Sea of Thieves: chaotic piratey fun that needs some complexity

Within seconds of starting Sea of Thieves, I was drunk and playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on an accordion. My crewmates, two Rare devs and two other E3 attendees, pulled out their own instruments and joined in the song as we ran out to board our ship. As soon as I got on the boat, I was so drunk I stumbled off the opposite end and into the ocean, still playing my song as I scrambled to get back on board. The crew immediately made me captain and gave me control of the helm. This is truly a pirate-y game. 

Sea of Thieves is an online multiplayer game set on the high seas. You and your friends take control of a pirate ship and have to work together to fight other players while making sure you don’t sink in the process. Someone mans the helm, another navigates from the crow’s nest, while the others unfurl and readjust sails. While in combat, players can take control of individual cannons or go below deck to patch the holes that have been blown in your hull. None of these positions are permanently set, and it’s easy to run to a different spot on the ship and swap jobs.

During the demo, my crew and I were on voice-comms together as we sailed into the sea to hunt down two other player-controlled pirate ships. It was an absolute blast to bark orders at each other, celebrate when we let loose a successful broadside against the enemy, and scamper below deck when we realized we were taking on water. Sea of Thieves isn’t trying to be a sim and doesn’t take itself seriously, so there’s a wonderful joy in simply pushing away from the shore and pretending you’re a cartoon pirate, bottles of rum and all.
 

Seeing the gorgeous ocean waves swell and recede made what could otherwise be a flat landscape feel dynamic and dangerous. At one point, we were parallel to an enemy ship but couldn’t actually see it because of a large wave between us. Both crews had to lob shots over the water, hoping more of our cannonballs were connecting than the theirs. The look and behavior of the ocean goes a long way in making Sea of Thieves' charmingly simple art style not feel bland and empty.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of humdrum

But how long this experience lasts is still a question for me. We know there will be upgrades to unlock and dungeons to explore, but the actual shape of the game outside of combat is still a mystery. If my crew needs to sail from one port to another, no combat involved, what will the players who are usually manning the cannons have to do? How many times can we get drunk and play ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ by holding a single button down before it’s not funny anymore?

And what happens if I don’t have any friends online? I’m not sure how much fun Sea of Thieves will be when there’s no one to harmonize accordions with, but I imagine not very. The developer told me that there will be smaller ships that you can steer by yourself, but that’s clearly not the way the game is intended to be played, and I’m not sure the combat is deep enough to keep it interesting without a bunch of salty pirates cracking jokes in my ear—at least it wasn’t in the demo I played.

Cannons had infinite ammo and didn’t need to be manually reloaded. Dealing damage was as simple as shooting at the big wood part of their ship—no special damage for shooting masts or sails—which would create generic-looking holes in the hull to let in water. You could patch these holes simply by stepping up to them with a plank (also infinite) and holding a button. These systems are fun in the moment, and especially chaotic when you're trying to coordinate five people effectively against another five people, but they're very straightforward. Shoot at ship, hold button to repair, repeat.

Ship combat can be fun by itself, even without much depth—Sid Meier’s Pirates! is one of my favorite pirate games of all time, and there’s not a whole lot of complexity to its naval fights—but when the jobs are divvied between players so that you’re only focused on one or two pieces at a time, the shallow mechanics are more apparent. And when your crewmates are eating dinner, or playing Overwatch, or generally doing something else, will I really want to take on those roles by myself?

To be fair, most of my skepticism with Sea of Thieves isn’t about the game I played at E3 today, it’s about the game I might be playing at my desk next year. I had a blast running around a pirate ship, firing cannons, and playing an accordion with my crew as we rode our sinking ship to Davy Jones’ locker. Rare is making a game I’ve always wanted to see made, and I truly hope I want to keep playing it once it’s finished. But without any complex objectives or activities, the demo they showed felt a bit bare, so the question of how long I'll want to sing and drink and shoot cannons remains.