As I sailed around the sea, dodging islands and fighting the rocking waves, I felt a sense of exploration initially. With so much open sea to venture into, there has to be something to it all, I thought to myself. However, as the minutes turned into hours, more and more I became disillusioned with what Sea of Thieves truly is: instead of it being this grand pirate adventure, it’s simply an empty puddle that requires more than one person to jump in it in order to have some fun. And from that point on I couldn’t bring myself to play Sea of Thieves by myself anymore. It’s moments like that - the realization that what you are doing in the game doesn’t really matter that drive home the Sea of Thieves experience: so much missed potential. This is our Sea of Thieves review.
Sea of Thieves is the latest outing by the UK-based studio Rare - the studio who many of us can atribute much of our childhood memories playing their games. Battletoads sticks out for me, but Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark filled much of my middle school years as well. Recently, however, the studio was relegated to making games for the now abandoned Microsoft Kinect. So when it was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo a few years back that Rare would be making a proper game again, naturally the gaming world got excited.
And at first glance, Sea of Thieves looks like a game many would chomp at the bit to play. My first experience playing Sea of Thieves was at the Microsoft Media Showcase at E3 2016. Sailing a boat with other media members against the people right across from you was great fun - and it definitely left me wanting more. However, each beta and alpha test since then have done the same. The question kept being asked: Ok, the betas are fun, but what exactly do you do in Sea of Thieves?
In reality, not a lot.
Sea of Thieves thrives on its shared world - and it really requires you to be experiencing their sandbox with other people. You can hop into a sloop by yourself, but Rare doesn’t put you in your own instance - you are still pitted against pirate crews of all numbers. More on this in a bit. Sea of Thieves relies on its players to create their own experiences. Do you farm for reputation with the Golden Hoarders, or follow a glowing skull in the sky to liberate an outpost? What if you’re simply looking to sail the high seas, striking at unfortunate players who are just trying to bank their hulls full of loot? You and your crew can do that. However, in the end the varying play styles get stale and repetition and monotony set in. Why are you doing these things? Is this really all there is to a game that has been hyped for years and promised fans a more varied experience from the beta tests?
Sea of Thieves props an emergent gameplay structure as game design, when in reality it’s simply a crutch to hide what isn’t there: an actual storyline or compelling quests.
Progression and questing in Sea of Thieves are simply a smattering of fetch quests from the three factions: The Golden Hoarders, Merchant Alliance and the Oath of Souls. These voyages very based on the faction as well: the Golden Hoarders have you do the generic pirate-y thing and dig up buried treasure; the Oath of Souls requires you to kill a Skeleton Captain (or a few, depending on the level of quest); and the Merchant Alliance has you tracking down pigs and chickens and delivering them to a nearby outpost. While the quests are radiant in nature, there is a chance you’ll do the same thing twice. I did two Merchant Alliance voyages back to back that had me go to the same island, grab the same animals and head to the same outpost. None of these voyages actually have you...voyage. They take you to islands in the immediate vicinity, meaning your whole Sea of Thieves session could see you only going to three nearby islands the entire time you’re online. Never did I feel the need to sail across the map unless it was simply to see what would happen. Never did a quest send me on a compelling mission to uncover something - it’s been the same rinse and repeat voyaging that I had done for 20+ hours now.
Additionally, going and completing these voyages doesn’t actually progress in the game - you have to make it back to the outpost unscathed with your plunder for you to get any credit. This is where the ugly nature of Sea of Thieves’ shared world comes into play. Say you’re a solo pirate captain who just did a string of three voyages (since you can only hold three at a time) and instead of going back and forth you decided to just hoard the loot and sell it all at once. The outpost you decide to go to ends up being camped by a four-man galleon intent on raiding any ship that tries to call to port. There is simply no way you can fend off a four person ship by yourself, and the three masted galleon is loads faster than your single mast sloop. Try as you might the galleon spots you, catches up and kills you. By the time you’ve respawned your ship has been sunk, the treasure you carried stolen and the galleon sailing away ready to strike at another crew. You get zero credit for any of the work you just did in the game, meaning the last 45 minutes to an hour were a complete waste of time.
Games should never feel as though they are wasting your time - and Sea of Thieves does that with ease thanks to its progression and PVP systems.
There is zero way for you to play in a private session, keeping marauding pirate groups away from your hard earned loot. There are no rewards for completing the voyage - everything is tied to you selling the loot, which is asinine considering how easy it is to lose said loot. Instead of rewarding players for their time, Sea of Thieves puts intentional road blocks in the way barring progress behind poorly implemented systems.
PVP is a nightmare as well, unless you are in a full group. And while it can be fun, this really comes down to how well coordinated your group is and, simply put, whether or not the crew you’re fighting is evenly matched or using a smaller vessel.
Due to the nature of how you sail a ship in Sea of Thieves, each crew member should have a defined role. You’ll have one person at the helm, steering the ship. Another might be your lookout, keeping you from crashing into rocks or other items. One member might be in charge of the rigging, keeping the ship moving with the wind, or against it if you’re trying to make a tighter turn on the water. The last crew member is likely taking care of the cannons, making sure they are ready to fire at a moments notice. If you are solo, all of those various jobs are being done by one person - meaning in a fire fight you’re constantly leaving the helm to fire and reload, change the sails, steer the ship and so on. It makes PVP untenable. Even with a second crew member you’re still stretched thin, especially if the ship starts to take on water. With a full crew this is much more manageable. This is why it seems like a disconnect - and a tad bit unfair - to those smaller crews being put in sessions with full galleons to contend with. This is especially tiresome because there is nowhere in Sea of Thieves where you are safe from harassment if a ship spots you. Other games, such as The Division and more mainstream MMOs have designated areas for PVP. The entire map is the Dark Zone in Sea of Thieves.
Other games, if they are going to create a no-safe zone PVP map, like GTA Online does, they include the ability to sail in a private session, away from the hassle of other players. Sea of Thieves doesn’t offer the player much choice in this regard - its requirement that the game be in a shared world in order for the gameplay to truly function is the crutch holding the entire experience back.
This is especially exacerbated by the fact that the combat just isn’t well implemented or very fun. You can hack at enemies with your sword, or shoot them with a trusty flintlock weapon (where you can only hold 5 total bullets - I’ve made those in real life and can easily fit 20 or so into a small leather bag). There isn’t a whole lot of feedback on the weapons and overall the experience feels floaty and half-baked. There is nothing really in it to keep you engaged - it’s hack and slash at it’s finest.
This isn’t to say that Sea of Thieves can’t be fun - it can. In the right conditions the emergent gameplay can provide some incredible moments. One such moment happened when sailing to an outpost that was already being assaulted by a full four man galleon. As my teammate abandoned me to ensure that we had peaceful relations with the other crew, I ended up being cannoned to death by the skeletons on the island since I couldn’t steer and fight back at the same time. When I came back to the fight after respawning, a second galleon had joined the fray - my buddy helping the crew we had befriended in their valiant defence. After about thirty minutes of back and forth cannon fire - many times sinking the enemy vessels only for them to return, we decided to leave, seeking to grind reputation in the end. We ended up regretting that decision, leaving the most enjoyable moments we had with Sea of Thieves to return to the monotony of the grind.
In the end, the question remains: Why? Why are you grinding all this rep? What is it all for? What can you really do in Sea of Thieves?
The game seems to focus heavily on buying cosmetics to kit your pirate out. However the gold prices for every little item are outrageous, especially when each voyage is only bringing you an average of 500-1000 gold a piece. When a new sword (that just looks different, it’s not better or anything) costs upwards of 13K (!) gold, it really makes the grind that much more insufferable. The underpinnings of microtransactions look really apparent here - and while we have to wait and see how Rare will implement it’s totally unnecessary but seemingly required by AAA studio standards gold shop, the way cosmetics work in this game right now make it rife with microtransaction abuses.
Because all of the items you buy in Sea of Thieves are purely cosmetic (including ship upgrades), there is no real sense of actual progression. Your reputation increases and you look nicer - but what exactly are you doing all this for?
There is an end game hub where Pirate Legends (those who reach level 50 with all three factions) can “hang out” and go on Legendary Pirate voyages, but it seems hardly worth attaining in the end. The complete lack of content in Sea of Thieves wears thin quickly, making you wonder how this game could have been hyped for so long, sold at full price and then released - broken at launch - without really much to do in the game.
It does help that Sea of Thieves is an incredibly attractive game to look at, and it does run reasonably well on PC and Xbox (though the Xbox One X has some hiccups that Rare are patching). The wave simulation, coupled by the immensely beautiful lighting system makes for an incredibly believable world. The way the ship sails through the waves is incredible and Rare really should be proud of the work they did on that aspect of the game especially since it takes up the bulk of your time while in the game. The art style lends itself well to the game as well - though the lack of a true character creation system is missed.
At the end of the day, Rare promised a grand pirate adventure, but missed the mark on so much they could have done. Imagine a pirate game with a grand storyline - one that scratches all the itches that experiences like The Goonies, Pirates of the Caribbean and more have brought into the mix. Sea of Thieves requires players to create their own stories every single time they log in and props it up as gameplay. But in the end, it’s a crutch the game can never quite get over. Moments of fun aside, Sea of Thieves isn’t a game I’d recommend to anyone in its current form. Rare plans on releasing “free content” to augment the launch version down the road, but this is an instance where I’d take a “wait and see” approach. As it stands right now, Sea of Thieves is an empty playground of wasted potential that requires too much investment from the player with too little in return.