Sea of Thieves' multiplayer ship battles are a blast, but the Xbox app needs to walk the plank

First, we conquered the Xbox app—angrily, painfully—and then we conquered the seas (kind of) in the closed beta for Sea of Thieves, a cooperative pirate sandbox where up to four players can hunt for treasure and battle other players on sea and land. 

Chris, James, Wes, and Tyler formed our crew, spending a couple hours earlier today drinking grog, beaching their ship, and failing entirely to capture another squad's sloop. They sunk a few times. But despite that and technical issues, and many questions still to answer—the beta is not a complete version of the game, with "most content" being held for launch—it was a pretty grand adventure.

Sea of Thieves is out on March 20, and we won't know how much developer Rare is holding back until then, but the pre-order bonus beta was plenty big enough to give us a few good tales of pirating blunders. It's running through the 29th, so we may have even more stories to tell. For now, here are our first impressions.

Windows to hell

Tyler: I'm most impressed by how dense Sea of Thieves is with stories. We only played with all four of us for a little over an hour, but I have all kinds of anecdotes: all the times I fell off the ship doing something stupid, our failed signal to drop the anchor that beached us, our foolhardy trip into the eye of a storm. And yet I'm scared for this game, because of the hour—or was it hours?—we spent trying to get four of us onto a ship via the Xbox app.

James: I have a feeling this game will fail on the PC because the Microsoft Store is still nearly impossible to navigate, and getting a party together using the Xbox app is a confusing pain. 

Tyler: Sure is. But I pray you're wrong about Sea of Thieves failing, because it was so much fun, even if I had to invite all of you 30 times each or whatever to get us into a lobby together, only for me to disconnect right before we started.

The characters in Sea of Thieves have impeccable balance. (Note that some screens in this article are cropped due to being captured at a widescreen resolution.)

We just set out to sea, and it’s a big, daunting, mysterious ocean.

James: Yeah. Once we were all in together, we just let our curiosity take control. There’s very little (maybe nothing?) in the way of tutorials, but once we figured out how to interact with people, objects, and different aspects of the ship, doing what pirates do came naturally. We just set out to sea, and it’s a big, daunting, mysterious ocean. Shame such a massive sandbox is stuck behind an awful user experience. 

Chris: That was frustrating and confusing and unless I miss my guess, if you're in the lobby for a while trying to get friends in there with you, the game will just eventually launch and fill your empty slots with randos. Is that correct? It seemed to happen a few times. 

Tyler: I don't know about that, but there were issues. It's a beta, and the goal here is to discover those issues, so I'll forgive it for now, but I can't help but wish this weren't a Microsoft game. Steam has its problems, but at least I can easily pop open an overlay to invite friends.

Wes: There's really no sugarcoating it: for a game this multiplayer focused, the painful combination of the Windows Store and the Xbox app feels close to a death sentence. It's really not going to cut it.

James and Tyler drunkenly stumble off a cliff.

Tyler: Let's get to the actual game, because that's more fun than our doomsaying. James and I began by getting sloshed on grog on the starting island. It was probably the most convincing drunk effect I've experienced in a game, swaying me around as I tried to navigate a precarious cliffside path. And then we both fell off the cliff into the sea. I was eaten by a shark.

James: I was not killed by a shark because I killed the sharks with my gun. 

Tyler: You left me to die, is what you mean. And then you shot a cannonball at me after I came back from the dead, which was pretty rude. I had just died, man.

Chris: I was running around filling cannons with balls and gathering wood. I was not amused by your hijinks. I was all business. Plus earlier some other player had drunk a lot of grog and then vomited it all over my face, so I was staying away from any grog-users.

It really felt like we were 'exploring,' because just getting the ship going the right direction requires experimentation and discovery.

Above: James rudely shoots a cannonball at Tyler.

Tyler: I love how many little jobs there are: loading cannons, lowering and adjusting sails, steering. I wish there were even more, no matter how pointless. I'd swab the deck.

Chris: I would like to cook, maybe. It's nice that you need a crew on the big ship. Sort of everyone has a little job to do. One person steers, another person gives directions, one person tells you when you're about to crash and should drop anchor and is ignored because the signal to drop anchor was apparently Tyler doing a dance, which he didn't bother to tell anyone else was the signal.

James: But at least we learned how to fix a sinking ship, right?

Tyler: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Just adding a sub-challenge. I liked having to grab boards to slam over leaks—it feels urgent and harrowing. And when not in crisis, this game is gonna be great for shooting the shit with friends. Set a course, get the accordions going, and you can just hang out and enjoy the sunsets. Which isn't to say that navigation is easy. It really felt like we were 'exploring,' because just getting the ship going the right direction requires experimentation and discovery. It wasn't just 'go to map marker, find treasure.'

Tyler 'signaling' that it was time to anchor.

Tyler 'signaling' that it was time to anchor.

Wes: There's a great physicality to most of the actions you take, which makes Sea of Thieves a vehicle for slapstick comedy and a more immersive first person game, as trite as that may be to say. It reminds me of having to pull out your paper map in Far Cry 2. In Sea of Thieves, when you take on the first introductory "voyage" you get a treasure map with X marking the spot, and you have to look at that map and compare it to the larger map on your ship to find the right island. Or you can just be like these chuckleheads and stand in a circle, pressing a mouse button to proudly show off your map like you drew it in art class. 

Chris, James, and Tyler show their maps to each other to make sure everyone knows where they're going. Nearby, an exasperated Wes digs up the treasure.

Chris: There's also some nice elements in the world that maybe hint at things to find, like we saw a flock of gulls circling in the distance. Does that mean they're circling over something specific to find, or is it just a little detail? We passed a bunch of barrels floating in the sea at one point, did a ship sink there? Is it something we could dive down and salvage? I don't know what's out there or if it's interesting, but it feels like a game where even sailing around with no specific plan could be rewarding.

Our first battle

Tyler: The best part was for sure getting into a feud with another squad of pirates over the plundering rights to a haunted island in the middle of a storm. We saw their ship and naturally decided that it should be ours—in part, sure, because ours sank—and that kicked off a great story with multiple chases. I think it started when James and I jumped into the ocean and tried to swim to their ship, and they took off. 

James: But not before I boarded. I hung out on the side ladder while they watched you shrink in the distance. And when I figured they thought we were gone, I hopped up and killed two of ‘em before they knew what was happening. Sword to the back and all that. The last crewmember and I ran around below deck, him taking shots at me with a pistol while I hid and attacked with my sword while he reloaded. Got me in the end, but it was such a cool little standoff. I could’ve stolen their ship and swung back around for you, Tyler. I didn’t, but now I desperately want to pull something off like that, and for no other reason than because I can.

James hanging onto an enemy ship while Tyler is swallowed by the sea. 

Wes took the wheel to hunt them down… and rammed into them. It didn't work out well for us.

Wes: At that point, I'd already jumped aboard their ship and gotten myself killed trying to swordfight two people at once. That was after a rogue wave capsized our ship, which I was patiently guarding. I watched it sink underwater, which was really cool, but within seconds it just disappeared, which was kind of disappointing. The little moments are really fun and funny, and the atmosphere totally nails the pirating life, but it all feels pretty throwaway.

Chris: I fell off the ship before we got to the battle. A bad pirate is me. I was very conscientious of keeping the cannons loaded until then, though.

Wes: That was on our new, magically respawned ship, which we all were able to teleport to and start sailing again like nothing happened. I am sorry for not coming back for you, though. I haven't mastered the U-turn in a giant pirate ship yet.

Tyler: Yeah, I respawned with you guys on the new ship, and we spotted them yet again. Wes took the wheel to hunt them down… and rammed into them. It didn't work out well for us.

Above: Tyler does a painfully bad job of boarding the enemy vessel after Wes' ramming maneuver.

Chris: Dying is a little weird, huh? You wind up on a ghost ship and then just kind of hang around for a minute as a ghost.

James: Yeah, I’m not really sure what’s going on there. It might just be a nice looking lobby to hang out in while it figures out a reasonable place and time to spawn you. I just hope we can become ghost pirates. 

Wes: You'd get different emotes as a ghost pirate, like 'make a spooky noise.'

Tyler: I would love to be a ghost pirate. That brings us to something Wes mentioned on the PC Gamer Show earlier: What are the stakes? Obviously it would suck if your ship sunk and that was that. It seems necessary that you, and it, have to respawn. But I'm not sure what we're working toward. There's no continuity between sessions, and all we have to lose at any given time is treasure we don't particularly care about—granted, this could all simply be because it's a beta. We can't judge it yet.

Above: After the ramming, both ships went their own ways. 

Wes: After that our ship sank again. I may not be the best helmsman.

Hopes and fears

Tyler: The important thing is that it was funny. Overall, Sea of Thieves is gorgeous (the water! the sunsets!) and it's nailed the sailing, so for me it's now a question what's out there to sail to. We've hardly seen any of the game—this closed beta version isn't at all complete, as I keep saying—but digging up chests will obviously get old, and getting hammered on grog and falling of the ship will only be funny a few times. I want to be surprised every time we play and to be challenged off-ship, where so far all I've done is shoot a few skeletons.

James: Definitely. There were so many moments where just spotting something in the distance was enough motive to go there, but few times where arriving paid off. Remember heading into the eye of the storm at night to check out that eerie isle of rocks? Nothing there but a few skeletons, far as I could tell at least.

Chris: There's a great feel to being out in the ocean, the waves really feel daunting, you're in a big ship that can't exactly stop on a dime, and when night falls and a storm rolls in it's as if night fell and a storm rolled in: you can't see a damn thing. It's great. Trying to figure what a few hazy lights in the distance are, not knowing if you're close to rocks or other ships or what, that's kind of exciting.

At least in this beta form, Sea of Thieves feels like a beautifully detailed diorama of the pirating life.

Tyler: It is. A lot of the entertainment comes from setting a goal and fighting the ocean to reach it—the journey, not the destination and all that. But I hope there are cool destinations, too. I wanted to meet some NPCs, or find puzzles, or be chased by something other than sharks, which I couldn't do much about. According to the note we received with the beta, "additional trading companies, quests, progression items, enemies and creatures will all be added before launch." So I'm hopeful.

Wes: At least in this beta form, Sea of Thieves feels like a beautifully detailed diorama of the pirating life. It nails the aesthetic, but it also feels really still and empty. I don't want the diorama: I want the zoo equivalent of a mini habitat, flush with life. These islands should be peppered with entertaining characters and the places we explore should be inhabited with wildlife or environmental objects we can interact with. Right now, it feels a little like running around in a really pretty world where everyone's been Raptured.

Tyler: I'd love to discover a lively port city where we could gamble and party with other players, punch each other in pit fights, all that. Oh, and they need to overhaul the Windows Store and Xbox App, by which I mean shoot them with cannonballs and build something that works. Or just put the damn thing on Steam.