Good afternoon, dear readers. I hope you’re all keeping well considering the on-going apocalypse and haven’t rushed out to the pub to contribute to second-wave shenanigans.
It’s been a while since I wrote anything about video games on this blog, which is very odd considering it’s one of my main hobbies. During lock-down, with not a lot else to do (and a serious set of commitment issues with TV series that I still can’t shake) gaming is the thing I’ve been doing most of. However, where I was usually happy to play the same few games evenings and weekends with friends – it’s more about the company – I’ve had to mix it up a bit the last few months and I’ve picked up a few new games.
One of these is Rare’s Sea of Thieves, which is available for cross-platform play on both Xbox One and PC, provided you have Windows 10 on the latter. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit the £35 quid to the game, not knowing how long my friends and I would stay interested, so I picked it up via the Xbox Game Pass.
I remember hearing on launch that Sea of Thieves had a similar issue to Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky: That is, a lack of content, progression and just kind of stuff to do, with some dubbing it “No Man’s Sea”. However, like Hello Games, Rare have sat down and worked hard on their game since launch to deliver new content and update regularly to keep sailing the… well, one sea interesting and fresh.
The next few paragraphs are perhaps going to come across as tearing No Man’s Sky down for the sake of lifting Sea of Thieves up, so I’d like to preface this by saying I bought No Man’s Sky on sale earlier this year, and have put a pretty enjoyable 87 hours into it at time of writing. Genre differences aside, I do think it’s fair to compare the two based on their open nature as well as their journeys from underwhelming launch to well-liked, feature complete games.
There is no way to sugar-coat this: At their core, both games are grinds. In No Man’s Sky you grind away at resource collection, which forms the core gameplay loop. You grind resources to power your Exosuit survival modules, to upgrade your weapons and ships, to sell to be able to afford new modules/ multi-tools/ ships. You need resources for everything, but the game does afford you the luxury of choosing something minor to work towards specifically. I chose to work towards getting a cool looking Frigate ship and a decent personal Spaceship, spending my time farming resources to convert into other, more valuable resources and selling them to then go and hang around in space stations until a nice looking ship with good stats turned up. There’s additional features that Hello Games have added; the ability to grind resources with friends, building bases and basic racecourses for Exocraft vehicles, and simple co-op missions to undertake. However, the game is still at its heart about using the mining laser on the thing to collect the stuff to repeat, occasionally taking screenshots of the pretty vistas you discover until you’ve seen them all (which happens quickly).
In Sea of Thieves, the grind is for cosmetics. No, I’m not kidding, that’s all it is. Everything you do is largely in service of earning gold to spend on making your pirate, their weapons and their ship look cooler. On the surface, that sounds even more droll than No Man’s Sky, which at least lets you spend your heard-earned money on a slight variety of things. Cosmetics are usually relegated to a cherry-on-top, low priority status in many video games (or these days, locked behind ridiculous gambling mechanics). So why am I writing this post about Sea of Thieves instead of No Man’s Sky when the latter has more trivial rewards for the core gameplay? Well, put simply, it’s just way more bloody fun.
On an average day in No Man’s Sky I log on, farm some resources to make sure my Exosuit’s life support doesn’t run out, then dick about adding to my base, maybe mine some resources to sell. Off I go to another system to crash its economy, and while I’m there I land on one of the planets, with a visual theme and a mashup of creatures that I’ve seen on other planets. But the hill I landed on looks kind of cool, so I take a screenshot, then log off because I’m a little bored and the podcast I had on in the background is finished.
On Sea of Thieves I log on with friends, we spend about 10 minutes looting supplies from where we’ve started, we slap our favourite ship decorations on and then off we go into the ocean. We might raise an Emissary Flag on the back of our ship, which will slowly upgrade as we gather treasure for our chosen faction. We put a couple of voyages on the Captain’s table in the ship, and vote on which one we’d rather undertake. Our inventory fills itself with island maps and notes full of clues to buried treasure, so as we are sailing along we consult the world map and work out where we need to go and what order we will search the islands in.
Once on the first island I’m having trouble finding the X marking the last treasure chest, so the entire crew becomes impatient and comes to help me. This leaves our ship unmanned and because Sea of Thieves is always player-versus-player, all of the time, a tiny two-man sloop sneaks up on our anchored Galleon and begins turning our hull into Swiss cheese. We manage to rush back in time and keep repairing the hull while also returning fire; we sink their ship, but they had no treasure, so we’ve just been wound up and wasted our cannonballs for nothing. We set sail for the second island, where a note asks us to find certain landmarks such as washed-up skeletons or beached boats and raise our lanterns or play our instruments to reveal the next clue. When I dig into the sand where the treasure chest should be and my shovel strikes metal, a music sting plays and I’m ambushed by a group of angry skeletons who must have called dibs on that treasure.
We get the second haul back on board and all raise the anchor, adjust the sails and set off for the third island. On our way we kill a Skeleton Galleon that rises out of the waves with an ominous crash beside our ship and bravely run from a giant Megalodon whose hunting ground we crossed. Then, just as our third island is in sight, the water turns black, the wind drops and a new musical chord plays. It’s the Kraken, and it raises several giant tentacles out of the inky depths to pull us off the ship, crush the hull and slap holes in it. In the distance, at the edge of the black waters, a ship turns up: It’s that bastard sloop from earlier. They fire their cannons at us as we’re busy with the Kraken, and we can’t repair fast enough to negate all the damage while sailing out of the inky water, so our Galleon sinks to the bottom of the ocean and our treasure bobs to the surface to either be plundered by that Sloop or time out and sink lost to the depths. One person remembers roughly where we were – do we go back to grab our treasure on a quest of revenge and redemption, or are we too tired and pissed off?
As you can tell, Sea of Thieves is an absolute gem when it comes to stories. While No Man’s Sky generates a few pretty screenshots and gives you a couple more things to work towards, Sea of Thieves will always leave you with a rewarding tale of swashbuckling insanity. This in turn makes the fact you made it back to port and sold all that treasure to buy a new coat and hat all the more worth it. The emergent game play and always-on player-versus-player make it a far more exciting experience.
While a lot of content has been added to No Man’s Sky since launch, a lot of it is just slightly different ways to fulfil the same core gameplay loop, and the game is still lacking a lot of complexity: It’s still very much “as wide as an ocean, as deep as a puddle”. By contrast, Sea of Thieves has a decent set of tight gameplay mechanics that work together to reward experimentation and keep the game engaging. Your crew have to manage raising, lowering and adjusting sails to balance your speed and manoeuvrability and catch the wind. Someone must be at the helm to steer the ship, someone can climb into the crow’s nest to look out for landmarks, floating treasure or enemies. Someone can sit below deck and cook some food for the crew, because it will heal you more than the crate full of bananas and coconuts you found.
Your ship might sink, but because you found a rowboat and attached it to the back of your ship, you can load all your treasure in and row to safety while your friends come back to get you. Your friend might be getting overwhelmed when they boarded an enemy ship to drop an explosive powder keg below deck, so as they light the fuse and run back on to the deck you use your ship’s harpoon to grab them. As they zip back across to your ship the keg explodes and sinks it quickly. Or perhaps during the opening shots of the fight the enemy got lucky; a cannon ball hit the spot where you were keeping the powder keg and it went up with a boom, killing your whole crew and sinking your ship by the time you return from the spooky Ship of the Damned.
On top of this, the world of Sea of Thieves is a far bigger threat: rather than keeping an eye on survival meters or worrying about a nearby animal smacking you a bit while you mine something, you deal with: Giant storms that spin your compass and fill your ship with rainwater, skeletons armed with all kinds of weapons, poisonous snakes, Megalodons, Krakens, entire Skeletal fleets of ships, and more. Developer Rare has made sure they’ve added plenty of ways to earn money, but also plenty of ways for the game to try and stop you succeeding.
There’s more I haven’t covered here: Other game play mechanics, the Arena game-mode, the Tall Tale system based around a slowly unravelling set of story voyages. It’s certainly been a long road for the game, but Rare has continued to add not only to the breadth of the game, as with Hello Games and No Man’s Sky, but added to the depth of it too. Compared to how it was at launch it’s now, well, as wide as an ocean and nearly as deep as one too. It’s a lot of fun and I’d recommend getting a crew together for it, although try it via the Xbox Game Pass for a few quid before you buy in case it’s not for you. No game has kept me this engaged for a very long time, and I suspect I’ll be telling my own Tall Tales out on the ocean waves while misquoting Pirates of the Caribbean for a while yet.
“You best start believing in pirate stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one“