No doubt Sea of Thieves is a tough game to review when you try and view it objectively. So much of the enjoyment to be found is the very definition of subjective because Rare’s long in the works pirate multiplayer opus falls short in several key areas. In a way coming to terms with the dozens of hours I’ve spent sailing the high-seas so far, it was hard not to feel split. Where on one hand awe, tension, tranquillity, and fun was found on just about every voyage.
The, err, ‘emergent’ aspect of Sea of Thieves is strong.
But then moments after you finish a long session you struggle to see where the longevity might lie in the underlying repetition of several mechanics. And the samey voyages. And then the next evening you fire up Sea of Thieves again, hop aboard a Sloop or Galleon, raise the anchor, and marvel at the wondrous water, horizon, sunset, and mysterious ship off in the distance. Little details like your ship creaking when you drop the anchor.
Or, spend an alarmingly long time with a friend using a canon to fire yourself into the sky with the hopes of landing on various landmarks or specific positions and places aboard your ship. For fun.
Let’s begin with what Sea of Thieves does well, other than letting you load yourself into a cannon. And that is let you become a pirate. One of the main reasons it can instantly sell the concept of becoming a pirate so effectively is with just how impressive the water looks, behaves, and interacts with your equally impressive ship. Easily the best digital water ever seen in a game, waves swell and foam realistically, and your ship sways depending on the wind and current. Water splashes and rolls around your deck as you sail further out from shore into increasingly choppy waters. Coupled with the impressive lighting and translucent nature of the sea’s surface, it’s often breathtaking. Even after several hours. A technical tour de force from Rare.
An aspect of the studio we haven’t been this impressed with since the days of the Nintendo 64.
Then there’s the controls, which are refreshing in just how intuitive and second nature they become after initial moments of confusion. Without an in-game map, compass, quest marker, you need to use equipment and your surroundings effectively. Need to find an island, charts a course from the map table aboard your ship. Having trouble figuring out which way to sail, simply use the actual
compass next to the wheel to get your bearings. Or listen out for a crew mate to point the way.
Although it can be played alone, the no-hud approach to both the controls and user interface design encourages communication and co-operation. Perhaps even demands it. Sea of Thieves is best enjoyed with a crew, be it two, three, or four.
Which brings us to our first slice of concern. An experience designed to be played co-operatively, no doubt can set a bad initial impression if you decide to join a group of random players and can’t seem to gel together as a group, or worse, find everyone doing their own thing. And sure, Sea of Thieves can be played alone, sailing around in the smaller Sloop ship. But playing in this manner feels like a lesser experience. Mainly because there’s, well, a lack of meaningful content. Scripted or otherwise pre-determined or designed story and variety is almost completely absent in each Sea of Thieves voyage you take.
Outside of the impressive visuals, great ship physics, and so forth, there’s only two ways you can play in a traditionally solo or objective sense. That is to visit islands, shipwrecks, and other points of interests to complete voyages for the three in-game factions. With voyages being the sort of radiant quests found in MMOs or RPGs that offer little variety other than “go here and get this”. In Sea of Thieves, using a treasure map to go find treasure is fun. But repetitive.
On the flipside to this, adding crew members inherently improves the experience. Voyages to distant islands begin to feel like voyages. Exploring an underwater wreck on your way to a place called Smuggler’s Bay only to be called back to shore as another ship begins firing on you is an extremely tense situation when you factor in all the chests and skulls scattered throughout your hold. Spending the next hour in a high-speed chase full of action, cannon balls, spyglasses, and close calls across the ocean, culminating in a collision and then finally boarding the enemy ship for a frantic duel to the death – well, that’s just awesome.
But, Sea of Thieves isn’t quite a PvP pirate game either. Ship encounters are spread out over time and feel more meaningful as a result.
This example is simply one of many that can be found playing Sea of Thieves, that would otherwise be impossible to find if you simply follow the loop of find a chest, kill a skeleton to collect its skull, and capture a chicken. A loop that is lacking in variety. A cynical way to look at Sea of Thieves as a whole, sure. But even the meatier content, like Skull Forts, are simple horde modes with countless skeletons to kill. Though the loot haul at the end is quite impressive.
There’s a feeling you get that Rare always intended for Sea of Thieves to debut this way. Where content in the traditional sense is there but simple. Easy to follow. Instead, leaving it up to players to discover and create their own stories. Of which there are many. The fact that Skull Forts are completely open and visible by everyone thanks to a giant skull cloud in the sky invites both co-operation and even back-stabbery. Outposts, which are scattered around and used to obtain voyages and sell off loot for gold, aren’t safe havens. Someone can turn up and steal a chest right before you hand it in.
Again, even on this front Sea of Thieves is flawed. The progression and path to become a Legendary Pirate – the goal - is a slow process and, well, a complete grind. Because the only way to become Legendary is to reach level 50 with each faction. Using the gold you earn along the way to buy cosmetics makes complete sense but is botched too. The number of ship customisations are limited to a few different sails and hull paint-jobs – each costing an astronomical amount of gold. Where if you were to try and work out the price it’d be something like over 100 chests found over dozens of hours to buy just one different sail.
Complete disclosure, I’m all for the concept of player, weapon, equipment, and ship customisation as a form of progression in an online cartoon world full of pirates. As to keep a level playing field. I’m holding out hope that Rare see this as one of the easier ways to improve Sea of Thieves in the coming months by giving players the feeling that they’re being rewarded according to effort. Lowering costs and adding stuff like hundreds of simple colour-based cosmetics in addition to the more detailed stuff currently available.
In the end it’s important to remember that what Sea of Thieves does well, it does extremely well.
This might sound slight, but the sheer zen-like calm of sailing through the ocean as the wonderful and subtle score plays in the background alongside the sound of water splashing up against your ship’s hull can be awe-inspiring. From the visually spectacular water through to the realistic physics and gentle sway. Sailing through a storm at night is not only tense but akin to being in a scene from a disaster film.
Ship combat is also a visual spectacle as cannons fire and holes begin to stream water into a hold. When coupled with the brilliant water interplay and tight sailing, confrontations are almost always exhilarating. Okay, so the flipside to this is that the hand-to-hand combat is a little too simple. And even a little laggy. Especially when facing waves of skeletons.
If the launch version is looked at as a foundation for more - Sea of Thieves becomes an exciting proposition. And a game that one could come back to time and again. Which makes sense when viewed as part of the Game Pass subscription service. As a standalone title there is a feeling of “is that it” that permeates several corners of the experience. The big question is, can Rare keep players interest in the long term. And what exactly does the content roadmap look like for Sea of Thieves. How soon until more, meaningful content arrives?
No doubt this is a tough game to review in the traditional sense. How important is variety in scripted and pre-determined content? Are wonderful visuals, brilliant sailing mechanics, and fun activities like playing music and throwing up on your crewmates after drinking too much grog enough? For a few hours sure, but probably not in the long term. What’s here is extremely polished and wonderful to look at. And if the simple joys of sailing through Sea of Thieves gorgeous world clicks with you as it did me, then however long you spend visiting outposts and islands and strange wrecks – will be time well spent.