Sea of Thieves is a game that wants you to play together, a crew of like-minded individuals sailing the high seas in search of plunder. There's a solo play mode for the Sea of Thieves closed beta, but it's like piloting a lone dinghy on a calm lake. Instead, the real hook of the game is a crew piloting a ship on concert: everyone talking to one another, adjusting sails, scanning the horizon, and keeping your giant galleon afloat.
Sea of Thieves in its beta form is remarkably straightforward. You take to your ship, find uncharted islands, loot them for treasure chests, and then bring them back to a sanctuary for sale. If you're playing alone, you'll be shifting from turning the wheel, to unfurling the sails, to dropping anchor; it feels more like busy work than anything else. A team spread that out a bit.
Despite the straightforward nature of play, it's also very easy to get lost in the game. You can find yourself on a ship or island with no real idea where to go or what to do. I joined one multiplayer game only to find myself swimming listlessly in the ocean. Talking to magical merfolk transported me back to the starting island, but where was my crew? No clue, as there's no indicator where your compatriots might be unless they're in your immediate vicinity.
If you find the right game, with the right crew, Sea of Thieves takes off and becomes a wonderful experience. In one instance, found my myself on the deck of a ship with three other players and we all just settled into our roles. One took the wheel, generally offering orders to help steer the ship. Another had his map and compass ready, guiding us to the treasure we were looking for. The third crew member and I handled the sails, manned the cannons, and patched up our ship as needed.
We sailed to an island, disembarked, and found a few treasure chests. This was the easy part. As we were coming back to our ship, our navigator spotted another ship on the near horizon. Our treasure was good enough we surmised, but why not see if they had any plunder for the taking? In short order the anchor was up, sails were fully open, and we were off on a merry chase. Surely, this was the pirate's life.
What unfolded after deciding to give chase was 30 minutes of cat-and-mouse on the high seas. With the added tension of another opposing ship, working together to maneuver a ship feels like pulling off an arcane ritual successfully. The wind has picks up from the West? Open the sails and tilt them in the right direction. Need to make a quick turn? You have to time the wheel turn with an anchor drop and be ready to pull that anchor up again. There's a thrill when the lumbering organic machine that is your pirate ship begins to move like it has a singular purpose. In a chase, if you catch your target it means you're working together better than they are.
When you have a great crew, Sea of Thieves is full of magical moments. In that same session, I patched up numerous holes in our lower deck after the ship we were chasing rammed us; above deck, my crew was still trying to gain distance by using an outcropping of jagged rocks. In one case, a member tried to board the enemy ship by loading themselves into a cannon. Unfortunately, they overshot the mark, careening off into the rolling ocean to get eaten by sharks. Or there's the moment where we ran alongside the ship, everyone jumping over kill the enemy crew. It didn't end well for me; I took a bullet in the face and had to have a time out in the ghostly undead ferry between worlds.
Sea of Thieves reminds me of Star Trek: Bridge Crew, but with the ability to actually get off the ship. In both games, what you're doing is simple on the surface-anchor up? Sails left or right?-but it's the interaction between all the elements and the team that makes the game special. It's the difference between Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
The problem is this means you either need to have a consistent group of friends or hope the matchmaking gods smile upon you, because being in a bad team is like setting sail on a prison ship. If you jump into an established group, you might find yourself as the odd man in the brig. This brig system allows players to take a vote and lock one member in the ship's hold. There's no maximum time limit to the brig system, so if other players are aligned against you, you could stay there forever. Your only recourse is to wait for them to let you out, or leave the game.
As contrast to the excellent instance above, I once joined a match deep in progress, with a ship that was on its last sea legs. We landed on an island, only to turn around and see the ship sinking in the harbor. Another match, I spawned onto the ship's deck with no idea where the rest of the crew was, since there are no markers. I went wandering on a nearby island, but I never found the other members of my crew. I left the game 15 minutes in out of boredom. Sea of Thieves isn't a consistent experience, relying heavily on which group you get matched with and where they are on their adventure.
While I liked Sea of Thieves when I was matched with a good group, I do wonder if the game will have any longevity. Outside of these rather basic treasure hunts and fighting other players, there's not a ton to do in Sea of Thieves' Closed Beta. The only progress comes in the form of clothes you can buy for your avatar; there's no way to improve your weapons or your ship. Hell, there aren't even that many different ships in the beta. There's no real loot either: you find chests, but there's nothing in them, you just bring them back to sell. It's a very flat game in its current form.
I have no clue if Sea of Thieves will be my jam in the future. I tend to prefer solo play to playing with a group. If Sea of Thieves can provide more than its current experience, then Rare may have a fun diversion on its hands. One that I might jump into. Right now, I see glimmers of potential, but who knows if we found out that the treasure is cursed?