From a conceptual standpoint, Sea of Thieves represents the next frontier of what is possible in gaming. After all, it is a game that revolves around giving the player an enormous amount of freedom. From the moment that you start the game, you are let loose upon the world with no real predefined objectives or restrictions. If you want to, you can sail from one corner of the map to the other, hunt down other players and steal their treasure, or merely wander around and do a bit of everything. For those that want structure and predefined goals, there are quests, rewards to unlock, and factions to earn promotions in. For those that thrive on creating their own adventures, there are some 50 or so marked islands to explore, randomly generated unmarked points of interest like shipwrecks and all kinds of miscellaneous loot strewn about the map. As far as raw quantity of content goes, Sea of Thieves certainly doesn't disappoint as there's technically an infinite amount.
For all the freedom that Sea of Thieves promises, there are some rather odd features that actually restrict the manner in which you play, and not necessarily for the better. The earliest and perhaps most jarring example is the first choice that you make in the game- character creation. As one may expect, Sea of Thieves has a fairly wide range of character options for you to choose from. Age, height, weight, dental hygiene or lack thereof, and so on and so forth are all variables that can be adjusted for your very own pirate, but you can't actually modify any of these aspects. Instead, the game randomly generates a series of pirates for you to choose from, and then you pick one. Annoying, and rather unconventional, but ultimately not that big of a deal. Or rather, it wouldn't be that big of a deal if your progress wasn't tied to the character. If you want to delete your character and select a new one, then you have to start all over again from nothing as if it were a single player game with only one save slot.
Once you're done selecting a character, you then have to decide how you want to play Sea of Thieves. You can rely on the game's matchmaking system to find random people to play with, or you can have up to three friends join you. You can play by yourself, but be warned that it can be a very lonely experience. At worst, you should probably prepare for absolute misery as there's nothing to prevent other people from doing anything they want to you and your ship (though in all fairness, it does fit in with the theme of the game). Even if you are somehow lucky enough to never encounter hostile players, the point still stands that Sea of Thieves is evidently not meant to be easily played by a single person, and given that you will have to adjust the sails, steer, shoot, perform damage control, and navigate, it is highly recommended to play with friends. In any case, running into other people online is a fairly common occurrence, so there's plenty of opportunities for naval combat and actual thievery.
Speaking of which, it is fortunate that the most exhilarating aspect of Sea of Thieves is its naval combat. Few other games in recent memory offer as hectic a team building exercise as a duel between galleons. Battles between huge ships often feel like a clash of leviathans, at least until one side tires of the war of attrition and leaves.
Unfortunately, ground-based combat is rather mediocre by comparison. Aside from other players and a few snakes here and there, the vast majority of enemies that you can fight are skeletons. While skeletons do possess a fair variety of weapons and attributes, they lack any particularly special or noteworthy behaviors. Some are cowardly and run away, others are exceptionally tanky but slow, a few are capable of lunging at you from a respectable distance with their swords. There are no enemies that really stand out when compared to the kinds of enemies in other games. Your arsenal of melee weapons is similarly bland, limited to a grand total of a single scimitar and nothing else. You don't have access to knives, much less any other fantastical melee weapon, so combat eventually devolves into a bunch of guys wildly swinging away in the same exact style with the same exact speed until someone decides to pull out a gun.
On a slightly better note, there is technically an infinite number of quests that you can embark on. Completing quests rewards you with gold and reputation for whichever faction it originated from. Gold can, as one may expect, be used to buy all sorts of mostly cosmetic gear ranging from clothing and ship parts to weapons and novelty items. Alternatively, you can spend your gold to earn promotions from the various factions, thus obtaining more difficult quests with more valuable payouts. There are three different factions that have their own unique themes and thus different overarching quest objectives, but all of these systems ultimately boil down to constant fetch quests.
Indeed, Sea of Thieves may as well be renamed Sea of Deliverymen. You are almost always tasked with going to some island, finding something, and then bringing that thing back to an outpost for gold with little to no variation. There are endgame encounters in the world, most notably the Kraken and skeleton fort raids, but Sea of Thieves' core gameplay loop is rather repetitive otherwise. Simply put, neither the quests nor the rewards are exciting enough to warrant endless grinding. The only thing that breaks the monotony at all is the mere chance that another group of players will want to risk a naval engagement.
One aspect of Sea of Thieves that helps it stand above all of its competitors is the beauty of its world. The sea can be calm and serene, almost picturesque, with waves gently sloshing against the side of your boat while the sun sets on the horizon and the clouds looking like nothing more than happy marshmallows. Or, it can be a raging storm, replacing the previous scene with a brutal reminder that man is not the master of the oceans, throwing your boat around as if it were nothing more than a twig in a whirlpool while lighting comes crashing down and threatens to deliver judgment from the heavens. Needless to say, participating in a galleon duel in the middle of a storm is an exceptionally rare audiovisual treat, though whether or not anyone will actually hit anything with the rocking waves and dark nights is a whole other issue. While not as breathtakingly impressive, the presence of wildlife on the various islands that you can explore is a nice touch. That being said, it is rather odd that there is such a distinct and noticeable lack of marine life.
Alas, as disheartening as it may be to hear, Sea of Thieves does not live up to its full potential. Rare created a beautiful open world, filled it with all sorts of mystical implications and fantastical potential backstory elements, and then seemingly forgot to put anything into the game to sustain it in the long term. It would almost be akin to reading or watching something like The Lord of the Rings, but there are no actual characters in it; a wondrous world without life, without excitement, without flavor. If NPC ship convoys and towns prove to be too impractical to implement, then there has to be something else to give people a reason to explore this world. Greater (or any) quest variety, more side activities (fishing perhaps?) other than getting drunk, bounties to encourage PvP, some kind of story for each (or any) shipwreck, fort, or skeleton boss no matter how scant, anything to give players a reason to log on after the first few hours. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that people are starting to get tired of being given all these beautiful sandboxes to play in, but no toys to play with, and to merely say that a game is fun with friends is no longer enough.
To be completely fair, Sea of Thieves is not a bad game. One can even say that Sea of Thieves is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a market that's choked by sequels and unoriginal ideas. In fact, the first couple of hours of the game are excellent and almost peerless. The skeleton fort raid is quite intense, and the Kraken encounter, while admittedly a bit lackluster, is a unique and exciting gaming experience. It's just that once the novelty of being a pirate and going on one fetch quest after another wears off, there ceases to be anything left to bring people back. For some, they may never reach this point. For others, the novelty only exists as long as they are playing with friends. Either way, the enjoyment that one derives from a game should never rely on the player not looking behind the curtain and realizing that the magic trick consists of a repetition of the same few moves. All is not lost of course, as Sea of Thieves still has a considerable amount of room to grow, but Rare must move quickly if they want what could be their crown jewel to shine through the years to come.
Our Sea of Thieves review is being conducted on Xbox One with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Windows 10 via Xbox Play Anywhere.
A great, even exceptional, game if you want a quick pirate fix, but there's not much to do after the first couple of hours
- Beautiful Environments and Sound Design
- Unique Pirate Experience
- Immense Players Freedom
- Numerous Cosmetic Items
- No Gameplay Variety
- Lifeless Open World
- Practically Meaningless Loot