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Skull & Bare Bones
If, like me, you played Sea of Thieves during its beta, you more than likely didn’t pick it up at full price when it launched in March 2018. During those early days, Rare’s open world pirate simulator was a very bare bones experience. Granted, its seas were gorgeous. For a few hours you could undeniably have a laugh with friends — hoisting the sails, digging up treasure, and shooting down other ships. Perhaps even getting drunk on grog, prompting you to vomit in your helmsman’s face as your shipmates played sea shanties on concertinas and banjos.
But that was all, and the experience got old pretty quickly. Soon, you would have the sail rigging down to a fine art, and your friends found your drunken vomits less funny and more just annoying. You were visiting an island that looked like every one before it, digging up treasure chests that looked much like previous chests. You could cash those chests in for gold, but there was little to spend that gold on. After all, a different coloured bucket only holds so much appeal.
For beta players it might have felt like you’d seen everything the game had to offer in those initial few days, and you likely had. But if, like me, you proceeded to ignore Sea of Thieves for the last two years, then I’m about to tell you all the reasons to return to those swirling seas.
The Maiden Voyage
There’s simply no better time to jump on Sea of Thieves to give it a try than now. Being a part of Xbox Game Pass, subscribers get full access to the game for a low monthly price. The subscriptions are regularly on offer to new members, meaning for many, Sea of Thieves can be trialled over a month for just £1/$1. If subscription services aren’t your thing, the game was also released to the Steam PC storefront on June 3 2020, complete with all the usual Steam benefits (achievements, forum support, trading cards and more).
When you first log in to Sea of Thieves, you’re prompted to create a burly looking seadog (that’s pirate-speak for… well, pirate). In Early Access, the game began in a tavern overlooking your ship, with some tooltips as your only means of introduction. Now, Sea of Thieves comes with a complete tutorial. “The Maiden Voyage” sees the ghostly Pirate Lord walk you through the basics of navigating islands, fighting off hordes of skeletons, and eventually setting sail and navigating your ship. This mission is the only self-contained single player area in the game. Once finished, you join the main game world on either the up-to-two player Sloop ship, the massive four player three-decked Galleon, or the new three player two-decked Brigantine.
The self-contained tutorial mission also has a number of secrets and Easter eggs for lore hunters, including (naturally) a hidden pirate stash. Finding all of these items grants you two of Sea of Thieves‘ more integral new changes — doubloons and commendations.
Booty and Plunder
Doubloons are the rare secondary currency in Sea of Thieves (alongside gold), used for purchasing unique cosmetic items on the black market. They are awarded for a number of in-game activities, primarily completing missions for, or returning treasure to, the Bilge Rats faction. The Black Market is one of many unique sellers in the Sea of Thieves, all offering a variety of cosmetic-only items.
Cosmetics have had a massive influx since the beta, including many more appearance changes for all of your personal effects, clothing, tattoos and even the occasional hook hand or peg leg. The most notable addition though is the much-requested ship cosmetics, allowing you to purchase items that change the look of everything from flags and sails to cannons and decking. Beautiful figureheads can also adorn the front of your ship. I can’t stress enough how much value these simple cosmetics add to the game, giving players a reason to actually want to cash in their treasure in the first place.
As it currently stands anything worth doubloons are strictly vanity only, to avoid any balance breaking, but collecting an entire set of items for your pirate or your ship becomes a mission in itself. For those dedicated to life onboard, Sea of Thieves also now offers Ancient Coins, a currency only attainable for purchase with real world money (or Steam credit). Ancient Coins can be spent at the Emporium, to purchase unique cosmetics including emotes and even pets. If you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks, the game now supports having your very own cat, parrot or monkey roaming around onboard. And yes, there are cute little outfits for them, too.
The other key reason to adopt a life of piracy is commendations. These are essentially an in-game achievement system, granted for everything from finding hidden items around the world map, to fishing up an old battered boot (more on that later). More cosmetics are locked behind achieving specific commendations. Sorely lacking in the beta was a purpose for setting sail in the first place. Commendations are Rare’s solution to this problem. They become a key drive for would-be buccaneers in Sea of Thieves’ gameplay structure, underpinning the new campaign story as well as the various factions.
A Pirate’s Life
The campaign, dubbed ‘Tall Tales’, consists of a series of commendations tied to a full story mode. Much like standard voyages, these missions can be voted on by the crew and consist of lengthy quests that take you and your friends all around the map on a plot-driven adventure. Tall Tales are checkpointed, allowing you to drop in and out of them at your will, and are scaled to balance island sizes and boss difficulties with your crew size. At the time of writing, nine Tall Tale missions are joined by an on-going story arc called Flameheart. Completing Tall Tale missions naturally grants plenty of treasure, commendations, and unique cosmetic items. Furthermore, Tall Tales are being continuously updated.
Outside of these stories, Sea of Thieves no longer skimps on other voyages for you and your band of brigands to embark on. The Gold Hoarders and Order of Souls missions from the beta remain, asking you to dig up buried treasure or hunt skeleton pirate bosses, respectively. These factions have been fleshed out to bring them in line with all other mission-givers in the game, complete with reputation tiers that grant access to more rewarding voyages and purchasable cosmetics and titles. These titles appear as hovering nicknames under your account name, ranging from the mundane ‘Gold Picaroon’ to the edgy ‘Death Defier’ or even the illustrious ‘Legendary Hunter’.
Joining the Gold Hoarders and Order of Souls are other new trading companies with their own unique voyages, commendations, and titles for you to hunt down. The Merchant Alliance tasks you with bringing them specific items for sale. The Hunter’s Call asks pirates to become hunters of certain creatures. The Reaper’s Bones focus on PvP encounters with other players’ ships and hunting down their valuable Reaper’s Chest that flags you to the entire map whilst in your possession. Additionally, Athena’s Fortune are accessible only to players that acquire the status of Pirate Legend from mastering three other trading companies. Finally, The Sea Dogs are active in the separate PvP arena area. As of 2020, trading companies also allow players to become Emissaries for them, representing the faction for increased rewards and gaining access to unique emissary costumes and ship cosmetics through timed leaderboard-like Ledgers.
Man the Cannons!
Player combat in Sea of Thieves is largely unchanged from the beta. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as they are amongst the most dangerous and thrilling encounters in the game. However, a number of new items have been added since launch, which have provided new tactics when raiding your rivals’ vessels. Firebombs have become a crucial element of combat— sail in close and coat the enemy decks in fire, creating a hazard to keep them distracted. If you’re especially lucky, they’ll even have to jump overboard to save from burning to death themselves! Chainshot allows you to focus on bringing down opponent’s masts to halt them in battle, whilst Cursed Cannonballs add a whole other level of mystical mayhem to combat. Connect with one of these to enforce a variety of magical effects on the opposing crew, from lowering their anchor unexpectedly, to making their entire crew drunk. They won’t be fighting back much whilst they’re swaying all over their deck and vomiting their guts into each others’ faces.
The Arena mode condenses the core Sea of Thieves game loop into a bitesize 15-minute chunk of treasure grabbing and PvP fighting. Players score ‘silver’ for cashing treasure, killing other pirates, and sinking enemy ships in a race to be victorious.
Danger in the Depths
PvP isn’t the only form of conflict on Sea of Thieves’ vast oceans anymore. AI controlled Skeleton Fleets also sail the seas, offering a rewarding target for pirates— and a deadly threat when they rise out of the ocean like an unexpected submarine. The June 2020 update also added Ghost Ships to the seas, spooky spectral ships of the damned that fire deadly Wraithballs and drop mines into the sea.
It’s not just ships that the pirate in the crow’s nest should be looking out for, though. Fearsome creatures now inhabit the waters, including the giant Megalodon shark and the terrifying Kraken. No moment in Sea of Thieves has been as adrenaline-pumping as trying to survive a kraken attack in a thunderstorm with a hold full of valuable treasure. Imagine yelling instructions at your teammates as you try to fend off tentacles and avoid being sucked into the fanged mouth, all whilst your ship is encircled by a slimy giant appendage and your hull is filling with bilge water. Of course, win the confrontation and you’re promised great rewards, not least of which from the Hunter’s Call who pay prime for cooked kraken meat.
Fort of the Damned
As you watch that horizon, you may see a giant cloud that looks unsettlingly like a skull. Its eyes glow an ominous green but it’s no trick of the light. The skull cloud marks the existence of a Skeleton Fort. These are ‘World Events’, random encounters (like the Kraken) which spawn around the map. Skeleton Forts act as horde mode battles on land, against increasingly difficult waves of skeletons and ultimately the Skeleton Lord. Completing the event grants access to the vault containing untold treasures.
A larger-scale event called the Fort of the Damned acts as Sea of Thieves’ only ‘raid’ event. This fort can be activated by players (rather than randomly occurring) and shares features with events in popular MMOs. Players must complete a number of tasks, including locating and placing specific objects and defeating challenging enemies to complete the raid. Fort of the Damned is such a challenging encounter that usually-hostile player ships often band together to take on the fort as a group. To do so, players can form Alliances – a temporary allegiance of ships sailing for a singular goal. Agreeing to an Alliance means sharing any gold earned during the session, but unfortunately there is currently no way to add a second group of friends to your game. Presumably this seeks to avoid breaking the balance (imagine clans riding together in fleets of ten or more ships!), as Sea of Thieves currently has no support for more than four friends logging in together.
If everything I’ve described so far sounds kind of hectic, fear not. Sea of Thieves certainly hasn’t forgotten its players of a more relaxed temperament. Whilst solving riddle maps to find buried treasure is the most common way of hunting down loot, players with a keen eye to the spyglass may also find sunken ships dotted around the seas, marked by crows circling their jutting peaks. Also beneath the surface are the new Mermaid statues, wailing their cry that can only be heard whilst submerged, and clutching precious gems of varying colours. Additionally, all ships, including some rowing boats, now come equipped with harpoons. These seemingly small additions are useful and priceless— whether it’s for tugging your ship into port, snaring an enemy ship or shark, or just for grabbing loot (and your shipmates!) from shore or the ocean.
Pirates can also turn fisherman, casting their rods over the side of the deck to find an assortment of coloured sea life. Rare fish can only be found with certain baits, or in certain areas of the map, and The Hunter’s Call provide plenty of reasons to hunt them down. Fish can also be cooked up onboard for a health-reviving snack. In addition, ‘treacherous plunder’ (such as the aforementioned old boot) can be found to sell— including the rare key for opening Ashen Chests.
If all of this sounds like a lot to do, it’s because it is. After two years of solid development and monthly updates, Sea of Thieves is absolutely bursting with content for players new and old. Limited time events and Ledger leaderboards provide reasons to keep jumping back in, and daily events/challenges also provide an ongoing way to make gold and doubloons.
On The Horizon
Sea of Thieves continues to grow. At time of writing, the most recent update was just this week, and Rare has expressed no end date in sight. And whilst Sea of Thieves is absolutely a complete game well worth the asking price, as a live service there’s plenty of room for it to grow. Personally, I’d love to see the game add more things worth spending my ill-earned gains on. The game is flush for cosmetics, but as always with these kinds of unlocks, once you’ve settled on some that you really like, there’s not much need going out for more. Adding some unique weapons, items, buffs, abilities, gated areas, or even ships would go a long way in inspiring you to start filling those coffers. Sea of Thieves has a lot of missed potential as an RPG and allowing players to do more to individualise their pirate outside of hats and peg-legs could add some real depth to the game. This controversial opinion might clash with those who want Sea of Thieves to remain balanced and accessible, which is absolutely a valid viewpoint.
Outside of such a wild suggestion, I’d like to see the vast oceans of Sea of Thieves made less empty. Skeleton crews and ghost ships are a step in the right direction, but it’d be great to see human-crewed AI merchant vessels passing by— making unique stopping points for friendly emissaries of the Merchant Alliance, and juicy targets for ruthless rogues. More sea life akin to the Megalodon and Kraken wouldn’t go amiss either. Personally, I’ve got my hopes set on a giant sea crocodile that ticks like a clock. The same is true of life on land; it’d be nice to fight something other than skeletons, and the introduction of human NPCs or more dangerous wild animals (lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!) could necessitate an improvement to the melee combat beyond simply swinging a sword at the push of a button.
Onboard, some more distractions for the long journeys would be great for messing around with friends. A recent update added more shanties, but I’d love to see a little poker or dice played between crew mates. This would add yet another way to spend that gold. Also, how is it that there’s no way to scrub the deck yet?
Finally, on the subject of friends, I’d love to be able to play with more of them. A hard cap of four per crew seems low in a genre that often caters to clans and groups. Whilst the community continues to cry out for ten person Man O’ War ships, I’d prefer a simple fix to rebalance ship numbers. The Galleon can currently feel difficult to manage in combat with just four, so making that a five or six player ship could help with the experience and make it the true juggernaut it’s supposed to be. Alternatively, some individual modes or raid areas where multiple crews can sign up with friends to taking on larger events or bosses could liven up the gameplay. Imagine sailing beyond the borders of the map to face a fearsome foe with friends! It would at least provide some activities for clans to gather for without breaking the balance – not unlike the raid events in Destiny or The Division.
To Err Is Human, But To Arrrrrr Is Pirate!
Wishlists aside, Sea of Thieves as it stands today is an absolute steal. The Xbox Game Pass deal makes it the biggest bargain in gaming, but even at full price, the amount of content and playtime in Sea of Thieves is great value for money. Two years after release, developer Rare continue to roll out monthly updates at no extra cost, and to date there is no paid DLC. Paid content is instead reserved to Ancient Coins which are only for those who desperately need to dance with their shovel or sail with a cockatoo.
If you’ve ever wondered if Sea of Thieves might be for you, or if you were disappointed with the Early Access beta, I recommend you try the game now in 2020. Drink up me hearties, yo ho!
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I have had a passion for writing almost as long as my passion for video games. Which came first, the controller or the pen?
My earliest memories include stapling A4 papers together to make books to write on, and playing Super Mario on the NES with my brother. Now I play a huge variety of game genres, platforms and styles, from indie to AAA, from 2 hour experiences to 50 hour marathons, from RTS to FPS to RPG and every three letter acronym in-between.