Sea of Thieves
Available On: Xbox One, Windows 10
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: March 20th, 2018
Reviewed On: Xbox One X/Windows 10 PC
Rare has a long and treasured history within the video game industry. Originally backed by Nintendo, they turned out many games such as Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007 and many, many more. In 2002 they were acquired by Microsoft, bringing many of their IPs over to the original Xbox and the Xbox 360. In 2009, they began to focus on the revolutionary Kinect, developing titles for the device like Kinect Sports. Yet after many years, they’ve embarked on a grand new adventure with Sea of Thieves.
Revealed in 2015, Sea of Thieves is a shared-world adventure game, a pirate simulator so to speak. It calls players to embark on journeys in a huge playground and interact with other players with the tools at your disposal. Not very traditional in practically any respect, it’s also been a turning point for the company in other ways, such as attempting to be far more transparent with fans. If you’d like more background information on the game, I recommend checking out our recent interview with the Head of Rare, Craig Duncan.
So with all that said, let’s dive into the waters of Rare’s ambitious new title with this review and see just what awaits us.
Sea of Thieves eschews a traditional story for a world built around the concept of emergent gameplay. While there are small hints at a greater mythology, most of the stories are the ones you choose to build here. Players select their character from a wheel of randomly generated pirates with infinite possibilities, then set sail. Up to four pirates can hop on a galleon together; if you don’t invite friends, you’ll be paired with random players. While players can go it alone in a smaller sloop, I’d advise against it, this game is clearly designed with co-op in mind.
The world is populated by outposts with different NPCs. Some are merchants, providing different options for cosmetics, which are the only real form of progression, as they don’t provide a gameplay advantage. Other NPCs staff taverns or work for one of the three trading companies: the Gold Hoarders, the Order of Souls and the Merchant Alliance. These factions provide voyages that players can undertake for gold. Taking on a contract from the Gold Hoarders, for example, will give you a variety of treasure maps and riddles to solve. Find the treasure, come back and sell it. The Order of Souls tasks players with hunting down different skeleton captain and collecting their skulls, while the Merchant Alliance will have you delivering different supplies or animals to different outposts by a certain time.
Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s pretty much it. While the world outside the outposts is bursting with character and hints of lore, such as murals or underwater ruins, it’s populated only by sharks, various types of skeletons and the elusive Kraken. As it stands, we’ll be waiting for future updates to really know anything else about the world of Sea of Thieves.
Let’s just get this out of the way, in case it wasn’t already clear: Sea of Thieves is a gorgeous game. Even on the base Xbox One, the water is beyond amazing to look at, with physics and lighting effects that simply look incredible. On Xbox One X or S, the HDR implementation is stunning and I still find myself staring at the game in awe. It’s a blend of realism with a cartoonish art style, and it works well. Looking at the player characters, with their exaggerated features and proportions, it’s obvious this is a Rare game.
Storms look fantastic as well, with crackling lightning (that isn’t just for show) and pouring rain beating down upon your vessel. The compass spins out of control and water threatens to fill your ship. As you’re frantically bailing water, the creaking and groaning of the wooden planks and the idea of your seemingly flimsy vessel sinking down in the storm makes for a tense experience.
The gameplay loop revolves, at its core, around becoming a pirate legend. What is that, you ask? Well, that’s a great question, because as of the moment I’m writing this, no one has achieved that status yet. I’ve played for well over 40 hours, naively thinking I could make pirate legend before finishing my review. I have been proven wrong, and as such I’m forced to write this under the assumption that at this particular time, getting to pirate legend status is the bulk of the game.
So how does one undertake that epic quest? By gaining rank with the aforementioned factions in the game. Continue fulfilling their requests, delivering goods, chests and skulls and eventually you’ll get there. It’s not the destination that Sea of Thieves is focused on however, it’s the journey. The real gameplay loop is the stories you’ll forge with your friends, the shenanigans and battles you’ll engage in with other players, the way you choose to interact in this world.
Handling a sloop in co-op with my friend, we once came across an enemy galleon who fired on us without warning. Trying to defend ourselves, we enacted a scheme: he hopped overboard with an explosive barrel, while I repositioned for ramming speed. At the last moment, I also hopped overboard with an explosive barrel. In the midst of the confusion when our ships collided, the barrels were detonated and the enemy ship sent to the depths. We recovered their treasure and made a fine profit. It’s the things like that which make Sea of Thieves incredible to play.
Beyond other players, you’ll also encounter different varieties of skeletons. Some, you can just hack to bits with your cutlass or blow away with one of the three guns. Others however, require a touch more nuance. There are shadow skeletons, for example, that require you shine light on them in order to make them tangible. Metal-crusted skeletons take almost no damage until you throw buckets of water on them, making them rust. These keep the combat from getting too repetitive but ultimately more enemy types would still be appreciated. There’s also a large, difficult raid players can underrate when they see a giant skull floating in the sky. It’s extremely hard to do on your own but the rewards are superb. Ultimately however, the variety of voyages available falls a little flat right now.
Sea of Thieves, at every moment, sounds incredible. The creaking of ships, the waves crashing on the rocks, the cries of seagulls and the roar of cannons, every sound is the perfect fit for a pirate’s everyday life. I highly recommend using a headset, especially since Sea of Thieves is also one of a handful of games with special Dolby Atmos support, so if you have Dolby Atmos you’ll benefit from the amazing variety of sounds in even higher quality. There’s not really much else to say there, except to reiterate that the sound design is superb.
Multiplayer here is, when it really comes down to it, the crux of the game. Your interactions with other players, whether positive or negative, will shape almost the entirety of your experience. As I’ve stated above, it’s the stories you forge with or against other players that make up the crux of the gameplay. You can sail with one, two or three other crewmates however, there’s nothing stopping you from making friends with other players and running a quasi-super crew together if you’d so choose.
Sea battles and duels are all the rage, as well as just generalized shenanigans (there’s that word again). The many tools at your disposal in Sea of Thieves are all, at their heart, aimed around interacting with other players. Want to go get drunk with an enemy crew in a tavern? You can do that. Want to strike up a tune with your instruments? You can do that too, with each pirate joining in the main tune first started. It’s these subtle details that add depth to the possible experiences with other players.
Unfortunately, right now there are some griefing issues that Rare needs to attend to. When you sink an enemy ship, the ship respawns at the same outpost. As such, this can easily be exploited to troll other players. Rare has stated in their latest update that they’re aware of the situation and working on it but for now it remains an issue.
To say I’m conflicted might be my understatement of the year so far. On the one hand, Rare has absolutely delivered the sandbox for emergent gameplay they promised. The sheer scale of shenanigans and player interaction possibilities help set the incredibly strong foundation of a game set in a beautiful world. On the other hand, it’s a world I want to know more about that feels far too empty. I want more sea monsters, I want more lore and stories, legendary characters, more quests, heck I want more of everything. Even as I love the playground provided, there can be no denying that the content at this point in time is frankly lacking.
I’m well aware Sea of Thieves is the truest definition of games as a service and six months down the road, it could be an entirely different game. At this point in time though, that’s not the case. As such, I can only truly recommend it if you have a crew of friends who want to play as well. Even then, I wholeheartedly recommend you try it through Xbox Game Pass first before making a purchase decision. I love the basics that you’ve provided here Rare. Now please, show me and your other fans what else is on the horizon.