Sea of Thieves is a unique type of multiplayer game, one that’s been built on the basis of community engagement. This very foundation not only provides a decent experience, but one that encourages social activity. On that score, Sea of Thieves is great. Forgive me for this very off comparison but we’ve seen games walk a similar path before, when it comes to social engagement, that is. Destiny, for example, is Bungie’s vision to bring together a community of players and swallow them in a world full of intriguing lore and heavily replayable gameplay. That hasn’t exactly gone to plan, seeing as how Bungie cant even seem to correctly nail an expansion these days, let alone look after the core game. The point in all of this is that much like Destiny, Sea of Thieves offers a fascinating world and enough content, should you look for it, to keep you going for hours on end. Whether or not this game will hold up just as well in a few months time, will solely depend on how Rare expand the game and react to its feedback.
My first hour with the game, once I could get by the server issues, was very bittersweet. I died more times than I cared to count, mostly due to being outnumbered by enemies or other players. It didn’t matter what I was doing; voyages, forts, decoding messages hidden in bottles, or even casually exploring, I constantly found myself on the wrong end of the ratio. Still, I was having an absolute blast for the most part. Sea of Thieves is no stranger to the spotlight, in fact, it loves the freakin’ thing. Rare’s wide open development process has certainly paid off, however, many fear that Rare may have showcased more than they should have prior to release. Bungie made a similar mistake with Destiny’s Beta, unveiling over half of the game before launch, leading to a very underwhelming portion of uncovered content. With that being said, Sea of Thieves doesn’t totally fall victim to that path, but that’s not to say that the life of a pirate is quite as flawless as we’ve been lead to believe. This game is fun, often hilarious, and undeniably wild, but its structure would have benefited from some refinement.
Starting out the game, you’re given the choice to select from a wide range of different pirates. If you’re unhappy with what’s on offer, you can refresh the selection to bring in some new pirates to choose from. The ability to favorite a pirate that may have caught your eye is present, and if you do this, any pirate that you select will remain in place once you refresh. This design choice, rather than allowing you to handcraft your pirate head to toe, is to ensure that players rarely come across the same character layout, which works well I might add. Once you’ve chosen your pirate, you’re then given the option to dive into the game via a crew or as a solo player, and off you go. Drawing back to my point regarding the gameplay structure, this is really something that you’ll observe from the get-go. There’s no story present in place of carving out your own legendary status, meaning that despite the hidden lore, you’ll be the maker of your own plot. This omission may well turn away those that seek more than simply living the life of a pirate, but on the social front, there’s so much potential within.
The bread and butter of Sea of Thieves is all about exploration and discovery. There’s also a great deal of depth that largely remains absent until you look for it. Though, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and take this from the top. Upon spawning into the world you’ll be greeted with your first safe outpost, a place in which you can purchase stock, items, accessories, and the aforementioned voyages. Voyages serve themselves as quests, more often than not embedded within a riddle that you must solve or identify before you can make sense of it. The game houses a total of three factions; the Order of Souls, the Merchant Alliance, and the Gold Hoarders. Each faction offers unique voyages and rewards, and comes with their own spin on how voyages are played out. The Order of Souls tasks you with taking on a skeleton stronghold to seek out a glowing skull. The Merchant Alliance is more fetch-quest based, being that you’re given items to deliver within a set amount of time. Lastly, the Gold Hoarders give you maps to buried loot, leaving you to suss out the location all by your lonesome.
The variety here is diverse enough to get a pass, but the overall structure largely remains the same. Take on a voyage, complete a voyage, and head back to the port to pick up your reward and gain some reputation with whichever faction you’re working for. Gold that you will earn can then be spent on a wide variety of different wares, including character specific items, ship decorations, and so on and so forth. Certain items will be gated behind reputation levels, but many items from the pool of resources can simply be purchased with coin. You’re never truly tied to this (extremely) light progression system. In fact, you can do whatever the hell you want from the moment your pirate’s feet first touch the ground. Sea of Thieves is a dream come true for fans of sandbox adventures, and the level of freedom here is quite literally unmatched. You can spawn in, disregard every single vendor, jump on your ship and set sail in whichever direction you please. It’s freedom in its purest and most beautiful form. The ocean is chock-full of things to do and places to explore, which for me, was the most alluring feature in the game.
Aboard your ship, you’re able to utilize a map and chart your journey to any of the many islands within. Naturally, some islands will be much more hostile than others, but do tend to dish up a fruitful outcome in exchange for your daring. Take, for example, a trip I made to an island that caught my attention whilst aimlessly sailing the ocean. Within moments I was greeted by skeleton enemies and enough snakes to give Indiana Jones a heart attack, I died, of course, but not before obtaining a message in a bottle from the shore-front. This message, which was more of a wanted poster-like riddle, tasked me with taking down a particularly devious band of skeleton captains occupying a nearby island. This alone took me a fair length of time to overcome. First I had to locate the island on my map, travel to it without drawing the attention of like minded players, and tactically wipe out these foes to execute the instructions. It was a great deal of fun, that much has to be said. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, Sea of Thieves is packed with various encounters and quests like this, all of which prove to be exciting and well designed.
With that in mind, it can equally be as dangerous, and as rewarding, out on the open sea. Several times did I find loot and resources just floating on the surface of the ocean, most likely the efforts of other players that have since been sent to the Ferry of the Damned. I quickly found that it doesn’t always pay off to put greed before common sense, thanks to a band of ravenous sharks patrolling below. Sharks and other players are not the only foes waiting to test your skill, there’s also a devastating Kraken that will periodically make an appearance. This gigantic beast wont only aim to put you to the depths of the ocean, but will see your ship follow suit if you’re not fast enough on your toes. This specific encounter is marvelous, effortlessly relaying a sense of dread the moment you see its mammoth towering tentacles piercing the water. Sadly, that’s the bulk of its design. Swimming underwater will only reveal that this is all that you’re fighting, floating tentacles that are not in any way attached to a body of any sort. It’s a missed opportunity, and a criticism I’m fairly certain will be shared.
By and large, Sea of Thieves has no overarching pace, regardless as to whether you’re alone or in a crew. It’s a game that’s been built with engagement as a forefront selling point, an experience that allows you and your nearest and dearest to put your feet up, and live in-game life however you like. Fancy playing a shantea to pass the time? You can do just that. Want to get drunk? You can do that too. Fire a crew member from a cannon? Why not! Someone on your crew giving you some mouth? You can throw them in the brig and leave them there until they’ve learned their lesson. If anything, Sea of Thieves is the pinnacle of social gaming. Unfortunately, the well developed systems don’t always go hand in hand as expected. This is where the lack of overall structure begins to hurt this otherwise exceptional experience, more so for the lone wolves. On three occasions in one night, I found myself in the brig when joining random players. If that didn’t happen, I was spawned onto an abandoned ship in the middle of nowhere, not knowing where my alleged crew had disappeared off to. It can be a real nuisance, and derails the fun that the game was designed to express.
Prior to release, Rare hosted a number of beta and stress tests in an attempt to alleviate launch problems. It doesn’t appear to have completely paid off. I spent the best half of my evening staring at a LavenderBeard error whenever I would try to connect to the game. Once I got past that, I had another error pop up multiple times at the main menu. Once I got into the game, despite how great the performance was, I couldn’t hear in-game voice chat. I can totally appreciate that any online-only game is bound to have some teething issues, but I cant quite be as forgiving when Rare were clearly well prepared for a smooth sailing window. Still, I’m willing to overlook these few issues in the grand scheme of things. This is, after all, one of Microsoft’s major releases this year, and heavy traffic is to be expected. Do you know what wasn’t to be expected this early on in the game? damned scavengers, that’s what! Let me tell you, there’s nothing fun whatsoever about having your loot robbed by outpost laying players prowling just offshore, waiting for loot to come to them. This is a huge problem, especially for lone players that have no hope of overpowering groups.
Rare really needs to address this, asap. It’s every bit as heart wrenching as The Division’s Dark Zone, only in Sea of Thieves, it takes twice as long to come by anything meaningful, only to have it taken from you on the last stretch. Some may argue that pirates will be pirates, but if that’s the case, this aspect of pirate life is not for me. Disabling attacks within the vicinity of an outpost would fix this, so hopefully Rare, as suggested, will act on the feedback. With this collection of issues to the side, Sea of Thieves has the potential to be something memorable and long-lived. There’s heaps of content to sink into, albeit at times repetitive, it’s never not fun. Rare has already committed to supporting the game with additional post-launch content, and state that Sea of Thieves has always been a game that will evolve overtime. So, what about the content that’s readily available. I’ve already lightly touched on several of the features, but is it enough to justify a visit? Or more importantly, repeat visits? The answer to the former is an absolute yes. The latter, on the other hand, is where we bump into murky water.
Sea of Thieves has some diverse and exciting content to dive into, but this is where the lack of structure and lack of deep progression comes to a collision. The end-game content, known as the “Legendary Pirate” status, is what players will be ultimately aiming for. The issue I foresee, however, is that the gameplay loop appears to rely on repetition and acquisition of cosmetics, to tie you over until you reach that point. Will that be enough to entice the majority to return? That really depends on how much fun you have from the onset. Irrespective as to how thrilling this game is, much like the Kraken, it’s missing its body. The pillars are well set and the game is very accessible. There’s nothing quite like exploring the sea, battling other players, and visiting the several islands in place – carefully charting them and uncovering their secrets in the process. The same applies to the questing and the raiding, or even checking out the depths of the ocean for more secrets to seek. It all brings together a remarkably intriguing adventure, but one that’s screaming to be padded out. I don’t doubt for one moment that this will happen in due course, but the initial package may leave players wanting for more.
I don’t want to completely drag this game down, because despite its simplistic approach, it can be an absolute joy to play. I sunk several hours into one single lengthy voyage with a random crew, and can hands down say that I’ve never had an experience like it. Unlike in solo play on a smaller ship, the larger ship demands crew communication. The tension rises even further when you have another large ship on your six, gunning for your loot. When this happens, you better hope you replenished your ship’s supplies beforehand. Speaking of supplies, there’s a decent pool of different items within, each of which typically has more than one function if you put your head into action. Rare has always pegged this game as an experience that’s going to be driven by the community, much like its development. I have total faith in Rare to respect that promise, and strongly believe that this game will be much bulkier in the months that follow. That’s not letting it off the hook for its issues, so to speak, but I very much suggest sticking with it, or at the very least not writing it off completely until further down the line. One of the main issues with Sea of Thieves is that it’s too carefree. This includes the many riddles that are thrown at you, riddles that practically answer themselves, removing a layer of intrigue and purpose as a result.
Thankfully, Sea of Thieves’ controls remain accessible throughout. The UI is clean, giving you swift access to anything you’re looking to execute or achieve. This applies to combat too, regardless as to what you’re wielding; cannons, pistols, snipers, or swords, the game is fluid from beginning to end. Hell, even controlling the ship and its functionalities is straightforward. It’s mostly just a simple case of raising the anchor, pulling down or adjusting your sails, and hopping to the helm. Obviously the larger vessels require more work, but it’s never too hard to get through any given situation. If you find your ship taking damage and filling with water, you’ll only need a few planks of wood and a bucket to remedy the headache. On the flip side, if your pirate takes damage, a banana is all that you need to replenish your health. Should your ship go down and you find yourself stranded in the middle of the ocean, a mermaid will spawn nearby to get you straight back to safety. Even when you die, you’re merely sent to the Ferry of the Damned for a few moments before being spawned back in. No matter the scenario, Sea of Thieves isn’t at all punishing.
I quite enjoyed Rare’s clever implementations. During one voyage, I couldn’t work out why my ship was filling with water. Not until I witnessed the Chest of Sorrow (loot that I was taking back to the outpost) crying and inadvertently flooding my ship. Moments of discovery like this is where the game shines at its brightest, I just wish there was more of it. Now, let’s talk about the visuals. Rare has hands down developed some of the most stunning and realistic water effects that I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s an absolute joy to behold, both above sea level and below. This is further upheld by some stellar audio, relaying an authentic representation of how beautiful and deadly the ocean can be. Rare’s distinct design spreads to each corner of the game, and although not quite as impressive as the sea, every outpost, island, and character, is well developed and diverse. If I’ve not yet made it clear enough, Sea of Thieves has a great deal of potential, Rare, now more than ever, simply needs to chase it. The game in its current state is a game of customization and stature, and if that’s enough for you, you’ve a lot to look forward to.
Sea of Thieves offers a stunning world for players to explore and uncover its secrets. It’s fun, often hilarious, and unique. Though, the lack of meaningful structure and its simplistic gameplay really does hurt the experience. The game needs to offer more than cosmetic stature and acquisition if it wants a lengthy lifespan. Still, this is one of the few exclusives that Microsoft can, and should, be proud of.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.