Sea of Thieves is extraordinarily under-cooked for a game of its magnitude. The Xbox One’s biggest exclusive of 2018 (that we know of), while Rare wasn’t out there making far-fetched promises à la No Man’s Sky, you could have certainly been forgiven for thinking that a full-priced game would contain plenty more to do in its full release than we’d previously seen in its betas. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and this is an incredibly bare-bones experience that occasionally offers glimpses of something much greater, though buries those moments beneath hours of tedium.
On paper, Sea of Thieves sounds like a riot. A sandbox game where you sail the seas as a pirate, hunting for treasure and taking on rival players in explosive naval battles, the foundations are there for an infinitely better game. However, while Rare has nailed the fundamentals, regardless of how enjoyable it is to crash through its waves and shoot yourself out of your ship’s cannons, there are only so many times you can do this before asking yourself: “Is this it?”
I am genuinely surprised by how barren Sea of Thieves is for a full-priced game. More-or-less everything that you can do within its first hour is then repeated throughout the rest of it, in an endless pattern of picking up loot, carrying it to an outpost and cashing it in. Though there is certainly fun that can be had throughout this process, everything about it feels like it’s the foundations of a bigger, better game, resembling the first stages of an Early Access title rather than a retail release.
Sea of Thieves Review: Limited Possibilities
During Sea of Thieves‘ E3 2015 unveiling, Rare studio head Craig Duncan stated that it would offer “the freedom to play with limitless possibilities.” While it certainly does provide an expansive sandbox and the ability to travel through it as you see fit, with only three companies offering three specific types of quests, there isn’t a great deal of room for creativity within the confines of its very limited gameplay loop. You’ll spend the vast majority of your time picking up treasure for the Gold Hoarders, killing skeletons for the Order of Souls, or capturing livestock for the Merchant Alliance, before using the gold you receive from these objectives to buy cosmetic items. There is no real sense of progression, with you only able to buy more items of clothing or decorations for your ship (the latter of which are extraordinarily expensive and underwhelming), and you only have access to four weapons for the duration of the game — a cutlass, a pistol, a shotgun and a sniper rifle.
I understand why Rare plumped for this cosmetics-only progression system. Wanting to keep Sea of Thieves as accessible as possible by not awarding veteran players with more powerful weaponry for their efforts, this ensures that newcomers can be thrown into a crew with more skilled players. However, if there isn’t really anything for players to work towards, then the game itself needs to be a heap of fun to ensure that they’ll keep returning even without any real incentives to do so. Unfortunately, even though its fantastical world is ripe for adventure and intrigue, there isn’t a whole lot going on beneath its pretty façade.
Sea of Thieves Review: Empty Waters
Sea of Thieves makes a tremendous first impression. With some of the best lighting and water effects I’ve ever seen in a game, sailing across its treacherous ocean is both an awe-inspiring and uniquely terrifying experience for a medium that typically resorts to jump scares for its horror. When the weather turns and thunder starts striking, waves crash up against your ship and require you to venture down into your hull with your bucket, clearing up the water that threatens to sink it. Sometimes, just basking in the beautiful world that Rare has created here is enough; during one play session, I cashed in a variety of treasure chests with two strangers before proceeding to celebrate by way of downing pints of grog and playing shanties with them while watching the sunrise.
Working alongside a team of friends or strangers in order to set sail and decipher its various obtuse mechanics makes its world feel mysterious, as the complete lack of a UI allows for more organic navigation, with you having to read maps rather than follow objective markers and waypoints. However, despite these initial impressions, it eventually becomes clear that Sea of Thieves far more mundane than it initially appears to be. In my first hour of exploring, my crew and I were left unsettled after the sea turned blood red and ominous music began to swell, signifying something terrible was about to happen. We tentatively jumped into the water, assuming this was going to be some kind of catastrophic encounter and our boat was about to be swallowed up by some beast of the ocean. In reality, this was just the unique way that the game signifies that players have reached the outskirts of the world map.
For me, the most disappointing aspect of Sea of Thieves is how little it accomplished with its wonderful setting. During its beta, I had hoped that the full game would fill its ocean up, introducing various predators to fend off or mythical creatures to swim alongside. What we’re instead left with is the occasional shark and an underwhelming encounter with the Kraken, a randomized world event that is undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of the game, though is ultimately just a few tentacles popping up from the sea and attacking your ship. As discovered by a glitch in which the murky waters surrounding the Kraken become visible, the legendary sea monster hasn’t even been given a body, severely reducing the threat of what should have been a cataclysmic battle.
The issue here is that for a game centered around mystery, there isn’t a whole lot of discovery. At almost every turn it feels like Rare has missed out on the opportunity to give players’ cool things to uncover in its world, from its desolate oceans through to its limited selection of enemies. Even player encounters happen far too infrequently, with you able to sail for hours without bumping into another ship. It’s empty and lifeless, with its outposts containing static NPCs who read their dialogue in accents completely unbefitting of the setting — these voices belong to people you’re more likely to find serving you at a till in a UK shopping center, not the Caribbean isles.
Sea of Thieves Review: Unfinished Symphony
When I first stepped onto my ship in Sea of Thieves, I manned its wheel while my crewmate played his hurdy-gurdy, laughing along as he belted out ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ in my ear as we sailed towards our destination. Then, a few hours in and several crewmates later, I’d heard its handful of songs on repeat and I wanted to throw myself overboard as a result. This is representative of the full Sea of Thieves experience right now, where that initial excitement is eventually replaced with a longing for it to present anything new for the player to enjoy.
When approached as a game that you can dip into for an hour an evening and blissfully sail around, Sea of Thieves does its job. However, the foundations laid down by Rare suggest that it has the potential to be so much more, with it presenting a shallow experience that is carried by its superb visual direction. This is most certainly a work-in-progress, though with Rare not outlining any form of roadmap for its future, it’s impossible to say where it will be this time next year. As it stands, it’s difficult to recommend in its current state, regardless of how lovely its water looks.
Review copy provided by the publisher and played on Xbox One X and PC.