Back in the early 2000s, Sid Meier’s Pirates! was one of those little adventure games that let you get your ARRRGH on—sailing the high seas, battling galleons and sloops, and crossing swords with many a scurvy seaman over their boundless bounty of gold doubloons. It was broad, colorful and sanitized enough to give the digital life of a pirate just the right yo ho charm and sea-salt fun. I remember it fondly.
So I was looking forward to Rare’s new Sea of Thieves. But could this first-person seafaring game deliver a similar sense of merry swashbuckling adventure? Or would it end up being more of a swab-the-decks slog?
Set the sails, me Bucko. We’ll be givin’ it a good looksee.
First of all, potential buccaneers should understand that this isn’t an adventure with a central storyline to follow, unlike Meier’s old game. Instead, would-be pirates sally forth online into an open world of islands, forts, shipwrecks and ports.
It’s almost like an MMO (massively multiplayer online game), only without as much annoying and grinding play. Yes, there’s plenty of exploring, digging up of X-marks-the-spot treasure chests, sea battles and sword swinging to be done here, but there’s nothing driving you forward—other than the stories you create yourself. Sea of Thieves is all about splashing through the beautiful waves and enjoying this Caribbean world and its various cartoonish characters.
You commence by creating your own barnacle-branded male or female pirate, and you’re given all the basic gear you need. From there, your quests and voyages can involve the game’s three Trading Companies. The Merchant Alliance offers the opportunity to build up your own trading empire—carting chickens and other livestock from here to there. The Gold Hoarders are essentially the scowling eye-patch types who pull crumpled treasure maps from their inner coat pockets. Finally, the Order of Souls will send you off on quests that involve trading blows with revenant skeletal crews of long-dead pirates and retrieving their valuable skulls. (Another such journey involves finding a secret shrine.)
Each fulfilled job boosts your reputation with that faction, unlocks more challenging and rewarding commissions, and fills your pockets with ever-increasing piles of booty. But here’s where an interesting part of the game comes into play. While there are level-based restrictions on which quests you can pick up and pursue, there are no such limits on the crews you can join. So even if you’re a fairly new swabbie, if you find yourself on the right experienced pirate’s crew, you could soon be swimming in treasure and buying the best guns and gear.
It’s that crew side of this game, though, that could potentially leave you growling like a freebooter with holes in his soggy socks. If, for example, you’re the sort who’d much prefer sailing the high seas on his own, you’re going to have a tough go of it. In fact, the game makes it unabashedly clear that sailing on your own is dangerous and extremely difficult.
The first time I sailed off in a small sloop on my own, I was quickly broadsided, boarded and sunk by a sword-swinging galleon crew before I’d even made it out of port. (There’s no blood in the mix, by the way. Bested sailors simply puff out of existence, find themselves on a ghosty ship of souls, then reappear back in the land of the living.) And the next time I tried it, I found that simultaneously running back and forth between manning the rudder, trimming the sails, setting course on the captain’s map table, patching the hull and lowering the anchor—all designed as separate stations and levels onboard the sailing vessels—was no easy feat.
That said, teaming up with a crew of online strangers will have its share of challenges, too. Some teammates can be less serious than you. You may want to work together like a seasoned crew to take on that fort manned by scores of deadly undead, but the jokesters onboard might be more into taking a slapdash comedy cruise. And then there’s that piratey language. There’s no foul discourse in the game itself, but if you don the headset and microphone as the game recommends, you might encounter enough salty lingo and crass seagoing jokes to make Blackbeard himself blush.
On the other hand, if you invite your own handpicked crew of friends to join you online and onboard, then that could be the best of all peg-legged worlds. You’ll still have marauders launching cannon balls across your ship’s bow, of course. And there will still be supernaturally enlivened skeletons to battle, grog to down in the taverns, and krakens to blast on the high seas.
But hey, that’s the kind of stuff you expect to experience in a game imagining the life of a (T-rated) pirate.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.