I picked up my Xbox One X in late 2019, having sat out Microsoft’s console for much of the generation thanks to its absolutely disastrous launch reveal and all of the anti-consumer nonsense the company tried to pull at the time. Put off by the TV TV TV multitasking that seemed to position the Xbox One as a Kinect-powered, overpriced set top box, I instead bought myself a gaming PC with a then-reasonable spec (which still serves me pretty well even now, it must be said). I had a PS4 for a while, but once I player the exclusives I was after – Spider-Man was the big one, which I loved – I finally decided to take the plunge and trade it in for a One X, given that (by then) Game Pass had been launched, backwards compatibility had been implemented and I still had a large library of titles for Xbox consoles that I could access from my OG Xbox and 360 days. Game Pass itself has been absolutely invaluable, providing incredible value and allowing me to try out titles I likely would never have given a second glance otherwise.
It was thanks to Game Pass and my One X that Forza Horizon 4 was my game of 2019; though it didn’t actually come out that year, it was without doubt the game I’d spent the most time playing (and even now I dip in and out of it from time to time – it’s a glorious game). Likewise for my game of 2020 – though it wasn’t launched last year, it was without doubt the one game I sank the most hours into and became slightly obsessed with, I’m not ashamed to admit.
It’s clear, of course, if you’ve taken a glance down this page already, that my game of choice for 2020 is Rare’s online, open-world piracy simulator Sea of Thieves. I have a strange history with Sea of Thieves; it was one of the titles that I was really envious of when I had my PS4 and was a big reason I made the switch to Xbox One, but when I downloaded and played it for the first time when I got my new console, I was met with players camping at outposts constantly – and was repeatedly killed (and had my ship stolen!) within moments of me spawning in-game. Every time.
Frustrated at not even being able to learn the basics without being killed, I uninstalled and assumed I’d never play it again. However, seeing people talking about playing Sea of Thieves on social media (as well as seeing my good friend Scaredy Mat having a lot of fun streaming it, I was convinced to try it again.
I’m so very glad I did! Since the difficulty I had in playing originally, a nice tutorial mode had been added, called The Maiden Voyage, which takes you through all of the basics and gives you a reasonably sized island to explore (and a surprising amount of secrets to discover, along with a decent amount of gold if you can open a tantalisingly locked trap door…).
It eases you in, instead of throwing you in at the deep end. There’s still one hell of a learning curve and even now – after countless hours sailing the seas – I think there’s still things I don’t quite understand, but you can at least get to grips with the game without being left stranded and repeatedly killed without having a chance to know what’s going on.
That’s another thing – an Arena mode has been added and it seems that many of the most bloodthirsty pirates head there instead of camping at supposedly safe spaces in the main game. Don’t get me wrong, the Sea of Thieves is still a ludicrously dangerous game, but it’s a lot less lethal than it was when I first played, and consequently far less frustrating.
There’s something utterly beguiling and intoxicating about plotting your course, co-ordinating with your shipmates to steer and operate your ship to its destination; even the act of finding treasure, either from using ‘X marks the spot’ style maps or by deciphering rhyming riddles is a rare pleasure that makes you feel smart and accomplished, especially when your shovel hits a chest on the first try. Hunting Skeleton Captains or tracking down temples via sequences of clues in the campaign-style Tall Tales are further extremely satisfying experiences in the game.
What’s struck me most is how traversal across the huge game world is such a pleasure in itself; whereas so many open world games feel stuffed with icons and dull, signposted travel across their landscapes, the exploration and seafaring in Sea of Thieves makes the journeys, not just the destinations, mini adventures and stories unto themselves.
I’ve not even started on the Ghost Ships, Megalodons or Krakens that’ll pop up to give you hassle out of nowhere.
What’s amazing Sea of Thieves is that even the briefest or (initially) aimless session can turn into the most uproariously fun, swashbuckling adventure at the drop of a pirate’s hat. It’s a framework of game mechanics that can seem bare at first, but soon becomes a rich vessel for storytelling with friends – and the fact that everyone is of the same in-game level, with no character progression or gear advantages at any stage beyond the player’s own skill, means that you’re always sure that your story’s outcome is dependent on how you handle the adversity you face, rather than being up against players who have bought – or fought – their way to being stronger than you.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Sea of Thieves is my game of 2020. There’s so much more I could go into, but I won’t bore you with further details. I would say that if you haven’t been won over by Sea of Thieves yet, give it another chance if you do have access to an Xbox One or Series S/X – especially if you can get together with a friend or two. You’ll have grog-laden stories to tell for years to come (and it’s even spawned a tabletop roleplaying game that apes the video game’s atmosphere, mechanics and lore incredibly faithfully!).
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