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Sea of Thieves Review

William Schwartz on

If you asked me five years ago if I thought that Microsoft would be backing a pirate-themed, co-op focused, shared world adventure game as one of their high-profile exclusives I’d have said “you are crazy.”  Sea of Thieves just doesn’t fit into their standard portfolio that we’ve seen over the years — One that has mainly consisted of Halo, Forza, and Gears of War.  At certain points in the development of Sea of Thieves, I was thoroughly convinced that this game would never actually release.  Nevertheless, Sea of Thieves is finally here.  It’s exactly what it was billed as — an adventure game that puts players in the boots of a pirate, where the main objective is taking to the high seas for adventure and treasure hunting.

Players make their own story in Sea of Thieves

There’s no backstory here.  The player experience on a session to session basis is the story of the game.  The narrative of each adventure is created by the player or party, while adhering to some loose rules that’ve  been incorporated by Rare to give the game some semblance of structure, progression, and variety.  Sea of Thieves is not homogenous. One player’s experience with the game will not be the same experience that other players have.  It’s seemingly been designed so that any Sea of Thieves owner can jump into any game, at any point, and play with others without having to worry about things like player level, experience, or skill.  It’s certainly an odd combination of goals that Rare Ltd has set for the game, but ones that they’ve met with the retail release of Sea of Thieves.

This game is a stunner on the visual front.  We’ll say this up front — Sea of Thieves is looking like the front-runner for “water of the year 2018.”  Players are thrown into random instances upon firing up the game and the visual palette that they’ll find is diverse and equally beautiful whether sailing during blue sky days, torrential downpours or any number of different variants in between.  The sounds of the game are equally impressive, from the sounds of wind whipping through the sails of your ship and creaking floorboards to the music that players can crank out of a variety of different instruments.  Rare has nailed the presentation of Sea of Thieves, and it continues to impress over and over again in this regard.  Reviewing this on the Xbox One X, the game plays in 4K resolution at 30 FPS.  It would’ve been nice to see more visual customization options though.  Say, something like a number of other games offer in trading pixel count for higher frame rate.

Sea of Thieves Video Review

As we said, the gameplay of Sea of Thieves can be different every single time you play the game.  You can queue up for four player multiplayer and tackle any number of objectives with friends or random Xbox Live players on a Galleon ship.  Or set sail by yourself (or with one other player) on a smaller Sloop.  Once in the game, it’s entirely up to you in what you’d like to accomplish.  Do you want to lay on the beach, drink and play music?  That’s certainly one option.  Do you want to tackle challenges set forth by one of the game’s three factions?  That’s another idea as well.  You could also go looking for steeper challenges in world events.  You can hunt down other treasure hunters and try to steal their treasures or go out on your own treasure hunt and try to avoid others snaking your bounty.  Regardless of what you choose, I think the core gameplay loop funnels back into finding treasure and getting it back to one of the game’s many ports of call.  This in itself is fun, if somewhat repetitive due to design decisions by Rare.

Solo players enter at your own risk

Do you play well with others?  If so, Sea of Thieves can be a lot of fun to play with random people.  Since the game is so heavily focused on the shared experience, this isn’t a game that we recommend playing by yourself.  Sure, you can do it.  But it’s not quite as fun as playing with others.  If you’ve got three other friends that are going to play the game with you, it’s a blast.  If you’re relying on matchmaking for this experience it’s going to be a crapshoot.  Our experience in playing with random players ranged from incredibly good to downright awful.  Sea of Thieves relies that players work together to perform common goals.  Just getting from point A to point B is a team effort on a large ship.  With numerous things to take into consideration like navigation, angle of the ship’s sails, dropping anchor, and spotting threats or opportunities.  A single weak link in this chain can ruin the experience.  If anything, Rare has a lot faith in the Sea of Thieves’ player base to make the game enjoyable for all.  Because the flip side of this coin is something that isn’t very fun.  For new players that try playing the game with random Xbox Live players they can also experience the “bad side” of Sea of Thieves.  Run into a three member team of miscreants, and they can simply throw you in the ship’s jail cell if they feel like it.  Run into a queue of solo players, you might have one or two that are working with you while the third is actively trying to hamper your progress.  The solution to this problem would be playing by yourself, but the solo experience in Sea of Thieves leaves something to be desired.  While this aspect of the game has been tailored to the solo player with a more manageable, smaller ship to captain, the gameplay doesn’t quite have the same feel as it does when working in concert with others.

kraken-sea-of-thieves

The great moments of Sea of Thieves aren’t easily recreated but they do happen.  A well orchestrated loot heist in the game can see players stuffing themselves in cannons and firing themselves onto the decks of an unsuspecting vessel.  Players can run into a giant enemy called The Kraken which can snatch players from the ship with its giant tentacles or grab the ship itself.   These “magical moments” seem to be the exception rather than the rule.  There’s a lack of these high points in the game, and it feels like Rare leans in a little too heavily on letting the players make the fun themselves rather than throwing things at them.  Which kind of leads you to think that once you’ve seen or experienced these high points, the second time around won’t quite be the same.  This leads us to think that Sea of Thieves won’t be quite as fun in a month as it is today.  Of course, Rare could be continually adding to the game, but the pace at which they’d have to add new content wouldn’t be able to keep up with an avid player’s desire to see new things.  As it stands, the meat that should keep you coming back is progression.  The missions that players take on to further this progression can feel quite similar to each other, leaving the game feeling like you’re living the mundane life of a pirate with the potential to possibly see something that you haven’t already seen.

The water is still murky

So what else can keep players coming back?  Customization is one thing, and here I think that Rare has also somewhat stumbled in their implementation of different customization options or the lack thereof.  There’s a serious lack of customization for things like the ships themselves.  Nevermind that there are only two different ship models in the game, but it seems like they could’ve done a lot more in allowing a group of players to establish a unique identity.  That funnels down to single characters as well.  The customization options feel somewhat limited here at launch for Sea of Thieves, leaving little desire to grind for expensive customization options.  One day in from launch and I’ve found that I’m ok with the look of my avatar and for a game that uses this as a mechanic to keep people engaged in the game this is not a good thing.

Unfortunately, all of this culminates in Sea of Thieves feeling like the content in the game is insubstantial to keep players invested in the game.  Rare will have ample opportunity to enhance the game going forward and has had an open dialog with their fans throughout the development process.  This could mean that substantial changes will arrive to the game in the future.  The sandbox nature of Sea of Thieves leaves it open to any different number of quests, quest givers, customization options, world events, and more to be added to the game post-launch.  It’s easy to see what Rare was going for with Sea of Thieves.  The polarizing nature of “player created fun” means that players will have entirely different experiences from one another.  For some, they will have the times of their lives just goofing around with friends.  For others, they’ll look at Sea of Thieves and ask themselves what they’re supposed to do.  If you fall in the former category, you can definitely justify the purchase.  If you fall in the latter, the value proposition starts to get a little dicey.

The Verdict

Jack of many trades, master of none.  Sea of Thieves has a beautiful, wide ocean to explore.  It’s too bad that it feels about as deep as a puddle.

"meh"
meh

Sea of Thieves

  • Available On: Xbox One, PC
  • Published By: Microsoft
  • Developed By: Rare
  • Genre: Action Adventure
  • US Release Date: March 20th, 2018
  • Reviewed On: Xbox One
  • Quote: "Jack of many trades, master of none.  Sea of Thieves has a beautiful, wide ocean to explore.  It's too bad that it feels about as deep as a puddle."
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