Sea of Thieves is unquestionably an absolute blast to play. It unashamedly embraces every seafarer cliché and trope so you can live out all your pirate fantasies, just without the sunburn, scurvy and missing appendages. You can down grog until you puke, take to the open ocean in search of treasure or conflict and, when you lose a cannon fight, play a mournful tune with your fellow scallywags as you go down with your galleon. But Sea of Thieves isn't supposed to be a game you spend a few fun evenings playing before forgetting it just as quickly. Developer Rare envisions its core audience spending hundreds if not thousands of hours plundering this new world. If that's going to be the case, though, it has to grow to be twice the title it is today.
Sea of Thieves is a bit of a gamble for Microsoft, which has played it safe for years investing in the Halo, Gears of War and Forza franchises. A twee open-world pirate simulator is, by comparison, well out of Microsoft's comfort zone. First-party studio Rare could also do with a new, big hit. The UK-based team hasn't really done anything of note since the Viva Piñata games, the last of which came out almost a decade ago. Rather than feel under pressure, though, the vibe at Rare is very much one of excitement. As executive producer Joe Neate puts it: "We're flying at the moment, dude!" They feel they've made the game they set out to: a fun, addictive and cooperative experience that was the intention long before the pirate theme was even decided upon.
The main concept of Sea of Thieves is that the game can kind of be whatever you want it to be. There is a linear goal, which is to complete quests, amass riches and earn your reputation as a pirate legend. You can go it alone if you want, sailing a little dinghy into the unknown. You can even try managing a huge galleon one-handed if you're up to the challenge, but, like a brimming tankard of grog, Sea of Thieves is best enjoyed with friends. Between plotting a course, orienting the sails, steering, loading the cannons, dropping anchor, patching holes in the hull and bailing out water, scanning the horizon for other ships and keeping tabs on your treasure and limited resources, there's almost too much for even the max party size of four to handle.
Cooperation feels totally natural, and you're not forced into performing one routine task over and over. There's no designated captain, and I found that people typically move fluidly from one role to the next. Communication is absolutely essential. The game is, in fact, designed to be played with a headset, though there are stock phrases and actions available on the D-pad if you either don't have or don't want to use a microphone, or if there's some language barrier that needs overcoming. There's no real reason to use that line of communication to flame other players, and if you're playing with randoms and run into a troll, you can vote to throw them in the brig until they either buck up their ideas or leave your session.
As it stands, the way you increase your reputation and top up the coffers is to sail to an outpost (you start each gaming session at one, too) and grab "voyages" from either the Gold Hoarders or the Order of Souls -- "trading companies" that outsource quests to pirates like yourself. You get maps and riddles that lead you to locations where you either have to find buried treasure or defeat a skeleton mini-boss and his minions. When complete, you take chests and enchanted skulls back to your ship to store on board, cashing them in only when you return to an outpost triumphant. Throughout the sandbox world you'll also find bottles glinting on beaches that contain side-quests, as well as shipwrecks and skeleton strongholds to explore that may house hidden treasures -- a facet of the game design director Mike Chapman calls the "happy accident simulator." Voyages start off being free, but more difficult missions with more bountiful rewards can be purchased with gold. You have to spend money to make money, as they say.