rare has since demonstrated by shifting its roadmap to meet player demands). But a lot of people were too busy looking for RPG elements in a game that was never meant to have them to notice what the game was actually doing well.

Choose Your Own Pirate Adventure

Sea of Thieves treasure
Vast riches await those that dig beneath the surface.

Sea of Thieves was never meant to be an RPG in the same vein as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or The Witcher 3. It was never meant to be about quest types or even about the grind to Pirate Legend. Instead, the core gameplay loop was meant to be kept deceptively simple, similar to in games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, to give players room to improvise and create their own unique stories.

And you can’t say the approach didn’t work. After all, we’ve had everything from pirate unions to game shows and sporting events all happening in-game. Each playthrough has the potential to be completely different from the last, depending on who you meet or how you interact with the world.

A lot of this is down to the way the game handles its inventory and systems. At first glance, the inventory wheel in Sea of Thieves seems pretty basic. You have a telescope, a pocket watch, a tankard to drink from, a compass, a bucket to scoop up water, a lantern to light the way, a shovel that can dig up chests, and some general resources — as well as a few instruments to strike up a tune with other pirates. All in all, it doesn’t seem like much, but what’s so special about each of these items is how they all have multiple applications within the world.

Multiple Items, Endless Combinations

Sea of Thieves inventory
The inventory may look basic, but it has a lot of mileage.

The idea of dual use is nothing new in games. The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario games have both used dual use across their respective series to give their gameplay more depth. But what makes Rare’s approach so unique is their motto of “Tools, not rules.” The saying essentially means that, rather than just adding a couple more applications to an item, they’re also trying to remove as many restrictions on those objects as possible. This way even the developers aren’t fully aware of how far players can push a particular item, only that there are countless opportunities available for people to experiment with them.

Consider the water bucket in Sea of Thieves. You don’t just have to use it to clear water from your bottom deck. It can also be a way of sinking another ship, blinding a pirate during a sword fight, or weakening a golden skeleton before blasting them away with your blunderbuss. Similarly, the lantern can be put to good use to light your way in dark caverns, solve riddle maps, and give Shadow Skeletons a more vulnerable form.

This design philosophy doesn’t just apply to items in your inventory wheel either. For instance, you can use the sword to jump longer distances by holding down guard and attack and jumping at the last possible second. Cannons let you climb inside them and shoot yourself at hard-to-reach places. And gunpowder barrels can double as a rocket boost if dropped behind your ship and detonated at just the right time.

Goodbye, Repetitive Play. Hello, Unique Encounters!

In Sea of Thieves, everything feels interconnected, and no item goes to waste. Whereas other games, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, throw tons of useless game elements at you, compartmentalise sections of their map into land and sea, and dictate where you can or can’t perform certain actions; almost everything in Sea of Thieves feels purposeful, which leads to interesting outcomes when different systems collide.

For instance, on one of the first skull forts I completed, we didn’t have enough time to open the door to the treasure room before a galleon arrived and tried to pinch our loot from under us. So, in a panic, we all hopped aboard our ship with the key and led them on a chase across the entire map. We fired ourselves aboard their ship, disguised our galleon with a new cosmetic at an outpost, and even used the cannons on inactive forts to get in some potshots as they passed to keep them distracted below deck repairing.

It went on like this for an hour, until eventually disaster struck. The sea around us turned an inky black, and several long tentacles breached the water’s surface on both sides of our ship, signalling the arrival of the Kraken. Our ship came to a standstill. And the enemy crew pulled in behind, ready to capitalise. It looked like we were finished until someone from the other ship foolishly fired a cannonball at one of the beast’s tentacles, luring the creature away from us and towards them. With the two engaged in an intense battle, all we had to do then was simply lower our sails and return to the fort to reclaim our prize.

The Same Ingredients Yield a Different Recipe Each Time

Kraken Sea of Thieves
The Kraken is one of the many encounters in 'Sea of Thieves.'

What is amazing about the above is that none of it was scripted. Instead, it was the result of a bunch of game systems reacting in interesting and unexpected ways. I’ve done countless skull forts since then, and not a single one has ever been the same, with double-crossings, random encounters, and epic ship battles setting them apart from one another.

And this variety has only increased as more ingredients have been added to the world. Megalodons and skeleton ships now spawn out at sea. If both occur in the same area, they won’t ignore each other, but interact and fight between themselves. The same goes for the Devil’s Roar. It doesn’t just exist in isolation, with the conditions it creates exploding gunpowder barrels, demolishing skeletons, and injuring the Megalodon, if it is within close enough range. Sea of Thieves’ game systems are always reacting with one another, and that is what makes it such a good breeding ground for multiplayer stories, as one voyage can play out in multiple ways.

The Path to Treasure Isn’t Paved in Gold

Pirate Legend
'Sea of Thieves' is much more than just a race to Pirate Legend.

Don’t get me wrong. The game still has some issues. If you don’t already have a crew to play with, starting a gameplay session requires a ton of patience and relies entirely on the mercy of matchmaking, which is often a frustrating experience. Some of the islands feel deliberately designed to waste your time (like Old Faithful Isle and Plunder Valley). And the commendation system during events inadvertently encourages compulsive playing, if you don’t want to miss out on any of the time-limited rewards. Yet, in spite of all that, Sea of Thieves is still one of the most unique titles from this year. It’s a shame that so many players never really gave it a chance due to the negative reputation surrounding it.

Whether you’re playing with a group of friends or with a bunch of strangers, there is no experience in gaming quite like Sea of Thieves. That’s why, even though I’ve reached Pirate Legend, I’m still planning on jumping back into the game. Not only to experience the new content drops when they occur but to see what stories lay in wait for me just over the horizon.

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