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How Sea of Thieves channels the spirit of legacy MMOs in 2020

(Image credit: Rare)

Sea of Thieves isn't an MMO - according to Rare, it's a Shared World Adventure Game - but to this aging nostalgic, it perfectly captures the high-risk, high-reward spirit of legacy MMOs like Ultima Online, Runescape, Eve Online, and Anarchy Online.

I'll never forget the thrill of racing on horseback toward the safety of a guarded town with pockets full of gear and gold while a gang of reds closes in with arrows and magic; the relief of crossing town lines and seeing my would-be killers give up and turn around, and the vengeful sorrow of being killed and looted after hours of raiding. In those latter cases, I'd usually rally some friends for back-up and spend hours on a feverish hunt for revenge - sometimes successfully, other times less so. Those long-gone summers I spent living inside classic MMOs - mostly Ultima Online but also some others - defined what I look for in multiplayer games.

And as such, I've been looking for a game that gives me the same rush for years, but my mistake was only trying games that looked like Ultima Online 2020, with dragons, castles, and an isometric perspective. Turns out, the game that ended my years-long search for a modern MMO with old-school bones isn't an MMO at all. It's a pirate game where all bets are off and no one's safe at any time.

There's no quarantine on the open seas

For context, I've been playing Sea of Thieves since a few months post-launch, but it wasn't until recently - right around March when the coronavirus pandemic threw the world into lockdown - that I realized the true potential in Sea of Thieves' multiplayer sandbox. I'd only really ever played solo, which was still a fun, and decidedly more zen experience, but it was kind of like watching a party happen from over the backyard fence. I couldn't really challenge a four-person crew on a galleon, so I just avoided other people. 

I needed my own crew, so when a couple of friends started floating multiplayer games to stay connected during quarantine, I demanded we try Sea of Thieves. They were reluctant at first due to the middling reviews from launch, but being likeminded MMO fans themselves, that first play session was like magic. We were duped, sunken, and left for shark food at every encounter, but we didn't care. We'd just stumbled upon something we hadn't felt since childhood. And we'd soon get better.

Sea of Thieves is the first game I've played in recent memory that's inspired the sort-of organized, provisioned, impassioned chases I've embarked on with friends in recent months. We aren't out to reclaim the loot that gets savagely stolen from us, but to spite the crew that griefs us into a tizzy. And when the hours of sailing, changing course, and being interrupted by random world events result in another defeat, it's devastating - more so than when I lose at other games. But when we win - when we confront the bastards, sink their ship, and sell the loot, it's enthralling. The lows are crushing indeed, but the highs are electric.

(Image credit: Rare)

In a way, it's a game that brings out our most savage instincts. It challenges your trust in other players, rewards betrayal, and punishes decency. You never know if the ship in the distance is flashing its lights to signal friendliness or to coax you into a false sense of security (more likely it's the latter). My crew has shown mercy to ships that beg for it, only to be double-crossed by those very same ships. And though you truly can't trust anyone in the Sea of Thieves, Rare has managed to infuse a sense of playfulness that seems to pervade through the community. Maybe I'm just not good enough at the game to really rile anyone up, but my interactions with opposing crews - hostile and otherwise - have been largely sportsmanlike. When I'm killed, I like to throw my mug of grog into the air aboard the Ferry of the Damned - usually, any fallen foes around cheerfully reciprocate.

I understand that open-world, full-loot PvP isn't everyone's bag, and I know it isn't a feature in every classic MMO - Everquest only allows PvP on specified servers, arena zones, and through agreed-upon duels. World of Warcraft also has rules in place to let players opt-in and out of PvP. But if you're missing that vintage brand of online sandbox that so brilliantly lends itself to chaos - the chaotic good MMO, if you will - but with modern clothes, I passionately recommend checking out Sea of Thieves. Just don't expect me to play nice.

Jordan Gerblick

As GamesRadar's Arizona-based Staff Writer, I'm responsible for managing the site's western regional executive branch, AKA my apartment, and writing about whatever horror game I'm too afraid to finish. Probably drinking green tea.