Before going to visit Rare, the British studio behind Xbox One's first big exclusive of the year, I wasn't really sure what you do in Sea of Thieves. It's a pirate game, sure, but what does that mean, exactly? It seems obvious now, but of course the answer is: you act like a pirate. You take on quests to retrieve loot or kill a skeleton captain and then proceed to sail a ship, look out for enemy boats, fix leaks, bail water out, position the sails, lower or raise the anchor, and shoot cannons.
As it turns out, that's all really fun. Playing in a team of four, I enjoyed swapping between those roles, communicating with my crewmates to navigate the sea or if we spotted an opposition ship in the distance. The entertainment comes from the role-playing, the coordination, and the satisfaction of knowing that skeleton captain's skull lies on the floor beneath you because your crew attacked his fortress together. You can do whatever you wish, and go in any direction you want, and it's enjoyable to see what hilarity ensues from those decisions.
For Rare, this sensation of making your own fun was very much intentional. "That happened because we give you a great degree of mechanical freedom," says Sea of Thieves' design director, Mike Chapman. "You've got a ship that's not gonna sail itself; it's just a piece of wood. You are the ship: you are a person on a ship and you must work together to sail it and then you've got these tools that you can use in different ways. Like the gunpowder kegs [which can be used to blow up enemy ships, for example], like [randomly] finding a merchant message in a bottle that leads you on a different adventure. All of these things are deliberate in terms of the freedom they give players because when you put multiple players in the same world doing the same thing, you get all these incredible scenarios."
Of course, you do have objectives to accomplish in Sea of Thieves--it's just up to you whether you actually aim for them. Sure, you can go and find that one specific pig and keep it alive on the journey back--one of the game's three existing factions will task you with retrieving rare creatures and maintaining their health for the duration of your voyage--or you can ignore any quests and just chill out. Simply sailing around the game's colorful oceans, hanging out with friends, is an equally enjoyable experience, and the world will distract you with emergent mechanics such as the aforementioned messages in bottles or public events on distant islands that draw other players to their shores.
A shared world, public events, and live content all made me, at least, recall Bungie's Destiny, which has a similar structure--the ability to jump into a squad with friends and explore a beautiful world, engaging in missions if you want to. However, while Destiny and Destiny 2 have strikes, raids, a story campaign, and a combat-focused Crucible, Sea of Thieves appears to contain no extra modes as yet. After the game's recent beta, some fans were left concerned that the final version would be too light on content to maintain any sort of significant longevity, and it's a concern I share. Specifically, I wonder whether the game's weapons and gear will offer enough depth to keep me coming back after more than a few hours. Using in-game currency, you can purchase new guns and clothing--among other items--but there are no stat advantages to be gained from buying more expensive pieces. You can obtain different types of weapon, such as the shotgun or sniper rifle, but within those categories there are no mechanical differences between the first shotgun available to you and the last. "The compass never gets more powerful," says Chapman. "A compass is just a compass. A pistol is just a pistol. You'll need to grow as a player as you face these high level challenges."
Rather than acquiring more powerful weapons and thicker armor, Rare's idea of growth is experienced players growing to know Sea of Thieves' map more closely, so they'll have the advantage over other sailors when it comes to acquiring treasure fastest and escaping unscathed. The developer intends to support the game post-launch with additional content--it even said it views Sea of Thieves as a 10-year project--though it's not sharing whether that will be in the form of distinct expansions or sequels.
Chapman did say that much of the game's live content will be for those who reach Sea of Thieves' endgame, which he calls becoming a "Pirate Legend." Becoming a Pirate Legend grants you access to an exclusive location in the world called the Tavern of Legends, the home of NPCs who will spread the word of in-game "rumors" such as any additional trading companies coming soon, or "new ways to play." Pirate Legends can also take part in exclusive missions called Legendary Voyages--the most challenging missions in the game--and choose to share those quests with their non-Legend friends, if they wish.
Interacting with friends and strangers is key to Sea of Thieves--so much so that Rare says it is constantly adjusting the size of its world to ensure you spot another ship every 15-30 mins, precisely--and doing so magnifies everything that's great about Sea of Thieves. Whoever's in the Crow's Nest tells the rest of their team they've spotted an enemy, at which point the four of you must decide whether to run or engage, which direction to steer in, who's going to shoot, and whether to board the enemy ship, as well as ascertain whether the enemy have any stealable loot, among other things. "It's a game that celebrates soft skills, how you talk together, how you relate to each other," says Chapman. "It's gonna be different based on who's playing and who's in the crew." Of course, the best moment is when you all, inevitably, fail; seeing a shipmate clinging on to a sinking ship with three human enemies attacking him is hilarious.
Interactions with other players are amazing, but I fear they may also be required for Sea of Thieves to be fun. Although I didn't get to try it, a smaller ship is available for those who prefer to play by themselves, but that's not going to help when a crew of four strangers are attacking you head on. If your friends don't buy the game, you could of course team up with random people on the internet, but relying on strangers hidden behind Gamertags rarely promises consistent fun.
Sea of Thieves makes performing each role of a pirate team so fun that it undoubtedly has the potential to become a multiplayer favorite. But given so much of its depth and base enjoyment is reliant on having a good group around you, I worry for anyone planning to set sail alone.