I’ve been a pirate for the past week. More accurately, I’ve been playing as a pirate in the Sea of Thieves beta for the past week. And as my—and everyone else in the beta—time with the game has come and gone, I’ve been left with a singular sensation: I want to play more Sea of Thieves.
If you don’t remember anything about this upcoming seafaring title from Rare, that’s totally fair. It made only a moderate splash at E3 2016 before being shown off again the next year but was unfortunately lumped in with Ubisoft‘s remarkably grim Skull & Bones. It contrasts sharply, though, as a bright and friendly-looking game where you and some friends scouring the open sea for booty.
Notably (and most interesting), however, is that this closed beta isn’t the first time Sea of Thieves has been available to play to a small portion of the public. It’s been in alpha for years and for startlingly good reason: it needed an alpha. Rare knew they had something with their framework of superficial but sufficiently chaotic ship management in an open, online world, but they didn’t know what. They needed time to figure it out.
And they’ve made progress, albeit modest. There’s structure around quests with voting and an economy of gold going in and out of equipment and progression; factions have rep you can earn and grow with; and the riddles surrounding the X marking the spot are better defined. It’s the kind of push towards structure that is as relieving as it is expected.
That, however, is not the reason you’d play Sea of Thieves. Or at least not at its core. The voyages you embark on simply give your shenanigans a framework with which to exist. Let’s be honest: once you and your buddies get into the grog and bust out the dancing and accordions, all bets are off.
Even in this nascent form (in which alpha players are quick to note that this beta is light on content, suggesting this is a stress test more than anything), you can see why Rare stuck with this grief simulator. The idea that your internal system of communication and coordination is clashing against a stunningly realized expanse of blue, wavy horizons while potentially fighting against another discrete set of players operating under their own impetuses and duress is damn near magical.
Yelling for your friends to drop anchor before you crash into a rock as you jump from the crow’s nest onto another group’s ship because you’re definitely hitting the rock anyway while they try to hop aboard to steal your cannon balls to shoot you down to Davy Jones is going to be a gaming memory that sticks with me forever. And it’s one of many, many moments that involve absconding with a skiff just for kicks or trying to blast sharks out of the water as you heist a chest back aboard or so many other goofs.
That being said, there are dire, inescapable inadequacies. You can’t, for instance, fully take over another ship to make the beginnings of your own armada, which in turn results in a tremendously awful and easy opportunity for malicious players to spawn-camp smaller crews. Between this and a dozen other scenarios where the best option is to simply scuttle your vessel and begin anew, it’s a disappointing level of quality of life.
The lack of variety in this smattering of voyages is similarly hollowing. It’s always find an island, find a spot, and dig. Maybe fight some skeletons. There are ad hoc surprises to be found such as at the bottom of little pools and at the edge of the map, but without more activities that are simply more…engaging, it’s entirely on the players to continue to create their own fun. Basically a jazz band without a chord progression.
But it’s impossible to ignore what a gorgeously well realized world this is. The sunsets are among the most beautiful in any game, and the water tech is definitely the best out there so far. Going beyond the surface, this makes sailing through storms some of the most terrifying moments in recent memory in games and coming out the other side some of the most rewarding.
This is, essentially, a game that is what games want to be. It wraps you and your friends up in a vibrant, shimmering embrace that allows you to simply have fun. It’s a directive that seems simple at first but so few manage. It’s the kind of game that wins over people that say they don’t like video games.
And that’s all while it’s just in beta. There’s still just under two months until the full release on March 20, so hopefully we’ll find more then. But as it stands now, Sea of Thieves‘ closed beta makes one hell of an argument to return either way.