What Tom's Played This Weekend: Sea of Thieves

Getting together with friends is one of the primary reasons I enjoy multiplayer games. Whether you’re gloriously achieving victory, dying in an anticlimactic defeat, or competing against each other, everything about PC gaming can be infinitely more entertaining with a group of friends.

Sea of Thieves is one such game that almost requires friends to enjoy it to the fullest extent. As Rare’s first major title in a long time, the company has been in full-steam-ahead developing mode since its launch (which some described as feeling more like a beta due to its unpolished systems, lack of end-game content and clunky combat) and has spent the last few months releasing new content patches, starting with The Hungering Deep expansion at the end of May. New weekly events gave players more types of encounters and missions (and introduced the megalodon and explosive barrel-wielding skeleton foes to the world), but the need for teaming up (even with other crews) has been a central theme of the new content, and you won’t get very far if you don’t have a few crewmates to share the workload (and booty) when you set sail.

Having attempted to sail alone in the past, I knew I’d have to call in the calvary if I was going to have any sort of fun and earn a substantial reward while playing Sea of Thieves on a rainy weekend in July. Reconnecting with an old colleague (hi Rexly!) and his two friends (hello Steve and Al!), we sailed off in a stylish galleon (I have played enough to acquire sufficient gold for some aesthetic rewards) and took to finding treasure with Gold Hoarders quests.

Sailing a ship in Sea of Thieves is not a simple affair. Ships have three basic mechanics that control its movement, a steering wheel, an anchor and a sail. The sail has two different control points: one to raise and lower it (for speed) and one to angle the sails left and right (to catch the wind and go even faster). 

Although a sloop (the game’s smallest ship) can be sailed alone and is handled even easier with a crewmate, the large galleon with three masts and sails is like driving a two-ton caterpillar and takes some coordination with your shipmates. Even the anchor requires the help of the majority of your team (if you want to raise it with any kind of speed), and the maneuverability of the massive ship is entirely dependent on how quickly your crew can raise, lower and angle sails in unison.

Luckily, Rexly had been playing with his friends on a three-person crew in a galleon for quite some time, so our sailing was mostly smooth (save for the occasional megalodon and lightning storm). We also found and secured our treasure chests quickly, and before long we were sailing from island to island, amassing a sizeable cache of treasure, killing skeletons and having a great time. We even received new Bilge Rat currency by destroying some glowing underwater artifacts in our travels, a bonus added by the most recent content patch.

We weren’t long into our voyages when we encountered another Sea of Thieves signature game mechanic - player versus player (PVP) combat. The open-world landscape is usually crawling with other pirates in search of treasure, and most aren’t too picky about how they get it (read: they will kill you and take it). One of the disadvantages of playing solo or with a small crew is that you usually have little chance to save your booty or your ship when a larger crew comes for it.

Sea of Thieves is a numbers game, and that was certainly the case when the three-person crew of the attacking galleon attempted to hijack our four-person team. They didn’t stand a chance. The first few cannonballs I fired killed two of their crew, and the explosive barrel Steve stealthily swam to their ship (and sacrificed himself to detonate) had the galleon underwater shortly after we finished disposing of the respawned invaders.

Empowered by our overwhelming victory, we decided to take a shot at a possibly painful endeavor - raiding a skeleton stronghold. In Sea of Thieves, an active skeleton-controlled fort will have a large skull-shaped cloud above it that can be seen from almost anywhere on the map, and after you defeat wave after wave of skeleton pirates and a powerful boss, you can use the key they drop to open a vault of treasures.

The downside to this is that everyone on the game server can see the active fort, and the potential rewards usually attract larger crews. Multiple galleons converging on the active stronghold typically leads to one of three things: a two-crew team up that results in splitting the loot between both crews, a spiteful blood war and high-speed chase as you try to make your way to the nearest outpost with - or chasing after - the stronghold chest and skull (this is the more prevalent outcome), or both (because pirates). Being that three out of four of our crew members had never attempted to take a stronghold before, I didn’t have high expectations that we would be sailing away (or respawning far away) from it with anything but our damaged pride.

However, we arrived at the fort and cleared the skeleton waves (with a little help from my insane cannon accuracy) without any resistance from other pirates. To our luck, the fort in question was on the westernmost side of the world’s map (a painfully long way to sail if you aren’t already near it), and we went undisturbed for the duration of our raid. We gleefully loaded our ship to the brim with every last item in the vault, leaving only a Foul Bounty skull (the lowest-priced skull reward in the game) as a gift for those that came after us. 

Sea of Thieves is a reminder that teamwork makes the dream work, and the more friends you have to join your swashbuckling adventures the better you will fare in a world dominated by greedy pirates, massive megalodons, exploding skeleton soldiers and the occassional shanty. Even dying is more fun with friends, and gamers that care more for social interaction than gripping and unique content will find Sea of Thieves quite enjoyable. With the next expansion, Cursed Sails, set to debut tomorrow, you can bet there will be plenty of plundering adventures awaiting you and your friends the next time you set sail.

Derek Forrest
Derek Forrest is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes hardware news and reviews gaming desktops and laptops.