There was a period of time in the 90s where it seemed like the team at Rare could do no wrong. Blowing the doors off the gaming world with Donkey Kong Country, they reeled off hit after hit without any sign of letting up. Killer Instinct, Goldeneye, Banjo-Kazooie, Blast Corps, Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the list goes on. It helped to bolster their reputation as one of the industry’s best and brightest studios, and made them one of Nintendo’s most important allies in the ongoing console war.
Today, they find themselves adrift. Suffering an identity crisis of sorts, and lacking one definitively great title since being dealt to Microsoft. Where they once were able to produce multiple games each year, their projects now trickle out like elusive drips from a broken faucet. Aside from the compilation package Rare Replay, their latest release was 2014’s Kinect Sports Rivals.
That was until last month. After years of anticipation, the Xbox One received its newest console exclusive. Rekindling the developer’s whimsical relationship with pirates and adventure, it was touted as the killer app Microsoft needed to help regain lost ground after a fairly brutal 2017 that offered Cuphead and not much else. Just like back in their heyday, it was up to Rare to deliver the goods and hit a home run to universal acclaim.
It’s sad and painful to admit it, but put quite simply, Sea of Thieves is not that home run.
As mentioned in our review, it isn’t a complete disaster. The framework is there for something really fun, and if you happen to luck out and find a suitably wacky crew to cavort about with, you can end up having a spectacular little escapade. But equally so, you could just find yourself fending off skeletons while completing yet another fetch quest. It seems unlikely that a game from Rare would feel empty – the developer that routinely crammed so much content into their Nintendo 64 titles, it necessitated the use of an expansion pak to double the console’s RAM – but that is exactly what Sea of Thieves is at this point (for more on this, check out our piece on lacking content in modern games).
On its own, this isn’t such a crime. 2013’s Killer Instinct also suffered from a dearth of content on release, but over time, it has been fleshed out to the point where it is likely Rare’s best offering on a Microsoft console. The issue is that Sea of Thieves had to be more, had to grab eyes and imaginations, had to level the playing field in a race where Sony and Nintendo threaten to pull away with each passing month.
The Switch came crash landing onto the scene last year with such an impact, it seems to have almost completely erased the woes suffered by the apathetic reception to the Wii U. And though 2018 has been comparatively tame, it ends on a high note for Nintendo as they add the latest chapter to the wildly popular Smash Bros. series. Meanwhile, Sony has been storming the scene like a juggernaut, adding more jewels to their crown with a list of games that appease almost any demographic. Ni No Kuni II, Shadow of the Colossus, MLB the Show 18 and Yakuza 6 have already dropped, but the best is yet to come, ranging from likely game of the year candidate God of War, to the greatly anticipated new Spider-Man.
Embracing their past whilst also adding to their future? Sony is practically dancing rings around Microsoft at this point, who are left picking up the crumbs of a Crash Bandicoot remaster that came out on the PS4 a year earlier, and if we’re being perfectly honest, it probably makes better sense on the Switch anyway.
But let’s scale back a bit. Hyperbole is nice and all, but it’s not like the tepid response to Sea of Thieves is a death knell for the Xbox One. Crackdown 3 and State of Decay 2 lurk on the horizon, and the Xbox One X is the most powerful console on the market. There are reasons for optimism, however it would behoove Microsoft to generate some hype for what lies ahead. Call it damage control, if you will.
Where does that leave Sea of Thieves, that quirky little whelp that’s a few doubloons short of a treasure chest? Somewhere between a big disappointment and a work in progress. The sales figures are certainly promising: Rare studio head Craig Duncan has announced that it is in fact the ‘fastest-selling first-party new IP of this generation’, and that it has already eclipsed two million players, while millions more are watching gameplay on Twitch.
The concern, however, isn’t whether people are interested in the game. Microsoft fans hungry for their own Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild were bound to latch onto Sea of Thieves like it was the last bastion of hope. The true measuring stick will be whether they are able to retain those numbers by populating the sparse world of the pirates in time. Indeed, there’s a certain poetic beauty in the preponderance of skeletons in Sea of Thieves; as bare bones as the game they haunt, each time you look upon their grinning skulls, you feel just that little bit more fatigued.
It was never going to be smooth sailing with a project that was so ambitious. Crippled by the expectations put upon it, perhaps some of those unfair and unrealistic, it is merely serviceable in an era of competition where that just isn’t good enough. A year from now, perhaps these words will appear overly morose. Rare’s continued commitment to excellence and outspoken efforts to appease the fans suggest that they will take the steps necessary to expand their vision, and a game of this nature lends itself well to content matriculating in over time.
So a home run, Sea of Thieves is not. But it isn’t exactly a strikeout, either. It’s more reminiscent of a pop fly that you’re hoping the fielder loses in the lights. When the ball lands once and for all a few months down the track, we’ll know for sure which team will be celebrating.