It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.
Based on a couple days on the open seas, "unpredictable" is the best way I can describe Sea of Thieves. There have been some surprising highs when the game's potential shone through and made me eager to forge ahead in search of riches and mayhem. There have also been depressing lows that made me dread having to continue. There are some facets I've yet to experience; I haven't completed a raid, nor have I come close to maxing out my reputation with any of the world's three factions. Needless to say I will press on, but there's already a lot on my mind despite how shallow the overall experience is.
Presently, my wanna-be pirate avatar is rising through ranks by completing three types of tasks: capturing small animals, digging for treasure, and killing skeletons of legendary captains that have risen from the dead--mostly unremarkable variants of basic skeleton enemies distinguished by their hats and slightly elevated stats. In isolation, these activities are too simple and easy to get excited about, but they provide a purpose and a destination. It's the unexpected things that happen along the way that you ultimately look forward to.
Those unexpected things could be merely a floating item chest or a message in a bottle with a map for another quest. While not the rule, a message in a bottle can lead to lucrative objectives, which are often accompanied by special enemies that call for unusual tactics. Just last night, one such voyage sent my crew to an island populated with skeletons that could only be seen at night when illuminated by a lantern, and another type that was only vulnerable when splashed with sea water, which caused their metal-encrusted bones to tense up. The variety was appreciated, as was the unusually valuable treasure we found. But even then that joy was fleeting, because all treasure is designed to be converted into gold, and gold can only be used to purchase cosmetic upgrades.
One of the big issues for me is that no matter how much or how well I play, my character, their equipment, and any ship I sail on will forever remain at a base level of performance and ability. Sea of Thieves offers a lot of gear, but none of it results in a practical benefit. If I don't scale, how will the game continue to challenge me in meaningful ways? So far, that answer seems to be through cryptic riddles and clues that lead to more treasure. I've encountered few interesting examples in roughly ten hours at sea, but I always know in the back of my mind that it will all just result in gold, which can only be used to buy more pretty wearables. The community is all abuzz about becoming legendary pirates, a status symbolized by notably fancy ships. Of course, all the pomp and regalia in the world won't stop a fresh-but-capable crew from kicking your ass.
With these thoughts in mind, it's easy to forget that there are plenty of worthwhile moments that emerge outside of the standard gameplay loop. Stumbling into other players may be a surprisingly uncommon occurrence, but it's nonetheless one that rarely passes without some form of engagement. The first question that enters your mind--do you shoot first--is so far pointless to consider. Very few players seem interested in playing nice at the moment, which could speak to the initial excitement of manning a cannon-packed pirate ship for the first time, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Sea of Thieves doesn't give you a compelling reason to play nice. So far, the most I've gotten out of running into a friendly pirate was a minute of triggering our instrument emotes and dancing in place. It's cute, but let's be honest: it pales in comparison to winning a hard fought battle while coordinating with your trusted crew to load cannons, patch up hull breaches with planks of wood, and maybe even sneaking off your ship to covertly strike your opponents face-to-face on-deck. If you're lucky, you'll get to take their treasure, too.
So maybe I'm part of the problem, but I can't help but reason that guilt away. Until I'm incentivized to be friendly, it will continue to be a pirate's life for me, pillaging, killing, and profiting, with occasional drunken stupors to make my mates laugh while I trip over my feet and barf uncontrollably under a pale moonlight. It sounds dumb precisely because it is, but what's better than a moment of shared idiocy among friends?
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It's also worth pointing out how utterly dreary it is to play alone. If I can impart any advice to new players: don't bother. Not only will you feel incredibly lonely while sailing for minutes on end without sight of ship or shore, it's too easy to spiral into a series of quick deaths if someone does appear and kills you aboard your ship. Spawn camping is currently a major issue, and the only solution to get out of a cycle of death and rebirth is to manually sink your ship from a menu during your temporary stint in the afterlife. Even then, there are times when you'll respawn on your ship as it's in the process of sinking.
My journey is still ramping up, and I'm hoping the rocky start will give way to something more fulfilling. If there's one thing I appreciate so far, it's that I can always look forward to a few laughs when playing with my crew of choice. That alone is enough to keep me coming back for now, but I can't imagine a group of goofs has the lasting appeal a game like Sea of Thieves critically requires.