Sea of Thieves Review

March 28, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC
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For some time now Microsoft has had a first-party games problem. The launch of the Xbox One X has been successful and it’s been embraced by the hardcore Xbox fans but Microsoft know, or at least they should, that the term “system seller” wasn’t coined when discussing Kinect. It’s a games console and to stand out from the crowd you need a handful of stellar titles that people cannot play anywhere else. Gamers recognise that the Xbox One X is currently the most powerful games console on the market, but aside from slightly buffed third-party titles which can be played on other consoles, it would be great if they’d invest in some exclusives to really showcase the platform. Enter Sea of Thieves from beloved developer Rare, of Goldeneye 007 fame. Removed from their recent duties of pumping out Kinect titles that no-one wants, Rare is back with a swashbuckling pirate simulator in a shared open world with some of the nicest looking water effects ever seen in a video game. Does it live up the hype and take the pressure off Microsoft? Sadly, not really.

Four years in the making, showcased year upon year at multiple E3s and very much hyped by Microsoft and their die hard fans alike, Sea of Thieves is finally released to the masses on Xbox One and Windows 10. Ok so let’s get this out of the way early, Sea of Thieves is a really peculiar game. At times gorgeous, yet consistently overly simplistic and borderline empty content-wise, it’s baffling in two key ways: firstly that it took four years to make and secondly that it’s a full price release.  

There are some truly stunning vistas on display in Sea of Thieves

What you do get in Sea of Thieves is a very unique, if painfully simple, multiplayer online experience, and at times a stunning visual experience with probably the best HDR implementation to date. To add to the visual design — which is going to be one of the most screenshotted for some time —  is the stellar sound design. From the simple shanties that greet you on the loading screens to the sounds of the waves crashing against your ship in a storm, at times it’s whimsical, fun and, when it needs to be, soaring and grand.

You can set sail solo, in a two, three or four man crew with the option of two ship types in Sea of Thieves, each handling slightly differently given the size and weight. On the smaller ship you can quite easily manage all the required elements on your own but as this is a multiplayer game it’s absolutely best enjoyed with other people. The lack of character customisation is arguably the oddest omission coming from the studio that worked on the Xbox’s inbuilt avatar software, but that aside, the inability to make your pirate your own and having to settle for picking from eight randomly generated existing pirate avatars is really poor.

The larger 3- or 4-man boat on display in glorious sunlight - HDR is stunning in Sea of Thieves

There are three main quest types to choose from; skull collection missions will see you fight waves of skeletons on an island, treasure missions give you a map with a suitably red X to mark the spot, and delivery missions see you hunt for chickens or pigs with gold rewarded for delivery. Each mission type will give you reputation and gold from each faction, and as you level up each faction you have the ability to unlock higher level missions to undertake. The missions themselves are very simplistic in nature but for the first few times are really fun - the kicker comes when you start to rank them up and you realise there is little to no variation at all in the activities given. Rare’s answer to mission progression is quantity - one island with buried treasure becomes three, one set of skeletons with a skull becomes two sets and so on. As a result there is a grace period of around four to five hours where everything is awesome (The Lego Movie™) but once this honeymoon period is over you see the cut and paste nature of activities and it all becomes tedious and dull, not helped in the slightest by the painfully simplistic combat which offers little variety other than mash RT and hope you land a hit.  

In an attempt to add some spice to proceedings there are some alternate activities to undertake such as searching wrecked ships, picking up a message in a bottle on a beach, taking on a skeleton fort or meeting the giant kraken and attempting to live through it to tell the tale. The reality of these though are that wrecked ships usually give you a little bit of gold, a message in a bottle is a carbon copy of a delivery quest, the giant kraken is neither exciting or scary and the skeleton forts are extensions of the existing skeleton quests. To be fair, the skeleton forts do offer the most gameplay variation —  not because of their content themselves, but simply because everyone on the server is alerted to a new one and as a result there is the potential to see multiple crews going after the same goal, and in turn, each other.

One of the core mission types in capturing animals, try not to drown them though!

This leads us nicely onto the PvP nature of the game. As you play you will encounter other ships and these could have, naturally, one to four players on board and the first few times you see someone on the horizon there is a similar panicked sense that could be experienced in The Division’s Dark Zone as it is a distinct possibility that another group could jump you and steal the treasure you’ve just spent the last hour acquiring. This feeling soon wears off though as you realise that it doesn’t really matter, nothing does. With an upgrade and progression system that is simply for cosmetic items like hats you suddenly remember all the times Rare banged on about experiences, it’s about the experience not the they say. So to recap: the quests don’t really change, it’s rinse and repeat, and completing them nets you coin which can only be used on cosmetic items. This doesn’t scream longevity.

Many will make comparisons with games like No Man's Sky but that would be a little unfair. No-one lied about the content of the game, in fact no-one ever really mentioned the content of the game. The narrative of the Sea of Thieves hype train was all about experiences in a shared world, people talked excessively about it but if you notice they never really said much about what there was to do in the game. Right up until the day of release following two betas, people were still wondering what there was to do in the game above and beyond the very limited content showcased in the betas. That surely couldn’t be it, right — some repetitive fetch quests and the odd scrap with some skeletons? There must be more they’ve held back for launch? As painful as it may sound, yes that was the extent of the content; the narrative leading up to launch didn’t include detail of more complex mission structures or progression avenues as they don’t exist. A much fairer comparison in our opinion would be to class this as an early access game as Rare have detailed a raft of content for the coming months — but with that comes the question of the full AAA price tag. Adding to the early access feeling, as if any is required, the technical issues at launch were extensive, achievements are still turned off, reputation and gold still randomly update as if they are not in sync with the game. There is no sense of private groups so you cannot make a start and have a friend join mid-game, it just auto throws a random person in, and our old favourite, the loading times — even on the Xbox One X — are far too long.

Be on the look out for other ships from the crows nest

Sea of Thieves is an oddball - effectively an early access game which can provide some carefree chilled gaming moments with friends -  stunning audio and visual presentation are present but the baffling lack of content coupled with the full price tag make it impossible to recommend. If you are keen to take a look then do so using Microsoft Game Pass (imagine Netflix but for games). Note however that if Sea of Thieves exists to sell Microsoft’s new Game Pass, Rare will really need to keep adding more to it to make it something anyone will play past the first few weeks.

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Charming and beautiful but severely lacking in content, Sea of Thieves feels like an early access game that will one day come good. For now it's throwaway fun with your friends and not worth full retail price.
Andrew Phillips

I've been playing video games for 25 years, own all consoles and have no affinity to any specific brand - I go where the games are.

Frequently described by gaming buddies as the Leeroy Jenkins of the group - no regrets.