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Rare's open sea PvP pirate-'em-up releases later today, and Chris Livingston and I have been able to rig up a sloop a little early. Having played in three of the Sea of Thieves betas, we're on the hunt for anything that was held for the release version—namely, the many-tentacled kraken teased in the launch trailer (we haven't found it yet, sorry). As I work on our review, here's what we've discovered about the full version of Sea of Thieves so far.
New sessions start like they did in the beta with everyone in your party (two-to-four players on a galleon, or one-to-two on a sloop) appearing in a tavern on one of the outpost islands where quest-givers eternally wait to chat with ambitious pirates. There's now a cute little scene in which you wake up from grog-induced sleep—part of a slickly animated all-over experience—as well as a much needed tutorial that walks you through how to use your inventories with a few tooltips.
That basics are all the same. Your ship begins docked at the outpost, awaiting your first adventures, and the sea is populated with other players going about their own business. There are a few types of voyages (aka quests) to pick up: treasure hunts, merchant deliveries, and skeleton bounties. (There are also smuggling operations mentioned on the wiki, but I haven't seen any sign of that yet.)
All of the quest types burden you with hefty objects—chests, caged animals, skulls—that require two hands to carry, and that other players can steal if they raid your ship before you turn them in for your gold reward. The new bounty voyages, which weren't available in any of the betas, send you to an island to defeat waves of special skeleton enemies and collect their bosses' glowing skulls to return for payment. Chris and I discovered that the skulls light up your ship like a spooky lighthouse unless you stash them below deck, and I kind of want to stick one in our crow's nest as a challenge to other players. Come and get it ya scum.
Open exploration
I'm pleased by how we took on our first bounty quest. After a quick treasure hunt, we headed to a place called Kraken Watchtower in the hopes that the thing it was watching for would appear and drag us to the sea floor. It didn't, but Chris spotted a message in a bottle on the island, and inside we found a bounty poster. Later, he also found a little gold trinket, as well as a chest just sitting out in the open, unrelated to any official voyage. (He also got bitten by a snake.)
That's a big improvement. During the betas, I was worried that there wouldn't be any point to exploring without an official voyage on the table, which shrunk the scope and potential of the game for me. But because it can now pay off to stop at little islands whether or not we've been sent to them, our adventures can take unexpected turns rather than always running from outpost to objective, then objective to outpost. It should also mean that player ships we see on the horizon are more likely to have treasure on board.
(Update: Items like these were in the last beta says DJNOOB in the comments, but they only found a couple in hours of play. We found them pretty much right away, so maybe the spawn rate has been upped?)
I hope that's the case. In the betas, we'd often attack passing ships just for the hell of it, but we almost never found anything of value on board. Granted, the same thing happened this time: On our meandering journey, we sailed up to a player's ship parked outside an outpost, blasted its hull with a few cannonballs and boarded but didn't find anything. It's probable, though, that they were parked at the outpost because they had just taken whatever loot they'd found ashore to sell, so it makes sense that their hold would be bare.
Bounty hunting
Sailing and combat haven't changed. The functions of your ship are divided into hotspots: grab the wheel to steer and check the compass, grab a rope to raise and lower the sails, setup behind a cannon to aim and fire, determine your bearing in the map room, and so on.
Chris and my favorite maneuver is to whack the windlass and drop the anchor while the wheel is turned all the way left or right, causing us to heave 90 degrees in that direction—the nautical equivalent of an emergency brake turn. Of course, then we have to slowly rotate the winch to raise the anchor and keep moving, but it's cool when we do it to suddenly align our cannons with the bow of some poor pirates who aren't nearly as fast or furious as us.
Above: We haven't fought a kraken yet, but if you want to see what it looks like, these guys have.
As for our bounty quest, it was an opportunity for a bit of target practice in preparation for that kind of PvP encounter. We didn't know what to expect, so we parked our ship and swam ashore, at which point we were mobbed by waves of super-skeles—much heartier, better-armed baddies than the standard guys who auto-populate the islands. It doesn't help that you can only hold two guns at a time, and only five rounds for each that have to be refilled back on board the ship.
The tide turned when I swam back to the ship to do just that, though. I decided that instead of returning to the shore to help Chris up close, I'd spin the ship parallel to him and man a cannon. I blasted a couple big skeleton groups (which is visually and audibly spectacular when it happens inches from your head) and then Chris and I traded places. We went back and forth like that—baiting skeletons to the shore so the other could bombard them—for a good 10 minutes or so before we'd shattered four bosses and stashed their skulls deep in our hull.
When will the fun end?
Not every game has to be Rocket League, which I'm pretty sure I could play for 10,000 hours without getting bored. Most games have a stopping point. The main question I've been asked about Sea of Thieves, because it's such an open sandbox, is when that point's going to come for most players.
At the moment, I still have to fight a kraken, I want to earn enough gold to buy some cosmetic ship upgrades, and I haven't tired yet of fighting other players, whether through long, slow chases or sudden clashes that end with hulls smashing together and all of us dead and sunk. It's just so silly and it usually doesn't feel antagonistic—rather, it's more like we're stunt performers putting on a show for invisible cameras, plummeting from the crow's nest dramatically and firing ourselves out of cannons (you can do that if you didn't know).
I want to see the endgame, too, of course, which Sam talks about a bit here. But as far as just sailing around, finding treasure, hoping to stumble across some kind of unique event (without knowing if there's anything more than the krakens and skeleton fort raids discussed in Sam's post), I think I could enjoy Sea of Thieves for a good while, though I can't be more specific without actually testing that limit.
The one caveat is that based on my experiences so far, it has to be with friends. It was funny the one time a rando popped into our crew to replace a cohort who left and started raising our anchor while we were on shore, and it was even funnier when I started shouting "no, no, no" and he would stop, look at me, and then continue raising it every time. But I do not want to go on any extended journey with a crew of children (which is a little ironic, as I regress 25 years when I play).
Sea of Thieves is built around long, slow voyages, so it's a great way to shoot the shit with friends. It also requires everyone in a crew to work together toward the same goal, which is a lot easier when you know each other. I'm sure I could meet a random crew and build a rapport—something I intend to try—but I'm zero for three so far. One time Chris and I jumped onto someone else's ship and thought about joining them—we were having fun playing our accordions together—but within ten seconds they went all edgelord on us in voice chat so we bailed and sunk 'em.
Nope, it's just been Chris and me for the most part. We even made up our own pirate rules. That's a couple adults playing make-believe like seven-year-olds, which tells me that there's a fundamental joy to Sea of Thieves' sailing. And I love the ocean, too—the real one—so gazing out at the gorgeously-rendered waves and 'feeling' the bobbing of the ship nourishes a passion I've neglected. I wish I could smell the salt water. (Maybe I'll buy some scented candles.)
One other good bit of news: even though the Microsoft Store (the only place you can buy Sea of Thieves for Windows 10) and the Xbox App (the only way to invite friends) are messes, Chris and I had no trouble teaming up this time, and it has run beautifully for me—above 60 fps on the highest settings on my GTX 980, easily alt-tabbed in and out of. I'm going to play as much as I can from now until I finish our review later this week, and I'll let you know how long it takes me to tire of the pirate's life, if I ever do.
Last update on by Jane Muldun.