Reviewed on Xbox One and PC, copy supplied by publisher.
Who would have thought setting sail on the high seas could be some of the most exciting gameplay we’ve had in a long time, but also some of the blandest. Sea of Thieves is a bit of a double edged cutlass, doing a lot right and doing a lot wrong.
From the get go the free-form approach Sea of Thieves takes is evident. Once you’ve selected your pirate of choice, it’s up to you what you do – within limits. The freedom to explore lush tropical islands and the majestic sea by yourself or with friends is enticing, and the sailing mechanics are some of the best since The Wind Waker. You can easily lose hours sinking other players, playing songs with friends, taking in the absolutely stunning graphics and traversing through storms, but when it comes to actual content, things become a bit strained.
With three factions to complete quests for, there isn’t a huge range of variety when it comes to structured activities. Each require you to go to a place, dig, shoot or collect a thing, and then return for a pittance of gold. After a few hours of repetitive quests it all becomes a bit underwhelming. Perhaps if the amount of gold you collect were increased, or if there were more than the same cookie-cutter activities, things would be better.
One of the better forms of content within the game are the Skeleton Forts. The server based events are signaled when a skull with glowing green eyes appears in the sky, letting all players know that some serious loot is up for grabs. Fighting waves of enemies with other players, or in spite of them, the final boss drops a key to a vault with treasures that are actually worth your time. That being said, the combat in Sea of Thieves isn’t the best out there, and the variety of enemy types is bland at this point. So you will spend a solid hour or so battling waves of skeletons to get some treasure, which you can only spend on ludicrously expensive cosmetic items.
This may sound like I hate the game, but the truth is far from it. I honestly think Sea of Thieves has provided some of the best online experiences in my gaming lifetime. For instance, myself and a friend arrived at a Skeleton Fort just after a two-man team had loaded their ship up with treasures from their successful run. Taking the piracy thing to heart, we sunk their ship and stole a bounty of goods that would have taken them hours to earn as a small team. Of course when they respawned they came for us hard – and we sunk them again, because that’s what a good pirate does. In that server we went on to sink around 10 other ships, raking in a profit in the tens of thousands before we called it quits. We genuinely felt like pirates, and I can never hope to match that again.
It’s moments like these that leave me conflicted about Sea of Thieves. That example couldn’t be scripted, and it stands out as one of my fondest online experiences – the laughter, the fear and the sheer joy once we cashed in all our ill-gotten goods is hard to top. So are the complaints about lack of content valid, or should we just be making our own fun in a beautifully realised online world?
It’s a tough call, but for me personally – I think there’s something beautiful about this game. Sailing around with friends you often find yourselves getting into a rhythm, adjusting course and sails naturally to get to your goals, playing music in-between and hanging out in a visually stunning online world. If you feel like being naughty you can hunt other ships and put holes in them with your canons – which feel amazing to fire by the way – or you could just simply cruise around and relax. The choice being up to you is a great thing.
Sure, maybe there could be more structure, and sure the enemies are a bit boring – especially the lackluster Kraken – but for fans of free-form gaming, that’s all minor. It’s been over a month since Sea of Thieves came out, and in that time it’s both been stale and exciting for me. I’d love some more content, but there are still amazing experiences to be had with what exists.
The success or failure of this game could be seen as extremely subjective. It’s unlike most other games I’ve reviewed. Overall I found an affinity with the game, enjoying the free-form nature and sheer visual beauty of what Rare accomplished. Sailing alone is zen-like, and with friends you can get up to all kinds of mischief. Whilst I can see the negatives – and there are plenty – I still have to take my hat off to Rare and praise what I think is one of the better online games to have come out in recent times, especially on Xbox, which sorely needed a new exclusive IP.