Sailing the seas, singing shanties, plundering the depths of the ocean and sending your enemies to Davy Jones’ Locker. This always sounded like a fantastic idea and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag proved to me that a pirate adventure truly could be a fantastic game and experience. I left that game wanting more, and beyond Assassin’s Creed Rogue, I didn’t really get it. So, when Sea of Thieves was announced at E3 2015, I was immensely excited. A game where the piracy wasn’t just a part of the game, but was the entire game? “Sign me up,” I said. Which is exactly what I did, playing alphas, betas and multiple showfloor demos prior to the game’s release last month. Each demo I played left me excited, and I eagerly awaited the final release of the game and its promise of more – more content, more secrets, more adventures and more fun. So, imagine my dismay when I finally set sail for real, only to find that the promise of more had in fact been an illusion all along and my pirate sandbox was deathly lacking in tools to play with.
If you’ve somehow not seen Sea of Thieves in the almost three years Microsoft have been showing it off since its initial unveil, it’s a first-person pirate adventure game. Playing by yourself or with friends/strangers, you’re given a ship, a world, the most cursory of tutorials and then left alone to make your own adventure. Your adventure comprises of exploring the world for secrets, completing quests for three different factions to grow your reputation and gain booty, and sinking any poor fool who is stupid enough to cross your path. Played with friends and strangers, Sea of Thieves is a highly social experience that tasks you with working together to make the most of the game and can quickly grow infectious. Played on your own however, Sea of Thieves is an unbalanced and immensely frustrating experience.
When I say that Sea of Thieves is unbalanced for solo players, what I really mean is that there is really no balance at all to the game. This is initially made apparent by the warning Rare have added to the start screen, which explicitly advises that playing on your own is a harsher experience. What they really mean by this though, is that playing on your own puts you squarely at the mercy of any and all multi-person crews in the game. While a smaller ship is theoretically more maneuverable, this doesn’t really translate in practice. When three people are able to concertedly train cannons on you as one maneuvers their ship, you’ll quickly find yourself sunk. The worst part of all of this though? Getting sunk by a multi-person crew is the best scenario you can hope for when playing solo in Sea of Thieves. In my time playing the game by myself, I repeatedly had people camp my ship, mercilessly killing me whenever I respawned onto it – which is literally the only place you can respawn after death. In this situation your only method of recourse is to deliberately sink your ship from within the pause menu and hope that this time your luck will be better and you won’t see anyone. If you ever wanted to feel powerless, then you should try playing Sea of Thieves alone.
On the flip side, when you’re a member of one of those multi-person crews, Sea of Thieves shines in a way that few other games do – for at least a few hours anyway. Good communication and team work are utterly intrinsic to the design of Sea of Thieves and this forced interaction helps to build teamwork and a culture of participation. There are multiple jobs to perform on the ship, each with their own required skills and so everybody can find something to do as you sail around the world to your next destination. Battling waves, storms and winds, the ocean in Sea of Thieves feels truly alive and the exceptionally interactive nature of it makes it a character in and of itself. A good character at that. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the landmasses where you will spend a large portion of your time.
From the first moments of stepping off your ship its clear that the attention to detail that was put into the mechanics, physics and design of your ship and the sea is not apparent in the islands of the game. Flora and fauna repeat themselves endlessly throughout the game’s large number of islands, with little to no variation on architecture or design. The pigs, chickens, snakes and skeletons you find are all largely of the same design with palette swaps, with a small smattering of unique designs thrown in on occasion. While the shapes of islands may change, their contents are rarely different, leaving you quickly avoiding any exploration of landmasses unless required by quests you have undertaken. When I explore the world on my pirate adventure, the last thing I want to feel is an urge to skip over islands due to boredom.
The lack of design diversity in Sea of Thieves is made all the more frustrating by just how beautiful everything is. While the style may not be for everyone, every single piece of the world is incredibly detailed and animated. Sails billow as they’re taken by the wind, skeletons shuffle towards you, palm fronds give way as you push through them and the seas rise and fall beautifully. However, there are only so many times you can see the same few plants covering every square inch of an island or the same handful of animals and enemies before their technical prowess stops working its wonders.
The real frustration though, is that this lack of design diversity doesn’t end with the game’s assets. In fact, a lack of diversity permeates every facet of the game. The most immediately obvious of this is in the game’s combat, where every gun contains the same number of bullets, and the melee combat is comprised of a single 3-hit combo, a charge attack and a block. The other is in the game’s complete lack of a character creator. You can’t create your own pirate, instead having to select from auto-generated models the game spits out. While it may take a little longer to notice than the combat or lack of character creation, the progression and mission system in Sea of Thieves is found to be just as lacking.
The driving force behind your progression is completing voyages for the three different factions in an effort to increase your standing with them and gaining gold to buy cosmetics for your character. Yes, you read that correctly, your only form of character progression in Sea of Thieves – a first-person game – is cosmetics you will rarely, if ever, see. While disappointing on its own, the lack of character progression systems could be overlooked if the missions you’re completing are varied, interesting and fun to do. Except they aren’t. While each faction has their own unique mission types, you’ll be repeating the same 2-3 missions for hours upon end as you creep towards the point you can buy even the cheapest cosmetics in the game. This is especially apparent early in the game, where you will literally repeat the same 3 mission types ad nauseum, while you earn an average of 1% to 3% of the game’s mid-tier cosmetics. While this gradually increases in variety as the game progresses, the early game has you quickly and rightfully questioning the futility of progressing further.
In reality, with a crew of friends doing stupid things and playing out a pirate fantasy, Sea of Thieves can be an immensely engaging experience. Unfortunately, it is the poster child for having to make your own fun, because the game itself is lacking in much of what a game really is. If you thought the grinding in a mid-90s Japanese RPG was bad, they’ve got nothing on how repetitious and mundane Sea of Thieves becomes due to its lack of diversity. If you and your friends want a game where you can sail the sea and not worry about complex systems or game design getting in the way, Sea of Thieves could still be for you; but I highly suggest you try the game via Xbox Game Pass first. If you’re likely to play on your own or are looking for deeper mechanics or varied design principals, I cannot recommend Sea of Thieves at all.
- The titular Sea is utterly powerful and amazing
- Textures and assets are incredibly well built
- Quests are incredibly repetitious
- Character progression is purely cosmetic. In a first-person game.
- Missions, flora and fauna all lack in diversity
- Playing solo is a lesson in futility