'Sea of Thieves' Makes You Work For It

'Sea of Thieves' Makes You Work For It

'Sea of Thieves' demands cooperation and goodwill, and that is often a tall order Microsoft

Four strangers team up to crew a pirate ship with precisely the results you'd expect

Four strangers team up to crew a pirate ship with precisely the results you'd expect

The core idea behind Sea of Thieves is enticing: you team up with three other players to crew a pirate ship to scour the seas for treasure, and, inevitably, fend off rivals trying to do the same. But it also seems potentially untenable. Turns out that the endeavor of piracy – which Sea of Thieves is actually trying to mimic with a surprising degree of detail – involves a lot of goodwill, cooperation, and precision. Working with your crew to perform the mundane tasks that make a pirate ship go – like steering the ship with the aid of a lookout and working with a navigator to ensure you're on the correct course – is hard. You can't mess around. I know because I just played Sea of Thieves. It'd be a fun challenge with friends, and a joyless nightmare with asshole strangers.

The group I was thrown into eventually got it done, but not before initially making a mess of things at the outset. The person guiding our demo was only "guiding" us in the loosest sense. After watching as we drained entire tankards of grog (which imparts the whole "video game drunk" effect that makes it impossible to move), she offered only the meagerest suggestion. "You may want to look at your treasure maps," she said. Turns out Sea of Thieves isn't big on in-game feedback. I think this is a good thing – you have to approach it on its own terms and treat it, in a way, like a real place with real rules. Our guide was definitely leaning into this. When you look at a treasure map, all you see is the figure of an island and a few vague clues as to where the treasure lies. No waypoint, no note in your quest log – if you want to find out where this island is, you have to go to your ship, head belowdecks, and study the big ocean map until you locate it.

Before too long, our group got a clue and made for the ship. We lowered the sails and raised anchor (actions that you have to actually perform – it takes three people to turn a wheel to raise the anchor), and, somehow, after a few moments, the ship started lurching forward. Before we knew it, we crashed into some rocks and were taking on water. Oops. Someone must have "activated" the helm and set us sailing, but no one copped to it. We emerged from our watery grave in some kind of ghost ship, waiting for a respawn timer to tick down before we could give it another shot.

With a determination known only by the recently-resurrected, we set off to do this pirate thing for real. A nice mermaid magically respawned our ship. We encountered a few skeletons on our way to shore, but they fell easily to our sabers and flintlocks. We ate bananas with the peels still on to replenish our health. Our ship in sight, three of us swam and got aboard. But one was lagging behind – he ran the wrong way when we respawned and was lost on the island. On the ship, the three of us were busy making preparations when our navigator realized we were short a body.

"Dude, you need to get back on the ship," he says into the mic. He repeats this a couple of times in the next minute.

"I know, dude! I'm trying!" says the lost crewman. He sounds exasperated. Like a kid trying to busy himself amidst a domestic squabble, I dutifully begin loading all of our cannons (you have to go belowdecks, gather cannonballs, and manually feed them into each gun). The exchange simmers for a little while. What's going on between these two salty seadogs, I think, are what Sea of Thieves might resemble at its worst, when you're matched with task-driven strangers who don't give a shit about your feelings and just want to Get It Done.

Mercifully, a developer comes to the missing pirate's aid before long. Our lookout fires cannon shots to signal our location. He sees them and joins us. We lower sail, raise anchor, and decide we're going to Shipwreck Cove (of course). No one volunteers to man the helm, so I just go for it.

Piloting a ship in Sea of Thieves is basically about staring at a compass and maintaining your bearing at all costs. You can't see anything, at least not in the ship we were using, because the sails are in the way. It's the job of the lookout on the crow's nest to point out obstacles as you approach them, with the person at the helm trying their best to make the lumbering vessel respond in time. When the helm is at its neutral position, the force feedback kicks, which really helps, as you have to spin it like mad in order get the huge ship to change bearing. The whole thing is oddly thrilling; no one on the crew knows whether you're responding fast enough, and everyone is gripped. When you barely miss a hazard, you feel a small triumph. Meanwhile, the navigator is hustling belowdecks to make sure you're still on course. The session we were in had other players in it – we encountered them later – but I can only imagine how panicked we'd be if we'd spotted another ship.

Miraculously, we made it to Shipwreck Cove without incident. We even hit a storm en route, which made the sea real angry – an effect that Sea of Thieves renders very convincingly. But we did spot another ship moored offshore. Uh-oh. After wandering around, killing some skeletons, and making it to the site of the buried treasure – a wrecked ship up a hill inland – I saw a another character with a red name over his head. He stood still before me. Without thought, I raised my musket and shot him in the face. Before he fell, I became aware of a melee going on around me – my crew and the one from the other ship. Soon, we were all dead, hanging out with our rivals on the ghost ship, waiting to respawn.

Our crew assembled back on shore. Our enemies were nowhere in sight. I guess we killed them better than they killed us, so we respawned first. Almost as soon as we made it to the treasure site – six paces northwest of the wreck's main mast, each "pace" signaled with precision by force feedback – the demo ceased unceremoniously. We'd barely drawn our shovels and started to dig! Bummer.

It was a blast, though, and something I'm quite eager to play with friends, and maybe even chill, friendly strangers. Sea of Thieves demands a lot and is unexpectedly uncompromising. Tempting as it might be to file down its edges, I really hope it keeps these qualities as there's very little out there like it.