Sunday, February 7, 2021

Sea of Thieves: A Fanciful Seafairing Funhouse

 Sea of Thieves is An Engrossing Maelstrom of Mutiplayer Mayhem

As I pass from the disastrous year that was 2020 into the hopefully greener pastures of 2021, with all the baggage it entails, I've come to a number of odd self-revelations of late. One of which being that there are certain concepts in popular culture that I don't feel have ever gotten out of vogue. Certain evergreen archetypes in character and narrative design that, in spite of some genre-tiring brands, still remain in the common conscience to this day. Y'know, your cowboys, your ninjas, your knights and wizards. But I think out of all of them, one that seems to never truly fall out fashion in spite it all is that of the pirate. There's just something about pirates that seems almost eternal. Maybe it's the idea of the open ocean. Maybe it's the feeling of rebelling against a stagnant system and forging your own path, come hell or high water. Maybe it's the camaraderie one has with one's crew as your lot of seamen are stranded upon a ship for days on end, with only your company and a few songs in your heart to keep you company.

Hell, considering the fact that apparently singing sea shanties on TikTok is currently the hot new trend, maybe there's just something to pirates and their lore that has this almost universal appeal. Kinda like zombies, in a way.

To that end, the call to hoist my sails and fill my boots grew strong in the last few days of a politically and socially tumultuous winter season. My desire to explore a world at a more leisurely pace and go on smaller-scale adventures with a few mates weighed strong. With games like Destiny 2 and The Division 2 not holding my interest as they used to, and with my job finally offering me a minimal raise that gave me a bit more money to burn just in time for the holidays, I had a particular megalodon of a multiplayer game in my spyglass.

That game is Sea of Thieves, an Always-Online Multiplayer Open World Pirate Sandbox that is notable for a good few reasons. First off, it's a game in a genre that, with the exception of several licensed titles, Sid Meyer's own contributions, and some pretty poor RPGs, was never really that well served apart from maybe Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. Though I've also heard ATLAS is good, but I was spurned from that game due to it apparently performing worse than a dinghy being piloted by a man with one arm in the middle of an active hurricane. Second, it's a *multiplayer* pirate game, something that has almost never been done outside of a handful of titles like Pirates of The Burning Sea and the now-defunct Pirates of the Caribbean online. Maybe there are some obscure ones out there, but I haven't heard of them. Finally, this is the first Rare original game to come out in...*by the powers*, TEN YEARS. The fact this game exists as it is could be seen as an anomaly you'd find while sailing through the Bermuda Triangle.

While I could go all clinical and analytical and tell you every little thing about the gameplay, I intend on keeping things a bit more casual and reflective. As one ought to when they're on the ocean.

When I first began the game--after having to deal with some technical trials due to having to set up a Microsoft account to play--two things immediately stood out to me. First, the game's _stellar_ presentation. Every inch of this game is oozing with this delightfully toony aesthetic that I just adore in games like this. Every person has a distinct silhouette and appearance, with every skin tone and body type you can picture being on full display. They many shades of the open waters and their distinct crests as you sail each of the game's regions and keep an eye out for dangers. 

The second was one of many odd design decisions that I feel like only existed as some form of anti-bullying measure. This game doesn't have a typical character creator like most multiplayer online games these days do. Instead, you have the imaginatively titled "Infinite Pirate Generator", a bespoke procedurally generated wheel of pirates that brings to mind the "Dial-A-Pirate" Copy-Protection from *The Secret of Monkey Island*. While as mentioned before, the body types and skin tones on display are very nicely varied, and you can at least lock in designs you enjoy most, in spite of this diversity, you aren't given the option to fine-tune it until after you complete the maiden voyage. Once you get into the game properly, you can easily fine-tune the look to your liking, but until you do, you're stuck with what you've been given.

Those two first impressions past me, I set off to make my fortune--and bring my friends along for the ride.

I always enjoy loading into this game, because *every time* you start a new session, you're always waking up from what had to have been a raucous evening of grog swilling and storytelling, punctuated by the removal of a knife that you stuck in the table. It's a nice little touch. From there, the open ocean is your oyster, with a wide assortment of nautical nonsense to embark on, should you so wish. Whether you're into classic *Treasure Island* style treasure hunts, getting into naval combat with damned skeleton and ghost ships--or going *full* pirate and attacking other player ships to steal their things--or just going for leisurely fishing trips and freight jobs, you won't find yourself wanting for direction. Hell, there are even really nice, story-rich voyages you can go on called Tall Tales, in case you're one of those people who can't get into a wide-open sandbox without knowing why exactly the toys are spread around in it.

Or, y'know, you could just say "Balls to That" and just sail from island to island, seeing what you can find and using the horizon as your guide. There's usually a good chance you'll still find an NPC ship or a giant shark getting in your way to keep things exciting. Or if you're feeling particularly brave (or particularly cursed), you could attempt to hunt the Kraken world event. Just a word of advice--don't go heading towards the giant floating skull without a plan and *provisions to last.* That belongs to Captain Flameheart, and he will sink you harder than the bathroom section of your local home improvement store. Probably best to sail the other way.

Sailing is something that's pretty big in Sea of Thieves. It's kind of implied by its title, y'know? Much like that one Zelda game that everyone originally hated but grew to love later, sailing is about 70% to 80% of the core gameplay loop, with the other 30% to 20% being dedicated to disembarking to and making stops at ports to find and sell valuable goods you might find on the journey. And these stops can house just about anything--crews of skeletal pirates, buried treasure, live animals you can capture to sell to the Merchant's Alliance--or slaughter for their meat because meat is the single best health resource in this entire game--even a chance to get Ancient Coins, which are the game's real-world currency for premium goods. You might get even luckier still and stumble upon Ashen Chests and Ashen Keyes, which are *incredibly* valuable loot that reward you with some pretty great cosmetics if you turn them in.

In between all those trips ashore, though? Long, arduous trips with your mates, usually accompanied by one or two people keeping an eye for the heading while another guy decides to play random shanties on one of the many instruments available. And during this sailing, one of the game's greatest strengths comes into sharp relief--its strong sailing mechanics. While the rest of its core gameplay loop is plenty solid on its own--the game practically lives and dies by it--it's when you raise your anchor and drop your sails where you start to realize that Rare just *gets* what separates sailing from most any other form of transportation in games. While with stuff like planes, trains, automobiles, you have a fair idea of figuring out the controls fairly quickly--unless, of course, you're playing a sim game, in which case you'll likely need an actual owner's manual to make sense of anything--when it comes to sailing a ship? It's a whole different ball game.

It's not as easy as simply turning the wheel to turn the whole ship. These aren't your fancy *motorized* boats, you land-lubber. These are *sailing ships*. Sure, you could just steer them like any other vehicle, but you're not likely to get anywhere with speed or even precision. Just like in actual real-life sailing, you have to account for wind direction and speed, too. Do you tack your masts into the current headwind and go full sail to move at maximum nautical velocity, or do you draw your sails up to be able to make a crucial turn that'll keep you from reenacting the end of Titanic on your galleon? Do you drop anchor to make the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn, or do you shoot your harpoon at the nearest rock to jackknife off it and pull some sick seven-seas drifting? Can you afford to take your hands off the wheel to get a good angle to sail with the wind, or do you let your mates do it for you? And this is all without even considering variables like flotsam and enemy ships you're likely to encounter. Just about anything can happen on the seas, and it's happening regardless of if you're ready for it or not. As much as sailing *can* be a relaxing experience at times, in this game, a moment's laxity can doom you and your crew to a watery grave in but a few instances.

Suppose I should briefly touch upon combat, on that note. Combat effectively breaks down into two types: man-to-man, and ship-to-ship. Man to Man has you chosing between any combination of a cutclass, a flintlock pistol, a blunderbuss, or the Eye of Reach rifle. Everything does respectable damage, and headshots will hurt like hell regardless of where it comes from. Though it's not very complex as far as combat could go, there's enough strategy in deciding what to carry to justify going toe to toe on an island or the deck of a ship.

Meanwhile, Ship to Ship combat is predictably a whole different beast altogether. You have the predictable stuff like cannonballs for simple but effective damage and chainshot for messing up ship components, but there's also plenty of specialty munitions on top of that. Firebombs for lighting the decks ablaze for that sweet damage over time effect, Blunderbombs for knocking crew overboard (or repelling ballsy boarding parites), and a *cornucopia* of cursed cannonballs to deal some truly debilitating effects to the enemy ships. From simple stuff like locking the wheel so they can't move to broadside you or avoid an oncoming obstacle or forcibly drop the anchor to make them a prime target for your own broadsiding to balls that make the crew uncontorllably drunk or fall alseep on their feet altogether to ghostly cannonballs that pierce through ships and knock players around. You can even load yourself inside an empty cannon and have another gunner fire you out of it to hurl yourself onto the deck of an enemy ship--or to hurl yourself into the ocean for a tactical retreat.

You can really tell the guys designing this part of the game really had fun trying to find creative ways to stretch out engagements between enemy ships, because a battle only ends when one ship is left afloat after they've put too much damage on the other ship to feasibly repair in ttime. While all kinds of damage can occur to a ship--broken masts that have to be hoisted back up and reinforced by wood to keep them upright, fires on any number of places on-board that have to be quickly put out before they spread and cause yet more damage, the wheel or capstone breaking, requiring a hasty patch job to keep things smooth--only one type of damage is truly king above the rest in Sea of Thieves, and that is predictably flooding. So as fights drag on, it's almost inevitable at least one of you will have to break off to go below deck to plug holes and bale water to keep you in the fight while your gunner tries to land a shot and your helmsman barks orders while trying to get you in position. This all comes together in the end to create one of the most tense, stressfull, panic-inducing, and ultimately very rewarding combat system that makes every engagement a gamble.

And the best part? No pay to win bullshit. No level or stat grinding! Everything in the game does the same kind of damange regardless of what fancy skin you end up acquiring for it. Some of you might now be asking, "But Adam, if there's no getting stronger, then what's the point in getting higher rankings in the trading companies? What's the point in fighting anyone if it doesn't make you more powerful next time?" To that I say, it's not *about* power. It's about *precision*. It's about *skill*. It's about pulling off masterfully coordinated alpha strikes on your enemies while wearing cool outfits and sailing on an even cooler ship that you and your mates came together to pick the livery for. The only thing that matters in any given fight is your aim with a gun and how much prep work you all did before you decided to raise the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) black flag to throw down. If all that's your bag, you might want to check out the game's Arena mode instead of the normal Adventure mode and prove you're a properly professional pirate.

"Then what's the point in Ancient Coins?" You may follow up with. "If it doesn't buy you anything that gives you a leg up, why are they asking for more money out of you?"

If you paid attention to the prior paragraph, you'd know exactly what the point is. It's not "Pay-to-Win", it's "Pay-to-Profile". None of the things on offer in the PIrate Emporium give any direct advantage unless you're one of those people who genuinely believe that having your ship be in colors that might camouflage it slightly is an advantage. That aside, the vast majority of things you can get are some primetime outfits, ship liveries that pay homage to Rare's history, or my personal favorite, interactive pets that you can summon to follow you around. Y'know, in case you get a little lonely on a voyage. These pets may actually be one of the best little touches in a game that has an astonishing amount of little details. Dogs will rest at the bedside, monkies will perch themselves on your shoulder, and Parrots will perch onto just about anything. But my *favorite* part? They *dance* when you play songs for them. *especially* the birds. When I first saw one of my friends bring out their bird and watched it bang its head in rhythm, I nearly had a stroke from how utterly adorable it was.

Honestly, if I had to give my worst problems with this game, it's that it is an incredible magic trick towards your time. Whether it be due to being engrossed in the journey or getting screwed by setbacks from the many griefers that are all but encouraged by the mere existence of the Reapers Bones trading company, what might have been envisioned as a short excursion with the lads will often be an hours-long odyssey that, by the end of it, will inevitably be an exhausting trek that may or may not end up being to some degree of a phyrric victory when all's said and done. This is *not* a game you can get any amount of good experience in just a few minutes. If you value your time, you'll have to make a night of this game to get the most out of any given play session, and by the end, you're likely to be left either smiling at what all you've accomplished, or blankly staring at the clock wondering very loudly where in Davey Jones's arsehole the time went so suddenly.

My other complaint, as previously mentioned, is the griefing. Much like games like EVE Online, griefing is rampant and expected. While I'm not sure if there are actual hackers at play, there are most certainly some incredibly bloodthirsty brigands out there who will be all but willing to run your ship into the ground if you even so much as look like you have something of value. The fact they tie a trading company exlcusively to this Open PVP mechanic and actively encourage a portion of the playerbase to embrace this vicious side to the pirate's life means that much like in the films that inspired it, alliances will be tenuous at best and toxic at worst. It makes me glad that any and all loot sold with a group is automatically split into a fair share because if that wasn't automated, I could not imagine what that would result in. it honestly makes me wish that there was a system in place to allow you to opt out of PVP altogether. Make it so you can't get damaged by player ships, but also can't damage enemy ships in turn. You could even tie it into the narrative in the same way that they tie scuttling your ship to a safer harbor as a deal with the ghost shipman.

Lastly, while the game *can* be played solo, it absolutely demands group play, and even when solo, you aren't given the option to pause the game in case you have to do something else for even a brief moment, because as previously stated, taking your attention away for a moment can be a horrifically fatal error. This is a game that will force your attention upon it and does not care if you have other obligations unless you're doing a Tall Tale and making good use of its checkpoints. And god help you if you crash during a voyage. This is a game you devote time to or you don't play at all.

In closing, instead of simply giving a numbered score or a call to action, I'll instead end this review off with a story of one amazing night I had with this game. If what I experienced this one night sounds like an experience you'd like to have for yourself, go buy it and find some mates to crew up with.

So a friend and I, the former of us having previously jumped ship from ATLAS to play this game, decided one night to be a dynamic duo in our own little sloop. We decide to go on a Gilded Skull Voyage (the most longform and involved of the Order of Souls's bounty hunting missions) and about halfway through, we decide to make a stopover at a nearby port to sell our plunder to quiet the whisperings of the damned in our hold and keep our ship from glowing like a nightlight resembling a traditional Khornate altar. As we're doing this, we find that our reputation and gold have put us over the threshold to purchase an Emissary Flag--special little pennants you can fly to rep a particular trading company a-la Tabards in World of Warcraft. As with the tabards in WoW, Emissary Flags reward you with increased reputation and rewards when doing stuff that furthers the cause of the faction, as well as customizations to honor your commitment to the cause.

It also indirectly makes you a target for players looking to up their reputation in the Reaper's Bones, who gain significant rewards from plundering other player's Emmisary Flags.

Almost *immediately* after we raise our flag, we find that our ship is attacked by a Reaper's Bones ship, and is sunk not long after due to our ship being fairly small and easy to flood. Naturally, we were pretty bummed out by this...until we saw that we were getting credit for the things of ours they were selling. Even better? They had yet to leave the port where they'd sank us. So, my friend, acting as captain and helmsman, got an idea. A horrible, terrible, awful idea. He wanted to get retribution, and with the both of us feeling particularly bloodthirsty, we say "screw it, carpe diem" and make an effort to chase them down. Of course, their Brigantine is swifter than our sloop, but that wasn't going to stop us. For miles on end, we tail them, getting potshots wherever we can, but ultimately failing to make lasting damage on them.

That was until a Skeleton Ship decided to join the fray. And being the tactical mavens we were, we realized we could force the enemy into a battle on two fronts, dividing their manpower and making the most of an opportune opponent. Hard to mount a counterattack when you can only fire one gun at a time, after all. This nets us a good chunk of damage as is, and with a continued chase, we might have had them.

And then a Megalodon showed up. In the immortal words of my helmsman, he proclaimed, "What god did they piss off, and how do I pray to them?"

Properly knackered by the extended battle and now officially routed by a giant shark eating into their hull, they're forced to scramble for the Reaper's Hideout in the vain hope of trying to dock and sell their filched flag to the NPC to get that sweet reward they so desperately wanted. This, of course, left them sitting ducks, and we very promptly put as much firepower onto their ship as possible before finally taking on their crewman to man as they boarded. Respawns were on our side in that fight, as we held out long enough to watch their ship sink into the depths, their ill-gotten gains now ripe for the stealing.

By the end of everything, we walked away with more firepower than the average Montana resident and a decent windfall of gold. While the actual quest we were on ended up bugged, we didn't care. We had an otherwise easygoing voyage spoiled by some arsehole sailors, went on a journey to avenge our honor, and had fortune's favor on our side for most of the duration. If that doesn't sum up the Sea of Thieves experience, I don't know what else does.

Ultimately, Sea of Thieves is very much a game where you get out what you put in. It is a game that all but demands your time and lives and dies by its core systems. Through infrequently fraught with unsavory folk, this game perhaps more than any other in its genre has the fantasy of piracy nailed down like a plank of lumber to a creaky mission mast. It's a game that despite its kiddy look and all ages appearance belies an engrossing and engaging experience that you'll seldom find in other sailing games like it. Just be certain to find some friends to play with, because with the right group (and perhaps the right amount of thematically appropriate snacks and alcohol) this game is a raucous time. 

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