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Sea without thieves: Where are all the pirates?

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Hello, is anybody out there?

Rare’s swashbuckling adventure Sea of Thieves taps you on the shoulder as soon as it detects a rogue Xbox Live party chat and ushers you towards its intention that all players partake in the game chat. All of the marketing, the E3 showcase, promotional streams and now the game itself really push the mantra that all players need to be able to communicate, not just those you actually like and choose to associate with in virtual realms. I’m not sure why it bothers, as in a bountiful three hours sailing the seas last night, our Stevivor crew didn’t come across a single sloop or galleon under the command of other players.

Sea of Thieves is entirely a choose your own adventure sandbox, best enjoyed with friends. Despite some errant anchor drops and shambolic sailing of the more complex galleon, there’s no doubt bashing skeletons and digging for treasure is much more fun with a sociable crew. However, spawning as a pre-assembled unit of four meant there were no other players around, and we wouldn’t come across any for the duration of our plundering.

The distance between islands makes this feel like a vast, intriguing world. But without other players, it feels desolate and empty. The comparisons to No Man’s Sky are going to come with vigour, and they’re deserved at this early stage, as Sea of Thieves is in the same boat — a world you want to explore, but after a couple of hours the islands all start to feel the same and enthusiasm quickly wanes.

The real threat of running into other players would change all of that.

The biggest threat we faced at sea.

After completing the skull cloud battle — defeating relentless waves of skeletons in a Destiny-esque grind before a captain finally emerged from his lair to fight for his loot — we were worried we might be robbed on the return to the nearest outpost. That would have been disheartening, as the horde-fest quickly became tiresome yet engrossing in a ‘hate yourself for committing to finishing it’ kind of way. Had we lost that sweet bounty totalling 15,000 gold coins, I would have been ropeable, and my 4K OLED at risk of becoming over familiar with an Xbox One controller. But if that threat had been real, the sail back to a big payday would have been so much more exciting. As it stands, there was never any risk with no thieves on this sea.

The fault primarily lies in the restricted number of players on each server. Rare has stated it wants PvP encounters to be regular but not constant and has a magic formula to move you between servers to keep the world populated — if a cryptic riddle appears on screen, as happened to us last night, you are migrating servers. However, it clearly doesn’t work properly. Despite a server switch, we still didn’t encounter anyone. With games like PUBG and Fortnite boasting 100 player counts, and the likes of Battlefield 1 sticking with 64, the tiny 12-24 (estimated) player worlds of Sea of Thieves are not enough. It doesn’t need to match the world of battle royale, but clearly needs to be bigger.

The immediate focus will be fixing the server issues that have plagued the launch and stopped players joining altogether, while the long-term goal will be to expand the content to give players something meaningful to do. However, to bring the world to life it needs to be populated, and meaningfully populated, with other players, otherwise thieves will quickly tire of sailing these seas.

Sea of Thieves is available now on Windows PC and Xbox One.