Regular readers of our site (and if you are, we thank you) might have noticed that we haven’t posted a review for Sea of Thieves. We received a couple of codes for the game a few days before release, and I was tapped to do the review. So far, I have put around 40 hours into the game, and I have experienced some of my favourite gaming experiences as well as moments of boredom and tedium. After a discussion between my fellow Enthusiasts (there’s about 6-7 of us who have played the game) we have decided not to do a formal review. However, over the upcoming paragraphs, I’m going to provide some critique of the game as well as some experiences and overall thoughts.
So, what is Sea of Thieves? It is Rare’s first truly new IP since Viva Piñata twelve years ago; a multiplayer-centred pirate game with a big emphasis on teamwork and exploration. There are three factions that you undertake voyages for, Gold Hoarders, Order of Souls, and Merchant’s Alliance. Gold Hoarder missions will give you either a map (where ‘X’ does mark the spot) or a riddle to find the location of a buried chest. Missions for Order of Souls are basically bounties that will take you to an island where you have to defeat a series of skeletons leading up to a boss/Captain that you have to kill and then return their skull. The Merchant Alliance will give you a shopping list of items to get to a certain place by a set time. You will have to source chickens, pigs, cannonballs, etc. to fulfill the order. And . . . . well, the thing is, that Sea of Thieves is more like a playground for your adventures to take place in. If you approach this game as some sort of Ubisoft-style fetch-questathon, you’re going to get bored very quickly. It might be a cliché, but this really is about the journey and not the destination.
On the first night of release, Andrew G, Chris W, Jamie M, and I took to the waters in a galleon. We completed a couple of standard voyages, and then a cloud shaped like a skull with glowing green eyes appeared in the skies. We went to investigate and found a skeleton fort. These are challenging events where you have to defeat wave after wave of varied skeleton types until you come across a skeleton captain who will drop a key allowing you to access a literal treasure trove. We spent the best part of an hour trying to complete this event (at the time we didn’t know how to handle the different skeleton types). Feeling a huge sense of euphoria at our achievement, we loaded up our vessel with the riches and headed to an outpost to sell our loot.
A couple of minutes away from port we were attacked by a Kraken. A tentacle snagged Chris, Jamie had already bottled it and left before the end of the skeleton fort, so Andrew and I took turns repairing the vessel, bailing water out, and attacking the Kraken. Somehow we managed to break free and made it to the outpost. As we were unloading our wares, other players appeared at the outpost and after noticing that we were carrying a lot of loot they first tried to sneak aboard our galleon to steal some and when that failed, attacked us as we carried it to where we could sell it. After killing our rivals, we finally manage to trade in all our treasure and then pose on the beach for a team photo. This moment is one of my favourite gaming moments I have ever experienced.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t always like this. I have had several occasions where as soon as I join a crew, through matchmaking, I get put in the brig (an option that has been included to deal with troublemakers who join your crew and requires the vote of all other crew members). The only thing I did was get put on the crew via matchmaking; I couldn’t have done anything to annoy them as I was immediately behind bars. If you want to sail a galleon, and don’t have any available friends online, you are entirely at the mercy of the matchmaking gods to see whether you get put with a team of like-minded adventurers, or a bunch of obnoxious tools. I have to say that as time has gone on, the ratio of friendly players to disagreeable people has definitely moved in a positive direction. Sea of Thieves is a game that works best when players co-operate, both in terms of achieving objectives and having fun.
Of course, you don’t have to play with other people on your crew. You can choose to sail on your own in a sloop. This is a smaller vessel that only has one sail, and all the controls are close together so that a solo pirate can pilot it. Life as a lone player in Sea of Thieves can be a particularly dangerous proposition. As well as the usual dangers in the world (skeletons, avoiding random rocks in the water, and violent storms) you have to be even warier of other players in ships. On my first play session with the full game, I picked up a voyage, travelled to the relevant island, and while I was on the island I started hearing voices in my headset. I looked at the water, and I could see that a galleon had dropped anchor next to my sloop. The next thing I know, they lowered the sails on my boat and raised the anchor, so my boat sailed away, without me on it!
Interactions with other ships often take a more violent turn. Galleons have 4 cannons on each side; this provides some serious firepower to attack or defend. Cannons take a little getting used to as there’s no targeting reticule and you have to take into account your boat’s movement, your opponent’s movement, and also be aware of fluctuation due to the waves. This makes successful attacks require more skill than in a lot of games. You also need to be aware of damage to your own ship and weigh up whether it’s best to keep attacking or whether you should concentrate on repairing your vessel. While these encounters are against real-life protagonists and in different locations each time, there is a huge variety to each battle and lead to some truly tense moments.
Special mention has to be made of the look of the game. The sunrises and sunsets give a game like Forza Motorsport 7 a run for its money. The water flows and undulates better than any other game I have seen. Add to this the islands that have been curated and populated with Rare’s unique visual flair and style making them a joy to behold. On Xbox One X everything looks super sharp, and the colours stand out to produce visuals that will take your breath away. During a short session on the Xbox One S, I did encounter a couple of instances of screen tearing, but it wasn’t that bad at all. Overall though, the game is a real treat for the eyes.
The thing that Sea of Thieves is really lacking is content. The voyages you get sent on by the three different factions (Gold Hoarders, Order of Souls, Merchant Alliance) get old pretty quickly. The most glaring lack of content though involves the Mysterious Stranger in the tavern. I got all excited when I saw this as I thought it would be the central campaign of the game. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. When you first speak to this NPC, you are instructed to come back once you are level 5 with all three factions. Once I had achieved that I went back, expecting to be sent on some cleverly scripted mission. Instead, the Mysterious Stranger told me to get to level 10 for each faction. Upon achieving this new level, I was told to come back at level 15. How long this will go on for, I don’t know (I’m currently in the 20s for each faction) but it is a massive missed opportunity.
Sea of Thieves is a game I really like but also find a bit dull. If you play with a group of friends, you will have some amazing adventures and experience moments that you will remember for a long time to come. Using the matchmaking system can be very hit-and-miss. I have come across several players who are now on my Friends List and others that I have had to report for appalling behaviour. As a solo adventurer, you will get bored pretty quickly. The gameplay mechanics are great with sailing the boats being a particular highlight. I just wish there had been more content included at launch. It does feel a bit like a game that should have launched in Game Preview with the main story to come. I’m excited to see what Rare will add to the game as time goes on, but at the moment it’s like a giant sandbox waiting for you and your friends to create your own adventures in it.