‘Sea of Thieves’ review

‘Sea of Thieves’ brings adventure and play back to multiplayer

‘Sea of Thieves’ feels a little thin, but its unique foundation has captured our imagination.
‘Sea of Thieves’ feels a little thin, but its unique foundation has captured our imagination.
‘Sea of Thieves’ feels a little thin, but its unique foundation has captured our imagination.

Highs

  • Gorgeous and inviting world
  • Uniquely fun and low-key multiplayer space
  • Embodies universal pirate fantasy
  • Encourages teamwork, play, and adventure

Lows

  • Half-baked social controls
  • Buggy launch

Sea of Thieves is a harrowing and brutal crucible where ships clash and players ruthlessly steal each other’s hard-earned rewards. It’s also a crazy online party where you can drink so much grog that you puke in your tankard and throw it in someone’s face in the middle of a dance party. It is defined by fascinating contradictions that are at once an embodiment of our online gaming zeitgeist, while also defying and undermining mainstream expectations with a radical focus on moment-to-moment play over progression and the dopamine drip-feed of rewards.

Legendary developer Rare (Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country) has come back in a big way, making a bold claim on the future of online gaming. The results don’t always hang together completely, but when it works, Sea of Thieves casts a uniquely enchanting spell, and after a week of serious play, we still find our mind drifting back to the promise of adventure on the high seas.

Piracy, for fun and profit!

Sea of Thieves is an open world online pirate sandbox. You play as a seventeenth-century pirate in the eponymous Sea of Thieves — a broad, open archipelago of mostly small, tropical islands — sailing around in cooperative crews of one to four for plunder and adventure. The developers at Rare have described it as a “Shared World Adventure Game” (SWAG), inspired by online survival games like DayZ and Rust, but intended to foster a friendlier and more accessible experience than its notoriously punishing inspirations.

That friendliness starts with the game looking utterly gorgeous. Everything is bright, colorful, and stylized, embodying that signature Rare charm. From goofy characters to dramatic vistas and the most beautiful in-game water we’ve ever seen, Sea of Thieves is a visual feast. Because of its quirky visual style that prizes bright colors and distinct silhouettes over realistic textures, it manages to look great on a top-of-the line-PC or Xbox One X, or a much more modestly-specced machine. Every player we’ve spoken to about it in-game agreed it was one of the best-looking titles they’d ever seen on the Windows or Xbox platform.

Sea of Thieves is a visual feast.

Your adventures are structured into voyages (quests, in the parlance of most games), purchased from one of three companies. The Gold Hoarders send you out with X-marks-the-spot maps and site-specific riddles to dig up treasure chests. The Order of Souls posts bounties for undead pirate captains whom you fight with their skeleton crews to collect glowing bounty skulls. Lastly, the Merchant Alliance asks you to locate and capture animals from the islands and bring them to particular outposts by a certain time and date: Chickens are the easiest, which you simply catch, followed by pigs that need to be fed periodically, and snakes that bite unless you calm them by playing music.

Completing voyages and cashing in their plunder at any outpost will net you gold to spend on visual upgrades for your pirate, items, and ship. You also earn reputation with each company, which serves as a loose progression framework, since leveling up with each company gives you access to more elaborate voyages and fancier titles that you can display under your name (like “Gold Bucko” or, the one we found funniest, “Mystic Associate”). Crucially, all of these rewards are purely cosmetic — seasoned sailors will be able to deck themselves out in impressive finery, but functionally the only difference between a brand new swabbie and the most advanced marauders will be player skill/knowledge and the ability to purchase harder voyages, for which they can take anyone along.

Higher level voyages are also not substantially more complicated than the basic ones. While they do introduce gradual variety such as rare, cursed chests and tougher skeletons that demand particular tactics (like shadow skeletons that are only vulnerable when exposed to direct light, or plant-covered skeletons that heal in water), advanced voyages are mostly distinguished by stringing together more of the same, basic objectives, either by giving you several maps to pursue in any order, or doling them out in sequential chapters. The net effect is that you end up out at sea longer, accruing loot, which makes you increasingly vulnerable to other players.

Everything is bright, colorful, and stylized, embodying that signature Rare charm.

Until you’ve cashed in your prizes, your plunder is a physical object that you have to carry with both hands and stow somewhere on your ship, meaning you’re vulnerable. The companies don’t care who turns what in, so anyone can snatch the rewards of your hard labor. That’s what makes Sea of Thieves a game about pirates — the title says it all.

Aside from a handful of non-player characters at the outposts, all the ships and pirates you see on your travels are live players. The developers are cagey about exactly how players are paired in the world, but, in our travels, we ran into other players with varying frequency. Sometimes we’d sail for long stretches of serene solitude punctuated with the occasional ship on the horizon. Other times, we’d find ourselves hounded by the same ship over and over again for hours. Both situations can be lovely, but either risk becoming tedious when it dominates your play experience. The role that other players had in our time sailing the Sea of Thieves was the defining factor in our sessions, but also the most unpredictable.

I’m not here to win; I’m here to make friends!

Other people are the most important ingredient in Sea of Thieves. The voyages are deliberately simple, designed as a framework for meaningful encounters with other players in the world. Dying or sinking your ship is not especially punishing: The dead simply wait for a minute before warping back to their ship, and you can always respawn a fresh ship at no cost. The rewards you have to carry around are what provide the stakes.

While that element of piracy does give Sea of Thieves a particularly brutal, dog-eat-dog edge, it’s meant to be a fun and friendly place. Before the developers implemented guns and swords, they gave every pirate instruments to play (and automatically harmonize) and grog to drink, causing them to stumble around drunk and throw up. You can dance and wave and the like through a menu of emotes. Voice chat, both at unlimited range with your own team and in proximity to anyone else, is central to the experience.

Sea of Thieves tries to counterbalance the inherently aggressive nature of its subject with a light and silly tone and the tools for social engagement. When this balance works out, it’s uniquely compelling. Early on in our travels with a mainstay crew of three, one solo pirate must have attacked us seven or eight times, laughing maniacally and taunting us the whole time. After a while of this when we again saw a small ship slip out from behind a nearby rock and asked “Is that the same guy?” we heard a muffled “No … It’s another guy …” from the other player right before they attacked. (To be clear: It was not another guy). Later on, after we sank a different solo pirate’s ship several times in a row they approached us playing music and offered us a sellable crate of rare tea as a peace offering. We had a friendly chat about how the game was going and went our separate ways in peace.

Not every encounter is so thrilling, though. Just as often, you will find yourself being caught out unawares by silent assailants that steal your progress without the courtesy of a good story to tell. Or maybe you have a series of tentative, half encounters with other players where you never quite engage, but just make each other anxious and slow your progress. Player behavior is the variable that Rare has the least control over, but since it is the most important component in the game, that makes the overall experience extremely contingent on something hard to predict or manage.

Other people are the most important ingredient in Sea of Thieves.

That applies as much to your own crew as it does to players you encounter. The optimal experience would be to sail with a full crew of three good friends, but that’s not going to be realistic for a lot of players. Going solo is viable, and can be quite enjoyable in its own right. The extra maneuverability of the smaller ship elegantly balances out the numbers advantage of a larger crew. It’s also the most harrowing way to play, however, as a small ship and no backup emphasizes the risks involved in accruing and cashing in treasure.

The sailing mechanics are a microcosm of what’s great about Sea of Thieves’ approach to teamwork. Crews of one or two sail on a smaller, single-sailed sloop that’s easy to maneuver, but larger crews sail on galleons with three masts and eight cannons. Galleons are much more unwieldy to steer, so you really need to work together in order to sail efficiently. No individual task in sailing a ship is complicated–adjusting the height or angle of sails, steering, checking the charts–but coordinating all of them requires communication. Sea of Thieves doesn’t punish a lack of individual skill–nothing you do like sailing or fighting is particularly hard or punishing–but it does reward teamwork very well.

Unfortunately, for a game that’s so dependent on positive social interactions and collaboration, its social features are woefully underbaked. Incompetent, inattentive or uncommunicative crewmates can make your experience profoundly frustrating. Matchmaking is purely random, with no way to filter or seek out other players that you do not already know. Once you’re in a game it’s hard for friends to join up while you’re in progress because the game automatically populates empty slots with random players, and if you restart you lose current voyages and loot that you haven’t cashed in.

The only in-game social control is that a majority of the crew can vote to lock players in the brig, which is a literal cage in the bottom deck of your ship. It’s intended as a way to allow players to self-enforce good behavior, but with no caps on the time people can be locked up or any regulation, it’s ripe for abuse. Because you can’t hold slots or otherwise boot players, groups of friends have been using it to passive-aggressively lock up random joiners immediately until they leave. Social controls are especially bad on PC since they go completely through the separate Xbox app, rather than being bespoke and in-client, which can be confusing.

Rare’s approach to player behavior is earnest, but perhaps a bit naive. The game is clearly intended to encourage positive interactions, but it doesn’t give players enough control, and so at times can feel frustratingly random. Their intent is good, but Rare needs to take more deliberate steps to structure the game’s social experience and empower players.

#content

The problem with reviewing a game like Sea of Thieves is that, because the experience is so contingent on other players, playing in the first week may not paint a fair picture of how the metagame will evolve. For the time being then, we will set aside the variable of other players and examine the game itself under ideal conditions to see how it holds up.

Sea Of Thieves Hands-on Preview | First person helm of ship

The most obvious criticism is that there just isn’t enough basic content in the game at launch. While the world of Sea of Thieves is consistently beautiful, it’s also a bit homogeneous. From one corner of the Sea to another you will see basically the same style of tropical island with palm trees, boulders, and sandy beaches. There are ostensibly a few named regions on the map, with subtle changes like the water being a particularly vibrant blue in one area, but for the most part, everything feels a bit samey. The names of individual locations, such as Shipwreck Bay, Plunder Valley, and Mutineer Rock are all a bit generic, too. The world is lovely, but it often lacks a sense of real specificity.

The most obvious criticism is that there just isn’t enough basic content in the game at launch.

The voyages, too, start to feel rote fairly quickly, especially without the spice of other players. Chasing expensive cosmetic rewards offers a similar, but much smaller thrill than, say, earning new weapons and armor in Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. Without any mechanical consequences to these rewards will it be enough to retain players’ interest in the long run? Like most major online games now, Sea of Thieves is essentially a large Skinner box — but one that’s devoid of the mechanical crunch that gives contemporary games their flavor.

Some of the criticism about content, however, is more of a framing problem with how players have been trained to process AAA games. The loot box controversy is just one small facet of our unhealthy relationship to content consumption. Playing off of our psychology, modern games have manipulated us into focusing on rewards, sometimes at the expense of even enjoying the actual gameplay, which just becomes a means to an end. These games have a linear relationship between content and time spent, with players consuming bespoke gameplay experiences once and never again, hungry for novelty.

Once high-level players have consumed all of the standard gameplay (“the campaign”), they are occupied by player-versus-player competition and repeatable, skill-based content (raids). These are only a temporary patch, however, to sustain players until a new content infusion. World of Warcraft is the classic and most long-running example, but its influence can be felt throughout contemporary gaming.

Sea of Thieves adopts that structure wholesale (PvP, Skeleton Fort raids, and all), but radically reframes it around people and accessibility. All of the rewards are purely cosmetic or shareable with anyone in order to avoid partitioning the player community into a skill- and investment-based hierarchy. Viewed through the purely mechanical lens of content consumption, Sea of Thieves is laughably thin and artificially stretched out. That sort of callous viewpoint misses the point, however.

Roll for initiative

Although Sea of Thieves obviously owes a lot, structurally, to modern, digital RPGs, particularly of the massively multiplayer online variety, many of its apparent flaws make more sense when you view it as a pen and paper roleplaying game. Most video gamers have come to associate “RPG” with quests, loot, and developing the skills and stats of a persistent character — the mechanical inheritance of Dungeons & Dragons. What RPGs and games with “RPG elements” often lack in any meaningful way is actual roleplay. They offer elaborate means for mechanical expressions, such as in what skills you choose and how you fight battles, but they are very crude and on-rails in how they allow you to fill another character’s shoes and make choices as them that affect the world and other characters around them.

The perceived gap left by the Sea of Thieves’ ostensibly thin content is space for the player to fill out with playing the role of a pirate. It’s a broad archetype with a lot of wiggle room for personality, whether you want to be the savage lone wolf raider, the fastidious quartermaster, or the drunk and charming cad. Players have thrown around the word “sandbox” for years to describe open, simulated worlds filled with a variety of activities for the player to pursue at their leisure. Sea of Thieves embodies the principle more wholly and earnestly than any of its peers. It provides you with a suite of toys for playing out a pirate fantasy and then lets you go wild with that in whatever way you want.

The fun you find in Sea of Thieves depends on the energy that you and the people around you are willing to put into it.

Like a tabletop RPG, then, the fun you find in Sea of Thieves depends on the fun and energy that you and the people around you are willing to put into it. It rewards investment and a sense of self-motivated fun, which will really resonate with some players, but its loose structure will inevitably push some players away. Sea of Thieves goes out of its way to avoid teaching you its basic mechanics, dropping you into the world with little to no explanation and asking you to figure it out. Helpful players and/or a willingness to fool around and figure it around will get you through, but neither of those is built into the game itself.

Rare’s attempt to take a notoriously punishing form of gameplay and make it so anyone can play is truly admirable, but it feels like the studio’s sanded off a few too many edges in the process. It isn’t hard to imagine how they got there, either. Sea of Thieves gives amazing “tissue testing” for brand new players, because it’s easy to pick up and goof around in, and pretty much everyone has a shared vocabulary for the basic pirate fantasy. It also must be amazing to play when everyone has really invested in the game already, such as among developers or in a closed beta community. Most players will fall somewhere between those two poles in practice, however, and it’s not clear that Sea of Thieves does enough yet to bridge that gap.

Our Take

For all its flaws, we still find ourselves uniquely compelled by Sea of Thieves. The vast majority of current multiplayer games have drilled down into a monomaniacal focus on the mechanics of combat, competition, and dominance. Sea of Thieves stands alone because it has pulled back the frame into a softer, more holistic focus on adventure and play. There are no other games quite like it that create a space where you can have loosely goal-oriented play with your friends that also leaves so much breathing room for just hanging out and goofing around. That’s the real reason that a lot of people continue to play Destiny, for instance, but Sea of Thieves makes that its explicit purpose, instead of also trying to be an epic and challenging narrative and competitive game.

It doesn’t always work, but when it does Sea of Thieves is truly special. Rare has been responsive to its community all throughout development, and has promised major, free content updates starting several months after release, once all of the inevitable technical hiccups have been worked out (we experienced our share of bugs in the first few days, but the game stabilized nicely over the course of the week). The overall experience is a little bare-bones currently, but to an extent, that’s by design: Rare has built Sea of Thieves as a foundation that will grow and evolve based on what the community wants. Design director Mike Chapman told us several months ago that “the golden age of piracy is yet to come to the Sea of Thieves.” Now that we’ve spent some time sailing it, we have to concede that the golden age indeed isn’t there yet, but there’s a promising glint of adventure on the horizon, and we’re really rooting for that golden age to arrive.

Is there a better alternative?

No. While Sea of Thieves shares a lot in common with many of the most popular multiplayer games, its particular tone and focus on low-key fun and accessibility is unique.

How long will it last?

Rare wholly intends to support Sea of Thieves for years to come, with free, regular content updates ranging from minor additions to major expansions. The question remains of how strong and invested the community will remain through that.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you are excited by the fantasy that the game presents, and especially if you have friends that are also willing to play with you, then Sea of Thieves is a rewarding and lovingly-made experience. People on the fence will likely want to wait several months until Rare has had a chance to start adding additional content and we get a sense of where the game will evolve because it’s a little bare-bones at the moment.

Sea of Thieves is available now exclusively on Xbox One and Windows PC. We reviewed the game on PC using a digital code provided by Microsoft.

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