Sea of Thieves on Xbox One and PC
Writing this review leaves me conflicted. On one hand, Rare’s latest open world exploration pirate sim is probably right up there as one of the most immersive games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. And on the other hand, the game simply suffers from way too many drawbacks that make it difficult to give this a wholehearted recommendation.
Sea of Thieves is meant to be played with other people. You’ll choose a pirate from the game’s character randomizer, get into matchmaking with up to three other players, and off you go. The world is yours to do with as you please. It’s a sandbox game where you get to create your own adventures and come up with your own stories. Everyone’s experiences will be unique and they’ll feel special to you because these were adventures that you got yourself into; they can’t simply be replicated by just anyone.
But there’s a problem with the sandbox structure Rare has opted to go with here. True, sandbox games with player emergent stories can be extremely fun to play, but a sandbox still needs enough toys in it in order to be enjoyable. At launch, that simply isn’t the case with Sea of Thieves. If you’ve played any of the previously released betas, you already have a pretty good idea of what the core gameplay loop is like.
There are three factions in the game – the Gold Hoarders, Order of Souls, and Merchant Alliance – and they provide you with different quests and voyages you can take on for gold rewards. The Gold Hoarders require you to travel to an island, dig up a chest from a marked spot as seen on your map, then take it back to an outpost for gold. The Order of Souls voyages require you to travel to an island, kill a bunch of skeletons, then kill the boss skeleton, then pick up its skull and take it back to an outpost for gold. Lastly, the Merchant Alliance requires you to travel to an island, catch an animal or find other items, then take it back to an outpost for gold.
So… yeah. They’re all fetch quests, and there’s very little gameplay variety between factions.
And what’s all this gold for, you ask? Well, it’s for fashion. The more loot you turn in, the more gold you get, and you’ll gain experience to rank up for each of the factions. But aside from that, there’s not much of a progression system. All the items and equipment you can buy are purely cosmetic, and are there for your viewing pleasure and bragging rights to show off how long you’ve been playing the game. There is a bit of end game content where you’ll get to unlock a new hub and higher leveled voyages, but presumably that requires you to max out your ranks with each faction, which means pouring hours upon hours into a fetch quest grind.
If that sounds painful to you, it gets worse. Not only does Sea of Thieves suffer from a woeful lack of PvE content, it also features a very lackluster and barebones combat system. The melee combat and swordplay is Skyrim levels of bad, and while the gunplay is a little more exciting, you’re also crippled by the fact that each gun can only carry five rounds at a time. Which means that you’ll do most of your fighting with swords and cutlasses anyway, unless you can find ammo barrels lying around you.
Sea of Thieves does offer two other fun activities, such as island raids and a pretty terrifying kraken encounter. These two activities in particular are pretty enjoyable, especially given their random nature. Island raids are often a bloodbath because of how great the rewards are, but you run the risk of 10 other players jumping on you before you can even set foot on land. The kraken itself is an awe-inspiring and frightening beast, and it serves as a true test of teamwork when your crew has to band together to take it down with the cannons. But when you find that you can experience about 90 percent of the content on offer within hours of playing, there’s a problem.
Despite all that, though, I can’t tear myself away from the game. The PvE content gets dry fast, so I ditched that after doing a few voyages. I soon found that the real joy in the game came from interacting with other players. And no, I don’t just mean sailing the seas with other people and bombing pirate crews that you come across, though that’s pretty rad too. No, my main source of enjoyment came from stowing away on other ships and stalking players as they sailed from island to island, filling up their ship with treasure chests, and then attempting to steal their chests for myself.
Since the combat system is so barebones to the point where it’s not even worth engaging in PvP melee fights, I created my own PvP action by sneaking onboard ships to steal loot. When playing with other players, it’s pretty much a requirement to get on voice chat. Maneuvering around the seas and making sure your sails are always catching the wind requires a certain level of coordination that can only be achieved with communication between players. And because Sea of Thieves is all about that immersion, the game makes use of proximity voice chat so you’ll have to be close to your crew mates to talk to them. This ends up working really well for stowed away thieves like myself, and there’s a crazy thrill and adrenaline rush that comes with sneaking onto a ship and listening in on other players’ plans as you try to figure out when to make your move. Sometimes, you get to hear people do really hilarious pirate impressions. That’s fun, too.
There’s a lot of room for creativity when it comes to thieving in Sea of Thieves. As a solo player, you can’t really do much aside from tossing treasure chests overboard just to mess with other pirates, or just being an annoyance by stealing all their bananas and cannonballs. If you’re skilled enough, you might be able to make off with one chest or skull, and swim back to your ship if it hasn’t sunk yet. But when you’re in a duo, the possibilities are endless. One player could distract a crew by firing cannonballs at them while the other player sneaks onboard. The sneaky one could throw treasure chests overboard or onto a nearby island for the other player to pick up as they follow your quarry’s ship. Or you could camp a raid island together and steal the stronghold key after the raid is completed, or just stow away on the winner’s ship once they’ve collected everything.
If you’re willing to look past the content drought, there is so much to appreciate in Sea of Thieves. The game is dedicated to being the most immersive pirate sim we’ve ever played (no, that nonsense Black Flag pirate story doesn’t count), and it’s all in the details. This is a game that lets you have your own unique character and do things at your own pace. Gradually, even when I wasn’t in the mood to sneak onto ships, I found myself drifting away from the PvE fetch quests and I was content with just sailing the seas and looking for shipwrecks instead. Somehow, diving to explore a shipwreck for possible treasure chests and supplies makes me feel more like a pirate, whereas you’re just more of a privateer when you’re tasked with going to X island and collecting Y item.
There’s a simple pleasure to be found in being able to look at treasure maps, and then turning that piece of parchment around in-game to show it off to your fellow crew mates so they can locate an island more easily on the world map. It’s so immersive, being able to show your compass to another player, whether it’s to confirm your heading or just to brag about the shiny new cosmetic tool you’ve just picked up. I love having to ring the bell from the top of the crow’s nest to warn the captain that there’s a ship or an island in the distance because the proximity voice chat prevents me from just relaying that information verbally. And I love everything about the way you have to interact with your own ship, from adjusting the sails and watching them flutter when they catch the wind just right, to dropping the anchor at a whim so that you can make a hard turn and get a good angle to fire a cannonball at your enemies.
And most of all, I love the water. Goodness me, the water. The sea being so unbelievably pretty makes sense, though. When you’re going to be looking at the water about 99 percent of the time in the game, you’re going to want it to look amazing. There are so many variables to consider when you’re sailing in Sea of Thieves. A storm could sink you if you’re not careful, but you’d have to try to steer yourself out of harm’s way because your compass goes completely nuts when you’re caught in it. A kraken could literally appear right below you without warning, and you wouldn’t be able to get away because the wind just happens to be against you at that moment in time. Traveling to the edge of the world and being forced to turn back is handled in such an appropriately immersive way as well, with the sea and skies turning blood red as your ship takes damage. The music turns ominous and sinister, making you realize that there’s nothing here but death. I’ve never been so afraid to travel out of bounds in a game world.
With Sea of Thieves, Rare has created a truly great framework with the potential for it to become so much more. But with how little raw content there is at launch, this game is not going to appeal to players who aren’t already invested in the pirate life.
Having fun in Sea of Thieves is a slow burn at the moment. Most of the game involves you just chilling on your ship while looking for other pirates to steal from, or for the raids to start. It’s not a game that you can play every single day for hours on end, and most people will certainly tire of it after seeing all of the PvE content available now. Even so, Sea of Thieves is incredible in the way you can interact with players and be whatever kind of pirate you want to be. While that might not be enough for most people, it is for some.
Score: 3.5/5 – Fair
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