I really like Sea of Thieves. I’ve been playing it at least every other day for the last few weeks. Usually, I’d have no problem recommending something I like this much or have played this much, but Sea of Thieves is special and so I have some caveats attached to that recommendation. Or perhaps it might make sense to think of them as warnings. I’ll go into them in more detail in a bit, but here they are in short.
Sea of Thieves isn’t an MMO, it’s a playground. I’ll write more in depth on this later, but the game has no in-game mechanical progression. I think it’s easy to look at this and see a bad thing, especially if you’re used to having leveling and progression systems that make the game easier for you as time goes on. The positive side to having no mechanical progression is that you will always be mechanically equal with your friends, no matter who has played the most. Someone who has never played before can jump in, and be a contributing member of your crew from minute one. The only increase in “Power” that you get is a more solid understanding of the game’s mechanics and systems.
Multiplayer is more or less required, friends are best, randos can be passable, but playing solo is an exercise in frustration. There are a set of people who do a thing called Solo-Slooping, but I think for most of us, the joy of the game is doing stuff with your friends. Outrunning the Kraken, fighting off ghost ships, and booking around an island to dig up treasure are all things that are best done with other people, and the game’s mechanics actively encourage you to play with others. As just a quick example, almost every ship outside of the two player ship has the capstan (boat thing used to drop the anchor) fairly far from the steering wheel, so good luck docking your boat at the dock without multiple people. The way the sails work means that in fights, you’ll want to be constantly changing them to actually get your boat where you want it, and not crash into things. Same for firing cannons, fixing the boat, and more or less every other mechanic.
Finally, the game isn’t super cheap. Most of the folks I’m playing it with got it at $20 on a Steam sale, but that’s still a hefty chunk of change. This might be a bit less of a deal breaker for the anyone with a Windows 10 PC, since you can get Gamepass for PC for like $5 a month, and a month of playing Sea of Thieves is most likely enough for you to figure out if you like the game or not. I debated keeping this section, but I still think it’s worth the callout.
Ed note: The game does have cosmetic microtransactions, and at time of writing, apparently will be adding a battlepass system in it’s next update. I have mixed feelings about this, since a friend already got me the game for $40 as a Christmas present, and cosmetics are the only thing to actually spend in game gold and doubloons on.
Okay, here’s the thing: I love the moment-to-moment gameplay of Sea of Thieves, and if that’s the case, why did I feel the need to put three paragraphs of warnings ending in “Here there be Microtransactions?”
Well, it’s for two reasons. I do love the game, but I suspect there are a fair number of people who won’t, for one or more reasons. I don’t think these categorizations of people who play games are hugely accurate, but I still want to toss them out there for a moment: if you’re the sort of person who plays games in a fairly “hardcore” manner, min-maxing, following meta guides, and going for every inch of DPS you can get, I’m not sure there’s much in Sea of Thieves for you. The only things you get are cosmetics, the “optimal” gold/time quests are fairly dull, and large portions of the game if you look at them from the standpoint of “How much progression does this get me?” are purely grind. On the flip side, Sea of Thieves is not a “Casual” game, but for a different set of reasons: play sessions in which you actually get stuff done can amount to several hours in length, the game can be brutally punishing and wipe out those invested hours quite easily if you get a bit unlucky or stop paying attention, and of course, there’s always the chance to end up in a PvP situation and just getting blown to smithereens.
So why do I play it? Simple: I find it fun. I talked about Sea of Thieves as a playground up above. What I mean by that is Sea of Thieves is primarily a place to be, and a place to play above all else. Everything about it is designed to function in that way, and I can’t actually think of any other games that provide that experience. The fact that everyone is on equal footing each time you log in means that no matter how experienced you are, your friends can always join in and contribute. There’s no DPS checks, no being carried through raids, no dodging queues.
I do have one last gripe though: The fact that you can’t change ship size, which is effectively player party count without remaking your party is a complete bummer. I would really like them to change that. I won’t stop playing if they don’t, but if there was a way to change ship size, it would be a massive improvement.
While the hand to hand combat for both PvP and PvE is clunky, I really enjoy almost every other moment of the game. The clunk of hitting a treasure chest with your shovel is awesome. Working with friends to run around an island working on a riddle is great. The tension and relief of running vaults, and looting them is fantastic, and boat combat is mostly solid.
Like a playground, though, you will occasionally get knocked down and bullied. It’s an unfortunate part of the experience. In terms of pure, primal frustration and rage, Sea of Thieves made me feel a way I hadn’t in quite a while, and when that happened, I had to take a break from playing for a bit. But after that break, I was ready to return. The game is just enjoyable.
Fighting megalodons, trying to outrun other players, and looting bosses are all fun. Like I said above, Sea of Thieves is a playground, and as such it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just treasure hunting, or riddles, or cargo delivery, it’s all the small moments that make up doing those things, from having someone stand lookout, to having one person call out directions, while another steers, and a third person tries to keep you from crashing into the rocks. It’s a place to be together with other people, and enjoy their company, and do things with them. To cook shark, to play silly songs, and to generally mess with each other.
And to Sail Together