I’m standing on the deck of our galleon with my spy glass trained on a line of ships chasing or Galleon. It’s been over 30 minutes since we completed the most difficult activity in Sea of Thieves, a skull fort raid, and my crew of three and I are sailing in to the wind running from a galleon and two sloops that have been chasing us ever since. We are carrying precious cargo and haven’t been able to get far enough away to unload it yet, so we keep running. Despite running, I am having the time of my life. To some people this may not sound like fun, after all shouldn’t the mission reward come after the mission is complete? Well Sea of Thieves takes a bit of a different approach to its gameplay, and I am a-ok with that. Because it’s that time spent desperately maneuvering around rocks, making sure you are tacked in to the wind, and staying just out of cannon range from your enemies while you dodge around the map trying to drop off your loot that makes this game so fun.  Sea of Thieves the type of game where you can spend 20 minutes playing a song while your ship sails on a vast and empty sea, and then two hours desperately trimming sales, adjusting course, and skirmishing with an enemy vessel only to end up being sunk by another ship that happened on to you by pure chance. Sea of Thieves is just that kind of game. Its short on content, but long on adventures, and during the time I played launch weekend there were times I wanted to quit, and times where an hour passed in the blink of an eye. It’s a make your own fun adventure that some will love and others will hate. it’s a fun Pirating and sailing simulator without much to do alone, but with plenty to do with friends.

The first thing I noticed about the final version of Sea of the Thieves was that it was basically the beta but bigger. If you had the chance to play in any of the alpha’s or beta’s you know the basic formula of the game. You and a crew of up to 3 friends get on one of two ships. A sloop or a galleon. The sloop is a small ship with a single mast, and is good for a crew of one or two. Its faster in to the wind, and lightly armed. The galleon is a huge three-masted affair with three decks and 8 guns. It’s a bit slower to get started, but moves better against the wind, and its three sails offer more options for catching wind. You can sail a Galleon with 3 crew or 4, and a sloop with 1 or 2. I only touched the sloop briefly, as playing solo in Sea of Thieves is something that doesn’t appeal to me at all. I did manage to get in some two man voyages (more on those later but for now just know that’s what they call missions) but each time I felt like we were missing something. I would quickly find out that something was other players!

After a few solo voyages I jumped in to a game with three other friends on the larger galleon ship. It’s hard to describe the difference between that first galleon trip and the previous ones in a sloop. The galleon is a floating fortress, it can tank a dozen cannon hits from your enemies, and return fire at the same time. It has two decks that flood before you sink, the sloop just sinks. While the sloop is technically faster and more maneuverable a good galleon captain can make up for a lack of maneuverability using the wind and terrain along with anchor turns. Both ships are armed, but the sloop is so completely outgunned that its honestly laughable, and only an expert sloop pilot will be able to go gun to gun with a galleon. There are ways to make up for that, not the least of which is to lay traps like gun-powder barrels, but its takes more thought than just shoot them or ram them, which are both more viable options in the galleon. Whichever ship you choose the game offers just a few basic activities to do.

Most voyages follow the same pattern, you get a mission, it tells you to go to a place, and depending on which of the games three factions the mission is for you do one of three things: Dig up a chest, Kill Skeletons, or find something. That’s basically it. Other mission sources include messages in a bottle, and raid like skeleton forts to take down. Messages in a bottle seem to be random but they often reward with some of the games rarer chests, and I have seen up to 6 chests in a single message. Even though skill forts and messages in a bottle are different missions, their objectives are still the same, either dig up treasure or kill skeletons. The higher level the mission is, the more things you may have to dig up, or the more islands you may have to explore, or the more skeletons you may have to kill, but at its core there is very little diversity. Rare did at least try to mix things up a bit on the enemy’s side, and it keeps combat somewhat interesting.

Combat in the final game consists of one of two things, shooting, or stabbing. In beta players were granted access to three weapons on their person. For the final release Rare decided to reduce this number to two. So you get one of the games three guns; a scatter gun, a sniper rifle, and a pistol, plus a sword. You can also run with two ranged weapons, but since most of the ranged weapons carry only a handful of ammo, it’s advisable to also keep the sword around. The sword can also block, which is something none of the guns can do. Don’t expect Vermintide levels of sword play, but the game at least has a basic melee system in place.  Gun bullets have weight and max ranges, and sniping is extremely difficult from the deck of a moving ship. Other than that combat basically breaks down to shoot and stab and shoot and stab. You can heal with banana’s and the only enemies in game besides players that are hostile are skeletons. Skeletons at least come in a few varieties to try and keep combat interesting. There are basic white skeletons, ranged blue bandanna wearing skeletons, spooky dark skeletons (who require light to kill), metal skeletons who you can only hit if you first get them wet to freeze them, and skeletons that seem to be made of plants, which require being out of water to damage. Some skeletons will also heal after taking damage, and will try to swarm you in groups. I found PvE combat to be fairly straight forward and often end up with us cheesing large numbers of skeletons with the ships cannons. Luckily PvP combat is a bit more interesting.

Most people, after raiding the games single player content for a few hours will likely end up in at least one PvP battle. This is where I found myself having the most fun, sailing against other crews, pitting our ability to tack and angle our guns against theirs. PvP combat tends to be fast, brutal, and often one sided. Because of the way the games ships are configured it’s difficult to shoot at an enemy ship without exposing yourself to their cannon. So, many battles come down to full broadside slug fests with flying cannonballs, ships smashing together, boarding actions, and frenetic combat. It’s a fun, often repetitive, but never boring dance that sometimes takes you across half the map while you fight for position.

That map is rather smaller than most people had hoped, but large enough that each lobby, which hosts 6 ships, doesn’t feel completely desolate. After a few dozen hours you will likely have seen every island, and might even be able to identify some by sight alone. But since the in game limits of ships is a measly 6 you can easily go that long without seeing others. You may only see them when you got drop off treasures at various outposts, but you will at least see them. I’m unsure if there are any limits on how many of each ship can be in a lobby, but the most galleons I have ever seen at once (including the one I was on) was three, and that was rare indeed. More often I would see other ships at outposts (the games main hubs where you turn in loot, get quests, and and can buy things) and we would wave or shoot a few cannonballs at each other then leave. The real fighting happened over the skeleton forts.

The skeleton fort is what Sea of Thieves offers as its end game content. A raid event that’s marked by a mssive skull in the sky, if you can get your ship and crew to the island the skull is over, fight its defenders off (there are several waves) and kill the rare mob at the end, you get  key. That key unlocks a vault that is bursting with treasures, including a very rare chest and skull each worth a good deal of in game currency. It’s a difficult activity that requires some co-ordination or a lot of cheesing. I have yet to take one down solo, but its supposed to be possible with enough persistence. This is mostly because death is temporary and carries no real penalty in Sea of Thieves. You die, go to a realm of ghosts, and then respawn on your ship. I like this system because it means you can have a lot fun doing fun things and not have to worry so much about being serious. One thing you do have to be serious about in Sea of Thieves is the sailing.

Sailing is a true art in Sea of Thieves, sails have to be turned in to the wind, the anchor has to be raised and lowered, and you have to steer the ship. Its quite a lot of work if you’re a single player, or on a larger ship with just two people. With four people its easy to do, as long as one person takes command and the others follow directions. Though I will admit that half of the time I was that person not listening to directions and I had a ton of fun. IF you want to enjoy your money’s worth out of Sea of the Thieves you will need to make your own fun.

I say that because unlike say, Ark or any other “make your own fun” sandbox game, Sea of Thieves has next to no progression. You earn money by doing quests, turning in quests gains you rep, more rep means more difficult quests. Money can be used to buy purely cosmetic items for you and your ship. It’s a progression system that already has the internet crying “No Man’s Sky” but during my gameplay, it was enough to keep me entertained. Given I spent some of that time starting at the water, playing music, and just sitting around, bit that’s what pirating is about.

Overall, Sea of Thieves is game your going to have to work to love. It’s not graphically beautiful (except for that amazing water), its not got a massive quest progression system with fun missions, and there are no weapon or ship upgrades. Instead the fun in the game comes from the adventures that you make, be those in a sloop by yourself raiding larger ships and using hit and run to escape with their loot, or gathering three friends and taking down skull forts. In the end Sea of Thieves is a flawed game, it’s a 60$ product that has very little content that’s designed for players, but it’s a good kind of flaw, because it forces players to make their own story, and that’s what being a pirates is all about. Hopefully Rare has a massive road map of additional content they will also add to the game, because it can only get better from here.