There are moments of astonishing beauty in pirate adventure Sea of Thieves. As the sun falls, it becomes a giant fireball on the horizon, silhouetting the craggy cliffs of some distant island. Although the visual style is painterly rather than naturalistic, it gives each moment warmth. You may not feel as if you’re really out on the open waves, but you wish you were.
There are plenty of moments like this if you play for a while.
For the Gold Hoarders, you’re looking for buried treasure; for the Order of Souls, it’s the skulls of defeated foes; for the Merchant Alliance, it’s ferrying goods – mostly animals – from one place to another. The jobs are always the same: accept the mission, find the island, do the task, return to an outpost, collect payment.
The first challenge is mastering the ship. Sailing is deliberately analogue. One person steers, one navigates, someone mans the sails or loads the cannons. Once in a while, you’ll spot a sail on the horizon and know that a battle with a group of strangers is likely.
These are intense encounters, cannonballs flying, crew members sneaking aboard each other’s vessels to cut down foes with swords or pistols, treasure chests being spirited away, hulls bursting open and taking on water (which you can then drain by the bucketload). Sometimes there are bigger events: the tentacles of the Kraken erupt from the foaming seas, or a skeleton fort opens up, its treasure room loaded with booty. To face these challenges you may need more than one boat, so uneasy alliances form. The potential for moments of great bravery – and of outright hilarity – is ever-present.
Though, there have been four major updates expanding what you can do in Rare’s pirate sandbox, the basics have remained pretty much the same. You pick up a quest from one of a handful of vendors, sail out to an island, and either dig up buried treasure, fight some skeletons, or solve a riddle. Then you take the resulting booty back to port, spend some gold on new cosmetics, and repeat the process.
Sea of Thieves always had the foundation of something great; even from its barebones launch, it was a blast to set sail with friends and wrestle with the triple sails and clunky handling of a massive galleon or embark on the nimble sloop and zip around the waves.
At the beginning, there was little to actually do in the game, but Rare has gradually alleviated that pain with consistent content drops that have added everything from a series of dynamic, fun-to-solve narrative challenges called Tall Tales to an Arena mode that pits small or large crews against one another in bite-sized, hectic competitive matches.
If you've been landlocked for any significant amount of time, your return to Sea of Thieves will be marked by unending discoveries, including a treacherous new area of the map called the Devil's Roar, massive amounts of new cosmetic items with which to deck out your pirate or your ship, a three-person ship called a brigantine, fishing and cooking, throwable grenade-like items that spread fire or knock players back, new world encounters like dangerous skeleton fleets, tough challenges like the Fort of the Damned, and other small and large surprises waiting to be discovered on every new voyage.