We Set Sail With ‘Sea of Thieves’ Closed Beta

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All in-game images by Rare. There was no NDA during the closed beta, I was just too busy playing to grab any screenshots.

What Is Sea of Thieves?

Sea of Thieves is the forthcoming open-world pirate adventure game from Rare and Microsoft Studios.

As a bit of history, my brother and I have played video games together for decades, starting with our Atari 2600. In the mid-’90s, our passion for gaming moved to the PC once we were no longer living under the same roof. We played most major PC games with an online component that was released over the next 15 years or so. Recently, the Xbox family of consoles has become his go-to platform, while my main gaming platform remained the PC. (Aside: I’ve owned most major consoles of each generation from Sony and Nintendo, but have never purchased an Xbox console. Ever. It’s not a boycott, the exclusives just never appealed to me enough to justify the cost of entry.)

When Sea of Thieves was announced for Xbox and it was stated that the game would be supported on Windows 10, it immediately captured our attention. Finally, a game that appealed to the both of us that we would be able to play together on our chosen devices!

When Was the Closed Beta?

The Sea of Thieves closed beta began on Wednesday, January 24. The closed beta was scheduled to conclude on Sunday evening, January 28, but a series of errors that kept some testers from participating resulted in the closed beta being extended until Tuesday evening, January 30. More on those issues later.

Who Participated?

Participation in the closed beta was limited to those who signed up for the Sea of Thieves Insider Programme and to those who pre-ordered the game prior to the end of the closed beta.

Gameplay

The first thing I noticed upon loading up the Sea of Thieves beta was the lack of avatar customization. One would assume that participants were assigned a random avatar in order to test out whatever combinations of customizations there might be in the game. Usually, I’m big on character creation and will spend hours getting my avatar looking just right, but I honestly didn’t miss the lack of character creations. The game is played from a first-person perspective, and the only time the perspective changes to third-person is when your character is emoting. Other than watching your character dance a little jig, you’re not going to be looking at the back of your pirate’s head, so it really didn’t bother me that I didn’t have a say in what shade her hair color happened to be.

Upon entering the game, you find yourself in an inn on a relatively safe and populated outpost island. The guided (PvE) gameplay consists of approaching NPCs of the three factions and acquiring (read as “purchasing”…only the introductory voyages are free) voyages, which are the game’s version of quests, from the faction vendor. Completing voyages and returning to the faction vendor improves one’s reputation with that particular faction, unlocking new rewards and higher value voyages.

Before setting sail, players should fill their inventory with bananas (returns missing health), wood planks (used to repair holes in your ship–and you will have holes in your ship to repair), and cannonballs (pretty self-explanatory what these are for) that can be found on the outpost and transfer the items from your inventory into the appropriate hold on your ship. Once you’re comfortable that you can make it back alive, it’s time to set sail.

The player(s) with a voyage head to the captain’s quarters and officially propose the voyage. All other players in the party must vote to accept the voyage. Once accepted, the crew will be provided with either map(s) of the voyage and/or riddle(s) to solve. Maps are exactly what you’d think; they are pirate maps with one or more red “X” where the voyage objective is located. The downside? Maps do not have island names. Riddles, on the other hand, will tell you the name of the island you need to sail to, but don’t have a drawing of where the objective is located. Instead, text based clues are revealed scavenger hunt style. Go here for you next clue. Now go here. And so forth.

With your map and/or riddle (the higher value voyages have a mix of both) in hand, you go to the ship’s map room and find the island in question. Get your bearing, and lead your crew up to the deck. Raise the anchor. Lower the sails and adjust the angle to catch the wind, and grab the wheel!

Try not to hit the rocks on your way out of port. If you do, get someone patching the holes (you did fill up your ship’s hold with wood planks, right?) and bailing water. You can’t complete a voyage if you’re sunk.

Ships come in two sizes. Four player crews sail the larger ship, which boasts more sails and cannons. These are beasts and can take a wallop. Two players and solo players–don’t play solo; seriously, just don’t–sail the smaller ship, which is less durable but a touch more maneuverable.

Getting to the island is only the beginning. Find a beach where you can climb ashore, raise the sails, and gently coast to a stop. Or, drop anchor and feel like you’re ship’s going to rip apart when you go from full sail to stopped. The choice is yours, Captain. Once ashore, pull out your map and try to find where the red “X” is on the island itself.

In the beta, the only faction that was enabled for players to interact with, and thus accept voyages from, was the Gold Hoarders, who send crews off in search of treasure. In release, there will be two additional factions. One provides combat-oriented voyages; bounty hunter type missions come to mind. The other sends crews in search of magical artifacts.

Finding the spot that “X” marks isn’t always easy. Maps are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional islands, many that have peaks, valleys, and cave systems. There will be times when you are better served by abandoning the voyage in frustration than you are spending yet another hour scouring the same piece of land but still not finding what you’re looking for.

When you think you’re in the right spot, pull out your shovel and get to digging. Most of the chests you dig up are your garden variety chest worth a little gold when sold to the faction vendor. Occasionally, players will unearth special chests. The Captain’s Chest is worth substantially more reward. There is a chest that weeps constantly, filling any ship it is aboard with water. One chest simulates drunkenness, causing your character to stumble about.

Chest in hand, make your way back to your ship. Along the way, you’ll be menaced by NPC skeletons on land and sharks in the water. This is where having a crew is helpful: one person carrying the chest, the other(s) handling and dispatching any threats to your enterprise.

With the chest aboard, you’re faced with a choice: do you go to the nearest outpost right away and sell your booty (which sounds a lot more risque than I meant) or do you head out on another voyage and go back only when your hold is full of chests?

That, dear readers, is the guided part of the game. Voyages, ad nauseam. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Sure, you need improved reputation to access higher value rewards and items, and yeah, if you want to run the “get gold to buy voyages you run to earn more gold to buy more voyages” hamster wheel then you’ll need to do those voyages.

But, lest you think that’s all there is to Sea of Thieves, let me stop you right there. None of that sounds all that piratey, does it? To get the full “open world pirate adventure” experience, you’re going to want to mess with other players.

You say you want some examples?

During the beta, my brother and I killed other players on their way back to their ships and took their chests. We sunk other ships with our cannons. We rammed and boarded other ships, killed the crew, and stole their chests. We fired ourselves out of cannons. We got drunk, vomited into the buckets we were supposed to use to bail the water out of our ships, and chucked them at one another, obscuring one another’s vision with green bile. We played music and danced. We capsized. We got eaten by sharks. We ran out of wood planks. We sailed by night, saw ships anchored off the shore of islands, their crew ashore hunting for treasure, doused our lanterns, shortened sail, and slowly crept up beside the empty ship, plundered their treasure, cannon balls, bananas, and–gasp!–their precious wood planks, and got out of there before the crew even knew they had been hit.

In short, we were pirates, and that is where Sea of Thieves shines. That is what kept us logging back in every day of the beta.

What Was Great?

Graphically, this game is beautiful. Being at sea is simply stunning, from the ocean waves to the picturesque sunsets to the raging storms. Additionally, the sound design provides just the right atmosphere to go along with the visuals, especially in those creepy moments when you’re watching and listening. The biggest treat? Sailing a little too close to the edge of the map results in the sky and sea turning to blood, your ship being punched full of holes (letting that bloody tide fill the galley), and everyone aboard working to get turned around before you’re sent to meet Davey Jones.

What Was Good?

The gameplay was solid. Being free to sail the seas and pirate around with a group of friends is the draw of this game. The guided gameplay was limited, with only a third of the mission types available to test, so it’s tough to say how well all the pieces will come together at release, but the core mechanics appear to be in place to support exploring, treasure hunting, and combat. The game is sufficiently difficult; it does not hold your hand, and there will likely be times you will have to abandon a voyage because you just can’t find nor figure out what the map or riddle is trying to tell you, but that’s okay.

I do wonder whether the repetitive nature of the voyage will provide a significant enough hook for those who enjoy guided gameplay to return to Sea of Thieves time and again, or if it will have a negative impact on the game’s longevity.

What Needs Improvement

As mentioned, the beta was extended due to technical issues throughout the beta. PC players who pre-ordered the game through the Windows Store–which was the pre-order method linked on the Sea of Thieves website–received an error that would not allow them to enter the game for about the first half day of the beta. A day or two later, players received a log in error when attempting to connect to the game en masse after server maintenance because the login server couldn’t handle the load. I’m not bringing up these issues because they are dealbreakers nor because they are particularly alarming. This is beta, after all, and part of the point of beta is to find and fix issues like this before release. I mention them only because this is one area where Sea of Thieves needs to be tightened up before release. Many games have an additional open stress test beta closer to release, to test server capacity. If Sea of Thieves hosts such, then hopefully these technical issues will be addressed ahead of time to ensure a smoother open beta.

While we’re talking about the tech side of things, it has to be said that the Xbox to Windows 10 integration is still not particularly smooth in a lot of cases. I participated in the beta test both on my older but more capable desktop PC running Windows 10 and on my newer but less capable laptop running Windows 10. Each had their own separate issues that had to be dealt with by judicious use of Administrator-run command prompts prior to Sea of Thieves performing adequately. Beyond that, the Xbox to PC interfacing has some quirks, such as having to download and run the Xbox app from Microsoft Store before launching the game (which drops you out of party chat if you minimize the Xbox app window, which is just counter-intuitive on a PC).

Along the same lines, the game is made to be played with a controller. Usually a mouse and keyboard player, I found adjusting to the game’s menu system cumbersome on the PC. Just suck it up and use a controller. It’s much easier.

As for the game itself, crew size is a serious limitation on the gameplay. Currently, the maximum crew size is four players. When players enter the game, they are placed in a shard that holds a maximum number of randomly assigned players. Currently, there is no way for more than four players to be guaranteed to play together on the same shard. Creating a crew member range, such as 1 to 3 crew members for a smaller ship and four to six members for a larger ship, would be a nice feature. So would adding some sort of social tool that allows multiple crews to queue up together or invite to an already in-progress shard, so long as doing so keeps the shard beneath the population cap.

When Will Sea of Thieves Be Released?

Sea of Thieves is scheduled to be released on March 20, 2018. You can pre-order your copy on the Sea of Thieves website, or wherever you typically pre-order games.

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