Review – Sea of Thieves

Back in December I wrote an article about how Sea of Thieves could be Microsoft’s next big franchise and it was interesting to go back and read my thoughts and hopes for the game. Looking back at that article sort of gave me a realization that nothing really changed within the game since I played the alpha, closed betas, and wrote that article. Despite it not living up to my hopes, I’m having a ton of fun playing Sea of Thieves in its current state. That said, no one can deny there’s a lot that should have been there at launch.

Sea of Thieves is a shared world multiplayer game where you can team up with up to 3 other people to become a Pirate Legend. Sea of Thieves abandons traditional story telling and provides a more ‘make it yourself’ adventure by letting the player role play whatever kind of pirate they want to be. You’re not tied to any sort of narrative or player progression, but there are 3 merchants that will give you quests (which I’ll get to later) that will help you level up and become a pirate legend. It relies heavily on your sense of imagination, adventure, and your willingness to role play the kind of pirate you want.

Before you even get into the game you’ll be asked what kind of crew you’ll want to start or join. Depending on the crew size you may be in the larger Galleon or the smaller Sloop. the Galleon supports 3 to 4 players and the Sloop supports 1 to 2 players. I wish there was a mid sized boat for people with a 3 person crew. The Galleon is doable with 3, but it really needs 4 to be fully efficient. While a Sloop can easily be sailed by a single person, but is made easier with another. You can either invite friends or start matchmaking. Either way, Rare has made it extremely easy to find people to play with.

Mysterious Stranger

The Mysterious Stranger

When you first load into the world of Sea of Thieves you aren’t greeted with a tutorial or even pop-up button prompts. You don’t even have an NPC that guides you through to give you an idea of how anything works. Rare wanted their game to spur the imagination of our youth like when you got a new set of blocks or a new toy and you just played with it. You figured out how things work by interacting with it, not reading through manuals and instruction booklets. Right off the bat this is going to turn a lot of people off, especially now where games often hold your hand through every step.

It’s perfectly possible to go out on an adventure and explore without even knowing how to start a voyage due to this. It will rely on you talking to all the NPCs to get an idea of how it all works. Among the shop owners there are 3 trading companies that offer missions or voyages for you to complete. The Gold Hoarders offer maps with red X’s to dig up treasure, Order of Souls gives you bounties to go kill skeleton captains, and Merchants Alliance tasks you with collecting various wildlife and items. Each company can be upgraded up to level 50 and as you rank up in the companies the missions start to vary and get harder.

As you progress through the companies you’ll start getting voyages with multiple sections. The Gold Hoarders will start giving multiple maps with more red X’s and even start offering riddles. I enjoy the riddles because they’ll often have you go to areas of islands that are more hidden or give focus to more of the lore items of the world. Order of Souls will also offer multiple bounties where the enemies get harder and more varied. Merchants Alliance may start off just collecting chickens, but as you level up you’ll collect pigs, snakes, gun powder barrels, crates of cannon balls, and other items such as fine silks.

Grouping with strangers

Exploring with strangers met in the world!

The gameplay is a mixed bag of complexity and simplicity. Before you set off sailing you’ll need to start a voyage by picking a mission from one of the three trading companies. You’ll get a map with either a picture of an island, name of the island, or a list of things to collect. You then need to consult the large world map located on the boat to try and find the island that’s indicated on the voyage map. Once your course is planned out then it’s time to raise anchor and set sail. The sailing is easily the best mechanic in the game; you can tell there was a lot of work and tuning that went into how the boats operate.

Once you reach your destination you’ll need to get acquainted with the island and figure out where exactly you stand by finding any land marks you can see on your voyage map. Depending on your quest you’ll need to use a wide array of your items. Using the compass to find your way and count your paces, using the lantern or music instruments to unlock the next part of your riddle, and then of course your trusty shovel to dig up the treasure.

The Order of Souls like I mentioned above sends you on a voyage to kill skeleton captains. However, these missions reveal a big flaw in Sea of Thieves. The combat is just too simple, so there isn’t enough to keep the fights interesting. The sword has a block, 3-hit combo and a charge attack. You then get a Flintlock, Blunderbuss and the Eye of Reach (Sniper). There’s a decent amount of skeleton variations that wield all the weapons you can, as well as some that are covered in gold who can block sword attacks, and specters who can’t be hit unless you shine your lantern on them first. The problem is, the skeletons are the only actual enemy to fight besides snakes and sharks.

Order of Souls

Order of Souls

Easily the weakest trading company is the Merchant Alliance. They task you to collect animals and other goods, but they also put a time limit on you. Granted, they do give plenty of time, especially in the beginning levels, but there will be times where you’ll need to sail to 5 or 6 islands to find the one specific animal species you’re looking for. It turns into a tedious fetch quest. What I’ve been doing to supplement doing their actual missions is collecting animals and goods I find on islands while doing other voyages.

I dare say that the best feature of the game is that it’s a shared world online game. Now, just like any online game there will be griefers, trolls, and unpleasant people. But from my experience with Sea of Thieves, joining random players is generally a great experience. I’ve added a lot of people on my friends list from joining random crews and even some people I met in the random world.

I’ve had a slew of memorable moments because of the added randomness of the world being online that I could fill an entire article just based off my stories. However, even with every mission having the chance to completely change due to the random actions of real players, there’s no denying that the game needs more than that. PvP can bring a game a long way and can offer a lot of hours of fun, but there needs to be something to do in between these moments. Unfortunately, having only 3 trade merchants is just not enough to keep the gameplay outside of the PvP moments interesting for a long time.

Combat

I brought a sword to a gun fight

Sea of Thieves sports a very bold and striking art style. There’s a compelling mix of highly detailed features and simplistic and bold cartoon-ish aesthetics. I’m playing it on the Xbox One X and the visuals are very crisp and clean with hardly any aliasing at all. The first thing that will keep you in awe is the water and lighting details. Sea of Thieves features the best water to date, hands down. Coupled with a fantastic lighting system, when you’re sailing and the sun shines through the top of the waves or during sunset when the sun is a pinkish-red, glistening off the surface of the water, don’t be surprised if you catch yourself just staring at the horizon.

Not everything is perfect, however. The dynamically formed clouds can often look like an unappealing blob of marshmallow and while I really enjoy the cartoon-ish art style I wish there was a little more detail on the islands within the grass. When the sand blends in with the grass it’s just a strange transition of beige and green smudges. The skeletons are designed well, but their animations are very stiff and rigid. That could also be because the AI is very dumb.

The sound design for the most part is really well done, but there is one major flaw and that is with the NPCs. When you’re exploring or sailing the ambient noises the soft shanties playing in the background are all fantastic. When you’re on a long sailing trip and your crew uses their instruments to plays some music it can really instill the sense of adventure and then when you get in a fight and the music starts getting intense it really adds to the action. But once you head back to port and start dealing with the NPCs you’ll notice a strange disconnect. The NPC’s voice over (which is already limited) feels out of place. It’s almost as if Rare just grabbed some interns to read some lines without having them even give a convincing pirate accent or performance.

Sea of Thieves has a lot going for it, unfortunately what ultimately is a fun game could have been a fantastic game if it had more content. Rare nailed a lot of great things as far as the sailing mechanics, the visuals and the shared world PvP. However, they forgot to add any variety to the gameplay. The randomness of PvP can only take a game so far because when there’s no danger or excitement of other people, Sea of Thieves will burn out quickly in it’s current quest structure.

Graphics: 9.0

The visuals boldly stand out with a fantastic artistic design and some of the best water and lighting effects I have ever seen.

Gameplay: 7.5

Sailing is fantastic and the way each tool is implemented is well done. However, once you leave the boat and participate in sword or gun combat, this is when cracks start to show.

Sound: 8.0

The way the boat creeks, the water splashes, the music turns up during a fight and the ambient wildlife sounds while exploring are all fantastic. Unfortunately the NPC voice work leaves a lot to be desired.

Fun Factor: 5.0

There’s fun to be had here either solo or with a crew if you enjoy adventure games and the rush of shared world PvP. But even the randomness of online interactions can’t hide the lack of quest and progression variety.

Final Verdict: 7.0

Reviewed on Xbox One.
Sea of Thieves is available now on Xbox One and PC (Windows 10)

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