Sea of Thieves is the Wallace and Gromit of pirate games. It's the kind of game where something simple like sailing to an island can spiral out of control until the next thing I know I'm chugging a mug of grog and firing myself out of a cannon to try and rescue a teammate who fell overboard in shark-infested waters. Seconds later, the rest of our four-person crew are also launching themselves out of cannons because who cares about the objective anyway?
During the chaos of E3, I sat down with three strangers to demo Sea of Thieves. It was largely a positive experience, but it made me desperate to play the game with friends instead. Wallace and Gromit are a duo of comedic genius because they have an amazing rapport—even when things aren't going well—but Sea of Thieves doesn't necessarily promise that same kind of chemistry. Though I had some fun and could clearly see the potential for greatness, I also wished my team would shut up and just focus at the task at hand instead of reenacting scenes from The Titanic. By the end of the demo, I felt more like a frazzled parent of three than a jolly pirate.
A pirate's life? Maybe.
Sea of Thieves doesn't enforce any kind of structure on your team or how you complete the objective. At the beginning of the demo, we were merely given the option of a few islands we could sail to in hopes of discovering some treasure. Once we solved a simple riddle, we pushed off the dock in our boat and made for the open sea.
But what roles each member of the team should take are up to the team to decide. The lack of structure is a double-edged sword: On on the one hand, that Sea of Thieves doesn't try to regiment your roles or objectives makes it open-ended like an improv performance. On the other hand, it can all devolve into chaos if no one wants to work together. During my demo, one of my teammates was constantly shrieking into the microphone while running around like an unsupervised child in a grocery store. For a time, it was fun to run around the ship and interact with everything to see what what we could and couldn't do. I filled a mug of grog and chugged it down and then drunkenly fell overboard. We ate bananas, fired the cannons, and pulled out our instruments to play a nice song together.
Eventually I found myself wanting to actually, y'know, do pirate stuff. My team was reluctant to join me. While I piloted the ship and made sure we didn't actually relive The Titanic, the others mostly ran around doing nothing helpful at all—despite my friendly suggestions of what they could do.
It was a long trek to the treasure-filled island we needed to reach, and Sea of Thieves' dynamic open world didn't make the voyage any more interesting. While others who played the demo had to fend off enemy ships, we didn't cross paths with a single one. I spent the 15 minute journey mostly ogling the gorgeous ocean waves (seriously, Sea of Thieves' water is breathtaking) and turning down my headset to drown out that one teammate who was a window into a terrifying alternate dimension where Spongebob Squarepants owns a YouTube gaming channel.
Eventually, I figured out it would be best to let that person take the helm so that they could stay focused on the task at hand and we might actually get somewhere. Of course they did exactly what Spongebob would do and ran the ship aground, flooding the hull, and eventually sinking it entirely. At least we were on land.
At this point, I decided the best thing to do would be to ditch my team entirely and look for the treasure myself. Though the island was defended by groups of skeletons, they didn't pose too much of a challenge against my blunderbuss and I cut through them easily. It was my first taste of combat, but it was underwhelming as the skeles stood mostly still, staring at me angrily. After we found some loot, the demo was over and, honestly, I was kind of relieved.
It's not that Sea of Thieves is bad. I think the game is brilliant in a lot of ways, but that praise doesn't come from first-hand experience. Like Arma, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and so many other games, Sea of Thieves will surely be much more enjoyable with a squad of trusted mates by my side. Otherwise, I'll risk being swept up by the whims of the random players. When Sea of Thieves launches in 2018, I'm going to try my hardest to get a core group of friends together to play. But if that doesn't happen, it's a voyage I'd rather skip.