When I received my code for the Sea of Thieves closed beta last week, I jumped in right away. Moments later, I had wrecked my ship on an island in the middle of the night, unsure of what to do or where to go next. I turned it off. But rather than give up on the game, my next step was to tune into a few Twitch and YouTube streams to watch players who actually knew what they were doing. That’s when I started to see the potential of Sea of Thieves.
Sea of Thieves is a sandbox pirate simulator for Xbox One and PC in which you (either solo or with a group of friends) sail the open seas in search of buried treasure. The loop is simple — you buy a quest from an NPC in an outpost, you find the target island on the map on your ship, you sail to that island and you search for a treasure chest. Once you’ve found it, you head back to an outpost to sell it for gold. Rinse and repeat.
If this sounds more like the pitch for a game than a final product, that’s because it kind of is. But the reason that Sea of Thieves is such an effortlessly entertaining game is because a) the mechanics of sailing are perfectly balanced and challenging enough to keep you engaged and b) there are dozens of other players roaming around the same world that you are, some of which will attack you on sight and others which will lend a helping hand.
In the closed beta, there were no tutorials or cutscenes to explain how the game works. I managed to figure out how to sail to an island on my own, but I was lost once I got there. Then I started watching others play. I learned to use the sail to catch the wind. I learned how to access my inventory. I learned to turn off the lanterns on my one-man ship so as not to attract the attention of larger boats looking for weak prey.
I also witnessed some of the most thrilling and hysterical dynamic encounters I’ve ever seen in a game. Watching a single player flank a team of four, board their ship, wipe them out and steal their treasure, only to escape unscathed, is as gripping as any TV show I’ve watched in the past few months.
And watching groups of players learn how to divvy up responsibility — someone needs to steer, someone needs to man the sails, someone needs to load the cannons — is always good for a laugh. Many games aspire to be catalysts for incredible stories that you’ll want to tell your friends, but few succeed. Sea of Thieves is one of them.
By the time I jumped back in, I actually knew what I was doing (for the most part). I opted to play alone rather than team up with a group of strangers online, but there was something incredibly rewarding about completing a voyage on my own. That’s not to say that playing with friends wouldn’t be even more fun and absurd, but before I knew it, I had spent three straight hours captivated by the simple act of sailing around the world that Rare had built.
But the linchpin of Sea of Thieves, the anchor that keeps you stuck to the couch even when the combat fails to impress you or the voyages begin to feel repetitive, is the water. There haven’t been many games this generation that have bowled me over with their visuals, but the water in Sea of Thieves is so stunningly gorgeous that it’s hard to look away. Then there’s the weather and the dynamic lighting and the way the sun breaks through the clouds after a long storm — I spent at least an hour of the beta just watching the world of the game in motion.
What excites me most about the beta, now that it has come to an end, is that it only contained a fraction of what the final game will offer. There’s so much more of this world to explore, and whether I have a crew lined up or not, I’ll be ready on day one to dive back in and see everything that Sea of Thieves has to offer.