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Sea of Thieves’ level playing field creates spectacular revenge stories

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Life upon the high seas is dangerous by design

Two ships chase each other through the Sea of Thieves Rare/Microsoft Studios

Sea of Thieves is a game that strikes a curious balance. On one hand, even the name of the game seems to invite strife: It’s a sea of thieves. We know where we’re supposed to be, and we know what we’re supposed to be doing there.

On the other hand, the bright colors, cartoony environments and simplistic waves of skeletal enemies create a G-rated environment.

Combat with other players is inevitable, but as the game’s player base continues to self-select and different strategies emerge, a code of warfare is slowly building. Ironically, embracing pirate codes makes the game feel more civilized.

But occasionally you’ll encounter a crew you desperately want to sink — and the game rewards your thirst for vengeance.

Sometimes you can’t look the other way

It’s entirely possible to play Sea of Thieves solo and focus on PvE to farm gold, but the game really shines when playing with a crew and aiming for high-risk, high-reward booty. Skeleton forts are an especially dangerous PvP hotspot, because the stakes are so high (forts offer the highest payout per activity in the game, by far), and the risk is so great (you need to anchor down and commit to an assault).

Many pirate crews are friendly; they see the PvP element as part of the game. Sometimes I find myself clashing swords with enemies as we howl “yarrrr” into our mics. The pirate voices are often horrible, but they sure are funny.

But sometimes you run into someone who’s a real jerk, the sort of player who sucks the fun out of Sea of Thieves and breaks the pirate fantasy by ranting about modern-day gender politics or making insinuations about one’s sex life. That would be enough to ruin the game ... if Sea of Thieves didn’t give me the tools I need to be the pettiest, most relentless pirate on the seas. Revenge is not just possible; it’s one of the better reasons to destroy someone.

The ghostly ferrykeeper in Sea of Theives watches the player from his helm Rare/Microsoft Studios

Everything in Sea of Thieves revolves around your ship. If you’re knocked off board or your crew leaves without you, a friendly mermaid swims nearby with a plume of blue smoke to get you back on board. If your ship is sunk and has respawned, the mermaid takes you to your new spawn point.

In order to avoid sinking and respawning somewhere else on the map, well away from the action, you have to carefully manage your resources. Your ship has three barrels aboard. One contains cannonballs, which are your primary and most efficient means of dealing offense. One contains bananas, which heal your pirate. The third, and arguably the most vital, contains planks. Your ship’s health is measured by its hull. When your ship takes damage, holes open and immediately begin to let water in. The only way to stop it permanently is to board it up with a plank; bailing is only a temporary measure and can take a significant amount of time and effort.

Here’s where the genius of the respawn and ship health mechanics comes in. When your ship sinks and you respawn with a new one, you have a bare minimum of supplies. Your ship is somewhere else, usually a pretty healthy distance away from where you sunk. You absolutely can move back to re-engage, especially if your enemy is, say, parked at a fort for the next hour ... but you’re taking a risk. You’re entering the fight with a minimum of resources, or you can stop and reload your boat; but that takes even more time, and the enemy might get away.

Whenever a perfectly polite pirate crew sinks me, I usually do the math and figure it’s better to find some new adventure rather than hunt them down.

But sometimes, there’s a heavy modifier thrown into the balance: spite. Sea of Thieves is a game with some rude dudes on the ocean, and sometimes you don’t want them to take the loot from a fortress and walk away significantly richer. Sea of Thieves doesn’t give you the tools to grief someone or snowball an advantage, but if you want to chase your enemies down to the end of the earth, you absolutely can. It just takes tenacity, skill and an unhealthy amount of pettiness.

Four galleons contest a fort in Sea of Thieves Rare/Microsoft Studios

The other day, I was playing with my pals in a full four-man crew, storming an outpost. A galleon was there, and we decided, for funsies, to take one swing at sinking them and stealing their prize. If they sunk us, or it turned into a protracted back and forth, we’d let them have it. It was meant to be a low-investment, low-effort harrying mission.

They proved to be skilled sailors, and as we sunk, we heard this cry:

Is that a chick? Pussy pussy pussy pussy! C’mere!

Their cries grew fouler, more genital-oriented and more insistent. My crew and I knew what had to be done.

We started with the intention of making a crude kamikaze charge, but the fortune of the seas was kind to us that night. As we traveled across the map in our galleon, we stopped at every sloop we found ... and recruited them to our cause. Then, with a three-ship charge, seven players teamed up to take down the enemy galleon, steal the key and take the treasure.

It wasn’t easy, as defending a fort is simpler than attacking one, and the forts are laden with explosive barrel spawns. But we sunk the ship and unlocked the cache after a 30 minute brawl. After the mandatory hurdy-gurdy and accordion celebration on the fort’s shores, we thanked our allies, split the loot and moved on.

Would we have made more money if we just conceded the fight and went on to farm some chests for the Gold Hoarders? Maybe. But as the night drew on, we grew fat on something less tangible but more satisfying: the rage of our opponents, salty sailors that they were.

Two ships collide in the world of Sea of Thieves Rare/Microsoft Studios

The key to successful PvP in a game like Sea of Thieves is that both sides need to have equal opportunities to succeed. And indeed, as we made way towards the comforting lights of an outpost that would purchase our newly acquired loot, we saw three sails on the horizon. Sure enough, it was them. The pussy-chanters had caught a good wind and were now after us.

We had no cannonballs after that last grand battle, and we also lacked planks and bananas. But we did have the wind, and we were in between two outposts: Dagger’s Tooth and Galleon’s Grave. Both of them are open outposts with no obstructions. With careful navigation, we managed to chart a route that looked like a figure eight. As we steered north of Galleon’s Grave, two of our crew jumped off and sold loot. The enemy crew would meet us on shore too late, just as we turned away from the vendors we’d catch faces full of lead or fall to a cutlass. We could feel the mounting rage and frustration from our opponents each time. We were dying, sure, but we were getting rich doing it.

Finally, our hull was empty. We had sold everything, and the enemy galleon was still hot in pursuit. With nothing to lose, we parked at Dagger Tooth’s Outpost and played songs upon the shore while drinking grog. The dark-sailed galleon that had been chasing us and shouting for over an hour now parked nearby and charged us. As they stabbed us and fired blunderbuss shots repeatedly into our faces, one of them howled: “You pieces of shit couldn’t even beat us! You had to team up!”

I had one last thing to share as I died and my corpse hit the sandy shores.

“I guess the most important ship of all was friendship,” I managed, before my corpse disintegrated into teal light.

“Fuck you!” he howled.

It was the sort of experience that made the game worth it. The base game of Sea of Thieves is a little like a family-friendly pirate film, but the people who populate it can make it more of The Road-style story about discovering the real monster (which is, of course, man). In that way, despite the bright colors and simple lore, Sea of Thieves is like an EVE Online or a DayZ — a title that constantly generates enough conflict to lead to awesome, adventure-filled stories that occasionally reveal deeper secrets about the nature of mankind.

As the DLC approaches and pirates are expected to team up to face greater threats, I hope this element of danger stays in the game. PvP for PvP’s sake is rarely fun, but having the tools to stand toe-to-toe with the greatest bullies on the sea and engage in petty revenge (even if it’s at a great cost) makes for some of Sea of Thieves’ most memorable moments.