734 days later. Still sailing the Sea of Thieves.

March 23, 2020

Sea of Thieves celebrated its second birthday a couple of days ago. I started sailing all the way back in the technical alpha, and have played regularly since launch - the last time being a little under 24 hours ago. I thought now would be a good time to sit back and have a think about a game that started off as something I found interesting, and that has grown to be a contender for the top position on my list of all-time favourite games. 

I've probably devoted more words on this site to Sea of Thieves than I have any other, and that's for the simple reason that the game constantly provides me with things to talk about. It's an incredible story-generator, but it also eschews so many gaming trends that every so often I'll notice how the it does something and wish that more games and developers would have the guts to try something different.

 

Two years on, it's a game I'm still not bored of. In part it's the world itself. While it's grown and expanded in a couple of directions since the game launched, that world at its core hasn't changed - and it's a world that I've come to know so intimately that it feels like a second home. Lots of open world games brag about the sheer size of their worlds; the number of locations, how many square miles it covers, how long it would take to traverse it. Sea of Thieves' world probably isn't the biggest, or comprised of the largest number of locations - but what it does do is feel lived in. It's a world I could imagine actually existing in. It doesn't give up all of its secrets easily, and navigating it can be tricky for even the most experienced pirates on occasion, but it's a place that you'll get to know intimately if you play the game regularly. Only a couple of days ago I grumbled about the world of Mafia 3. You could drop me ANYWHERE in that world and without a guiding line on a mini-map, I would never have been able to find my way. Sea of Thieves is the polar opposite. I'm pretty sure I could be dropped off at any island in the world and, given a rowboat, navigate to any large island I was asked to. Every place is distinctive in its way - you can see them from far enough away to navigate. There's even a North Star.

The open world is wonderful - but even more impressive these days are the ways in which you can interact with it. At this point, two years in, Sea of Thieves is a game I can visit and find something that I'll enjoy regardless of the mood I'm in. If it's PvP I'm after, I can hit the Arena... or sail around the open world looking for other players to victimise. If I just want straight up combat in a PvE style, there are forts and skeleton ships floating around the world that I can hunt down. If it's something more chilled out, I can fish with my crew or just sail around beachcombing. The Tall Tales offer up a more guided experience, with rewards for multiple completions. The game even offers up ASMR with its calming waves, creaking boards, and singing birds - on afternoons when I work from home, it's not unheard of for me to sign into the game, crash my pirate out at an outpost and just listen to the game. In addition to all this, it's the perfect game for socialising. The game offers peaks and troughs of intensity that seem to offer just the right amount of time between events for chatting and just hanging out, and if that's all you want from an evening you can park up at a seapost and fish.

 

When it came out, it took a lot of flak for being "empty." I wrote a while ago that the things that so many people hated about the game were the exact things that I loved about it - if anything, time has strengthened that depth of feeling. Those same things are, I think, the exact reason why it's standing the test of time so well. The more time passes by, the more it feels like those design decisions that felt so controversial and divisive at the time are the exact reasons that it continues to appeal to me and to attract new players (I personally know of FOUR people that have bought Xboxes specifically to play this game). The lack of a meta and power progression is a big part of it - the fact that new players can play alongside new players seamlessly and at no obvious disadvantage is a decision that makes more and more sense with each passing day. Each release brings with it new tools and ways to interact with the world - whether it's a new musical instrument, a fishing rod, the ability to cook, or the ability to launch firebombs at your enemies. Just yesterday, a couple of us who play all the time went on a voyage with a couple of players who we hadn't played with for a while - and there were no levels or loadouts to be considered. For them, there was nothing was locked away behind a progression wall in spite of their inactivity; we were straight into the game, onto a galleon, and heading for the sunset. No other game I know of does that - and I don't think that there is one.

All in all, it's just a package that I never seem to tire of. At this point, two years along, it's firmly in my top five list of games of all time - and whatever the future holds for it, I'll be following closely. Well done, Rare. You've created a new genre here, and raised the bar of what I expect of multiplayer experiences to a ridiculous height. You've crafted a game that people play purely for the fun of playing - and at this point in the history of videogames, that's a phenomenally unusual thing indeed.

 

And to Sea of Thieves, happy birthday. Let's see what your third year has in store. For now... bring me that horizon.

 

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