Sea of Thieves has hit the PC and Xbox One over the past week and many pirates have joined the testing to sail the high seas. However, server issues and the gameplay itself have left many questions in its wake. Beta tests are meant to stress the servers and make sure the game, when live, doesn’t encounter massive problems. Sea of Thieves has had its fair share of technical issues, but that is to be expected with a beta test. In the end, though, Sea of Thieves‘ beta experience will be judged on the gameplay on display — and it’s here where Rare, the studio behind the game, needs to focus on before launch.
Sea of Thieves pits players in a shared world where groups of two or four players can man their own pirate ship in search of treasure. You can also choose to play this experience solo, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll be pitted against only solo crews. Sea of Thieves‘ world is wide-open playground, with islands and dangers dotting the sea ahead of you. It’s striking how realistic the water simulation looks — I actually felt seasick on one of my first voyages thanks to how choppy the water was. The excitement you feel as you set off on your first voyage is palpable as well — treasure hunting and solving riddles is always good fun. It’s here, though, that the first of many questions crops up.
Progression in Sea of Thieves is done through these voyages, and it’s pretty straight forward. You go to a vendor — in the beta it’s the Gold Hoarders — and purchase a voyage for you and your crew to venture out on. The types of voyages you can go on depend on your reputation with the vendor; the higher your reputation the more complex and profitable the voyage will become. Once you and your crew vote on your voyage, you get either a riddle to solve or a map where “X marks the spot.”
However, once you’ve done a few of these voyages, they start to feel a little stale. You sail to an island, find a marker, either play music at it or shine your lantern — there doesn’t seem to be very many different mechanics to trigger the next step in the riddle — you find the treasure, and rinse and repeat. There are no dungeons to crawl or bosses to fight; the most you need to deal with from the game itself are skeletons that crop up.
This is where the other main component of Sea of Thieves comes into play: other players. This is a persistent and open world you share with other players. This means you’ll find other pirates sailing the seas. Some will be friendly, but in my experience they have all been enemies. The game doesn’t care how many players are in your group either — you’ll be pitted against players of all group sizes. So chances are a single pirate could come face to face with a three-masted galleon sailed by four separate players. Sea of Thieves has a major problem here, especially as it comes to possible griefing issues.
The larger ships are faster, it’s easier to coordinate your actions on the ship with extra hands, and there are simply more cannons on a larger galleon. It also takes more to sink them. This puts smaller groups or solo players at a major disadvantage. Larger ships can simply stick around outposts — the islands where players must return to sell their chests of gold and gain reputation — and attack any returning crew. This happened multiple times across a few play sessions to me, solo and in duo sessions, and each time we lost everything. Since progression in Sea of Thieves is tied to you selling chests, to simply lose all of that because another ship is simply faster and larger — and has more people on it — is incredibly frustrating. No video game should ever make you feel as though you’re wasting your time, yet Sea of Thieves has done so on multiple occasions.
It begs a few questions: Why do you have to always share the world with other players? If you always have to be in a shared session, why doesn’t Sea of Thieves allow players to only be grouped with crews of their size? How will Sea of Thieves combat campers and griefers? And why is progression only tied to you selling the chests instead of the actual voyage progression itself? Sea of Thieves can be incredibly fun, and maybe all of these issues are already taken care of in the full launch version of the game. However, for many players, this beta experience will be their lasting impression until Sea of Thieves hits shelves in March, and for many, the experience won’t necessarily turn into a sale for Rare.
Sea of Thieves is impressive in scale and the technology on display. But it needs to assure its community that what is seen in the beta isn’t the whole Sea of Thieves experience, and that the experience they have won’t end up being a waste of everyone’s time. Rare has a little under two months to assuage fears; otherwise Sea of Thieves could end up sinking before it even swims.