Sea of Thieves is one of the most unusual releases we’ve seen from a game company, in so many ways. Is it the start of a new successful IP for Xbox, or has it sunk somewhere in the seven seas?
At a Glance: 8.5 / 10
I can understand the criticism I see most often for Sea of Thieves, the idea that it lacks enough content to remain interesting for the long haul, but I have to disagree. Though it doesn’t have a map littered with meaningless sidequests, the stories that you create through emergent gameplay are far more special than anything an NPC could send me to do. Though they do become repetitive at times, the moment to moment gameplay is fantastic, and the world that Rare has built here allows you to partake in a wonderful version of the pirate fantasy we all know and love.
This is a game that I see myself playing for a very long time, and if you enjoy the idea of a pirate simulated fantasy life I’d imagine you will as well.
There are so many things that makes Sea of Thieves unique within the world of gaming, not the least of which is an unorthodox approach to pricing. Jaws the world over were dropped when Microsoft announced all its first party games, starting with Sea of Thieves, would be coming out day and date to its Game Pass service. For those unfamiliar with the consumer friendly service, it is essentially a Netflix where you can download over a hundred games, for a ridiculously low price of ten dollars a month. Originally these were older games which were a mix of Xbox One and Xbox 360 titles, as well as a healthy dose of popular indies. This sort of move is unprecedented in the world of gaming, essentially offering one of your tent pole first party IPs up for ten dollars, and allowing people to renew if they like the game. Of course you could still purchase the game for full price, but I’m imagining a large number of people chose to take the Game Pass approach, and it seems that it is paying off.
By Microsoft’s account Sea of Thieves is extremely popular right now, with over 2 million players logging on to live the pirate life in the first week alone. A good deal of that success is likely due to Game Pass, but it is simply far too early to tell how it will impact the games sales, or if that even matters to Xbox in this case. It’ll be interesting to see this approach continue to be refined, and see the numbers of it in the long-term. For my deeper analysis of the issue, you can head here, but in a nutshell I’m optimistic about it.
On top of that this game is a return to form for the previously adored Rare, a studio that since their acquisition by Microsoft has put out a series of games that hardcore gamers simply didn’t care about. They re-entered the spotlight with their fabulous collection of old school games in Rare Replay, and Sea of Thieves is their first outing in a long time. It brings their patented Rare humor to full focus, and seeks to make the pirate’s life the life for all of us.
In addition, the developers have been exceedingly open about the development of the game, starting an early group called the Insiders that were granted early access to the game through limited Alpha’s, play test weekends, and finally a beta more recently. This has led to a community of people, myself included, that feel a sort of ownership over the game that extends to the final experience. During the entire development the team has been open about the way the game was coming along in an unprecedented fashion for AAA games, and very open to consumer feedback.
That being said, while I haven’t sunk hundreds of hours yet into the retail experience of Sea of Thieves, I’ve spent a large deal of time in their world, and am confident now in saying that it is one of the most unique experiences you can have in gaming now, provided you enjoy the type of game it is.
What type of game is it? Well, to watch some of the trailers you might think it is a bombastic shooter, or a rip-roaring PVP ship combat simulator, or maybe a game about puking on your friends. While some of that is certainly in the game, Sea of Thieves is–at its heart–a roleplaying game that seeks to simulate the pirate fantasy that almost all of us have built through years of media exposure to it. If there is something you might consider part of the pirate fantasy, it is likely in this game or on its way, and it is amazing how naturally it all just makes sense in that context.
When I say roleplaying, I don’t mean stats and levels either; all of the progression in Sea of Thieves is cosmetic in nature. A lot of people aren’t very happy with that, they like their stat increases and their plus one magic breastplate, but personally I prefer this method. In a game that is about the experiences you have with your friends, and living that pirate life, I find it comforting I never need to worry about being left behind by a more enthusiastic player, or one with more time on their hands. Instead, the people who play the most often easily stand out, because they simply look the coolest. As you gain gold you can purchase new hair styles, eye patches, coats, shirts, belts, pants, and even customize your sails, hull of your ship, and your figurehead. That reward is still there for players that sink a lot of time into the game, but now you don’t have to worry about how hideous that new leg armor clashes with the rest of your ensemble.
Gold itself is gained by going on voyages for one of three factions, each with a different type of quest. For the Gold Hoarders you’ll be tracking down chests using old school X-marks-the-spot treasure maps, and returning those chests and any others you find along the way. Another faction has you hunting down skeleton crews of fallen ships and returning their skulls, and a final has you ferrying pigs, snakes, and chickens back to port. When you turn these in you gain gold, but you also gain faction points which allow you to level up your factions, gaining access to new rewards and harder voyages. Eventually if you grind out enough faction experience you become a pirate legend, and are privy to a whole new portion of the game that nobody has yet experienced.
This is the crux of the issue with Sea of Thieves: these voyages are extremely repetitive in nature. While the baddies might increase, or the number of chests you hunt in a voyage may go up, there isn’t really ever any true delineation to the voyages. There is no epic story you are following, aside from the very personal stories you create with your friends. It creates a perceived lack of content in the game currently, and it is a fair complaint, but one I think that is missing the idea of Sea of Thieves.
I truly think that how you feel about the game comes down to what type of player you are. If you like those crunchy stat numbers, then Sea of Thieves is likely not for you. Are you a Destiny player who saw everything there was to see in a week of buying it, and weren’t satisfied with just the moment to moment gameplay, no matter how solid? Sea of Thieves is probably not for you.
Have you ever made a character in an MMO, and found yourself roleplaying that character in a tavern with a bunch of friends, content to create your own stories within the world? Do you ever find yourself more enthralled with the stories you create for yourself in Minecraft, a game devoid of story entirely? Has an event like Weatherstock in Lord of the Rings Online, a once completely player driven experience that has taken on a life of its own, ever caught your fancy? Do you play Destiny, not necessarily to grind new content, but to experience the rock solid gunplay while hanging with friends?
Good news, you are going to love Sea of Thieves.
Typically, I abhor the idea of emergent gameplay. Instead, I love to be ferried from one destination to the next, constantly led by the nose with a new story tidbit to follow. The fact that I’m so enamored by Sea of Thieves shouldn’t be, but it is how well they’ve encapsulated the pirate adventure that sucks me into its world. The ship is just what you would expect from a pirate ship, and everything is run by you and your crew. You’ll have to raise anchor, adjust the sail length, turn the sails to catch the wind, and navigate as a team. There are no tutorials, no flashing arrows indicating what you might do, you just know what is expected of you.
The water in the game is the best I’ve ever seen, and I never expected anyone to nail the majesty and terror of the ocean the way Rare does in Sea of Thieves. One moment you’ll be fighting for your life in a mighty storm, your vessel rising and falling with gigantic waves as lightning crashes around you. The next, you’ll be on calm seas with a gorgeous sunset painting the horizon, and reflecting masterfully off the water. It isn’t hyperbole to say that the ocean is a character in and of itself in this game, and it is done with pitch perfect accuracy.
Rare has built systems into their game to encourage socializing, as well as the ridiculous laughter that follows. You can naturally emote by waving, or dancing, and you’ll see your pirate in third person doing so. The real joy though is being able to play music in first person, which is so well done it is mind-blowing. As of this review there are only a handful of songs that you can play, but as you do so each person that decides to play with you nearby will layer pieces of the audio together until you have a full song roaring to life through the tavern.
That same tavern can be used to get absolutely sloshed with your friends, and you’ll stumble about, the screen turning wavy and your character becoming harder to control. Drink too much and you’ll begin throwing up on your crew mates, or into your open bucket. You can then toss this bucket of puke onto an enemy, indeed there is an achievement in doing so before killing them, making their humiliation complete. Though on paper it sounds silly, I’ve seen the magic in four grown men stumbling around a tavern throwing up on everything including each other, and roaring with laughter.
All of these social elements are further tied into a ton of small touches the developers have made to their game, that really make it shine. If you are below decks cannon shoots and music will be slightly muffled, further so if you are under water. Instead of a meter telling you how much air you have left as you explore a sunken ship, your pirate will start gasping for air as the screen slowly goes black. When you die you’ll be dropped onto the ferry of the damned, where you’ll meet up with friends and foes alike, and Rare has added in some funny one liners you can drop at that time if someone has no mic.
Of course, if you do have a mic then it becomes proximity based, meaning you can hear the individual talking if they are close enough to you. Once before this led to me sneaking aboard a ship, listening to them discussing how they were going to kill me and steal my loot, unbeknownst to them that I was already aboard. I killed them both, stole their treasure, and sailed into the sunset. Those sunsets are truly special also, as the entire game has a charming Pixar like appearance, but the way the lighting is done is spectacular. You’ll never see better water than you have in this game, the way light shimmer across the water during changing light is a thing to behold.
The moment to moment gameplay of Sea of Thieves is where the game truly shines, and it has provided me with some of the finest memories I’ve had in all of multiplayer gaming, and maybe just gaming in general. While you can sail alone on a smaller sloop, the game really shines with a crew, and though usually I’m reserved and quiet when I play online, in Sea of Thieves I’m boisterous and constantly work with my crew. That is because they’ve designed the ship and the world in such a way that it really fosters that type of communication.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing with Sea of Thieves of course, like any modern-day launch game with online components the servers were overtaxed the first day and it was nearly impossible to get on and play. If you could get on you were often not immediately rewarded your gold, the server would constantly boot you, and achievements were disabled because of the strain on the servers. Throughout it all Rare was the gold standard of customer service, keeping us up to date on what they were doing, going so far as to basically have a team meeting with us via YouTube. Problems are mostly ironed out now, with small ones still persisting. While I can get on reliably now, my achievements have yet to pop, and I’d be lying if saying it wasn’t the slightest bit irritating.
Sea of Thieves is a game that is more a slice of life simulator than it originally appears, and I think that works against it when it comes to some players expectations. The main complaint seems to be a lack of activities, as you essentially repeat the same three quests over and over again as you grind your reputation score. Since progression is solely cosmetic this can leave some looking for more game to play, but I believe in those cases they are focusing on the wrong things.
Yes, there isn’t a ton of more classic gameplay on display here, and usually that would drive me away from a game. However, in the case of Sea of Thieves it is the roleplay experience of that pirate fantasy that takes center stage, and the emergent gameplay that comes from it. I’ve seldom had experiences like I’ve had in this game, some that I believe I will remember forever.
When you and three of your friends are fighting a massive storm, lightning crashing into the water around you, the hull filling up with water as you bail desperately, your friend fighting to steer the ship away from looming rocks, and then suddenly you break through the storm. You all breathe a sigh of relief–the ship was filled with treasure after all–and a gorgeous sunset paints the horizon that you sail into.
When you have these moments I dare you to leave without a smile on your face, and it is these experiences that will keep me playing Sea of Thieves for a very long time. I can only see this game improving as time goes on, with a team that seems committed to make the best play space for its players, committed to listening to them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, ye lily livered land lover, I’ve some piratin’ to do. Raise the anchors, drop the sails, and for heaven’s sake Captain Billy clean up your puke, it be startin’ to draw the sharks.