Shallow Waters ahead..
We were on the Island when we first heard the volley of cannonballs soaring through the air, pelting our ship into the bottom of the deep blue. We were attempting to solve one of our treasure map riddles when one of my fellow pirate companions hit paydirt when we all heard that satisfying crunch when their shovel found the chest. We looked southeast and saw an incoming ship; shiny gold trim, fancy sales, and an outrageously expensive lion figurehead on the bow of the ship. We grabbed the treasure and booked it to the other side of the island. As we made it to the water, one of my allies noticed the mermaid out to sea, an indication our ship had respawned and the means of getting us out of there. The problem? You can't use the mermaid and take the chest with you. One of us had to stay behind.
I took the chest and told my friends to get the ship here as fast as they could. I ran to the nearest cave and hid under a wooden ramp. It was only a few short minutes before I saw our new ship in the distance as my friends began their last-minute rescue. I ran for the ship, but it had also been seen by the enemy. My teammates quickly dropped anchor and I made it onto the ship. The nearest Outpost to sell the treasure was northeast and we could see the enemy ship chasing us from the south. We approached the Outpost fast, too fast, and crashed into the dock at full speed. We booked it for the Gold Hoarder tent as shots fired from behind us. My friends turned around and started firing back at the four other players that stormed the island. I managed to sell the chest, but the enemy had already killed my friends. "You're too late." I told them, but they didn't care and opened fire.
Ever since Rare was purchased by Microsoft in what seems like a lifetime ago, the team has never truly had a real killer app on the platform. They have seen a certain measure of success, but have lacked that console defining title. When Sea of Thieves was announced a few short years ago, it looked as though the Rare of old was back and ready to deliver a quality gaming experience. Microsoft has been starving for a console exclusive for some time now as Sony has been dishing them out left right and center. While I do prefer the Xbox Brand, I cannot deny the quality and quantity of what Sony has been delivering to their platform. Sea of Thieves is a massive title for Microsoft and one they are betting a considerable amount on the masses wanting to take part in some PVP swashbuckling ocean warfare.
In a move that stunned the industry, Microsoft announced that Sea of Thieves and all future Microsoft Studio titles would appear day one on Game Pass, a Netflix-style digital service available for Xbox One and Windows 10. This meant that Sea of Thieves could be downloaded for the subscription's low monthly price or sampled free via the 14-day trial. This opened the game up to a massive amount of Xbox and Windows 10 users that may have not even had an interest in the game, like myself. This sudden success did have its drawbacks as it was almost impossible to log in due to extensive server problems on its first day. While I was eventually able to log in later that night, the next day or two saw issues with the game not properly rewarding gold and faction rewards, and I still haven't been able to unlock any of my achievements, not one.
Before I dive too far into the vast shortcomings of Sea of Thieves, let me preface this by saying that I have quite enjoyed my time with the game. While my experience has been mostly positive, I am well aware that this game is seriously lacking in several respects. So while I am about to go into detail as to why Sea of Thieves could be considered a vast disappointment, I still found the base game itself to be extremely enjoyable, if considerably shallow.
Sea of Thieves is built upon creating moments where you and your friends will write the narrative. The game lacks any sense of a story mode and does little to give itself any sort of character. This is a game solely based around you and your friends sharing in fantastical moments of being a pirate on the open seas, and not everyone will share in that same experience. I can easily see certain types of gamers hating this game as much as I can see why certain people are already pushing 100+ hours in. This "better with friends" aspect to games like this is subjective as not everyone has the same social dynamic. While Sea of Thieves is marketed as a co-op game, it is entirely possible to play just on your own, but just be aware that running up against a boat filled with other players or high-level boss characters will make for a brutal and unforgiving experience.
Despite the missions you can take part in and the treasure you can discover, it was only a few short hours in that I asked myself "Is this all there is?". Sea of Thieves is an open water PVP game where you and your crew will unearth various treasures and combat numerous skeletons all while taking down or avoiding enemy players all around you. Sea of Thieves opens up with you creating your character, and frankly, the whole creation system is a complete letdown. Instead of letting you create a pirate with a selection of hairstyles, facial features, and tattoo's, you pick from a selection of randomly generated pirates, refreshing the screen until you get one that doesn't look like some 90-year-old high seas granny. After about 25-30 refreshes, I finally found my pirate lass but was sort of shocked that I wasn't even able to give her an actual pirate name. This is another aspect of Sea of Thieves' design that I find absolutely baffling.
Rare does almost nothing to teach you anything about this game. You learn first off how to bring up the radial menu and eat a banana to heal, but that's about it. You are not taught how combat works or even how to sail, a mechanic that is essentially the whole game. I was lucky enough to have a random player teach me what port and starboard was and how the sails worked in the game. While this may be the way that Rare wants us to learn, the game should do a better job of introducing you to systems that you will use during your entire adventure. While it might be too much to request an in-game tutorial patched in, the developer could add tutorial videos that could be accessed from the main menu.
The content that will occupy your time in Sea of Thieves can easily be considered bare-bones and it is fully possible to take in everything the game has to offer in just a few short hours. For a live service game, this lack of content can be disappointing to see. While I'm sure that a few months from now we will see more variety in the things you can do, but the launch experience for Sea of Thieves is a very basic one. When you arrive at an Outpost you will be able to take missions from each of the three factions; Gold Hoarders, Order of Souls, and the Merchant Alliance. These factions are based around treasure, skulls, and sellable resources, respectively. At first, you will only be able to purchase low yield missions until you can level up your promotions within each faction. At this point, missions will cost money but grant far more to do and net you much bigger rewards. When you eventually reach a high enough promotion level within all three factions, you can visit the mysterious stranger in the tavern for a reward worthy of a legendary pirate.
Each mission granted by the factions will vary in purpose, but the function of how they operate is identical. You will either be sent to retrieve various treasure chests, glowing skulls, or a caged pig or a crate of silk. Nearly everything you are tasked with doing is some sort of fetch quest. When you collect up to three of these Voyage missions, you will place one on the mission table and your teammates will vote on it. Once a mission is voted for, you will be granted the treasure map for that area and then all that's left is to plot a course towards that island. In the case of higher-rank Voyages, you will usually be granted several maps per Voyage, so it pays to increase your promotions as much as possible.
Apart from Voyages, you will find message in a bottle quests that either operate like Voyages themselves or rolled up maps that detail the treasure in the form of a riddle. These are easily the best quests in the game and frankly, I wish there were more creative gameplay moments like these. Riddles only offer up the name of the island and the map will update itself as you progress through the multi-part riddle. Some of these had my teammates and I running around the island screaming on the headset asking "where is the drunken sailor?" or "has anyone seen the wooden barricade??". Apart from sailing, the riddles are the best content in the game and it's unfortunate that you only ever stumble upon them on random beaches. The same can be said for sunken ships as during my entire time with the game I've run across maybe six or seven. These underwater mini-quests can usually result in a treasure or two and are identified by a group of circling gulls.
The final bit of content available is the Raids. These are wave-based events where you will attempt to tackle dozens of skeletons before being confronted by a Raid boss. As you are sailing around the massive ocean map, you will see a large skull cloud with glowing green eyes indicating the location of the Raid. This is also seen by everyone in your instance, so Raids can make for a very big target should you feel up to the challenge. When you defeat the Raid boss you will be granted a key to the vault, a treasure room that contains nearly a dozen chests and trinkets to sell. Successfully selling the lot can net you a massive payday, but you'll have to deal with enemy players wanting either a share of the loot or the whole lot. I've taken part in around 5 Raids and my biggest issue with the event is mainly due to the piss poor respawn system.
If you die while out and about you will find yourself on the deck of the Ferry of the Damned, a ghost ship that will see you wait a few seconds until you can return back to the land of the living. Upon respawning, you will arrive on the deck of your ship and then head back out to complete whatever you were doing. The problem is since you always respawn on your ship, this can be taken advantage of by other players. My first Raid saw a group from another ship keeping three players on our boat and picking us off as we respawned. While I understand that killing other players is part of the PVP gameplay, the way that Sea of Thieves handles its respawning is benefitting those who live and not those who die. Currently, the system is painfully broken and Rare needs to patch it in the ability to choose other respawn locations near or around your ship.
Rare has talked about how they created the Brig on your ship to battle toxic players, but this only works for players on your team. Sure, you can send an uncooperative player to the brig, but that gives you one less player to help you out when you really need it. While a vote to kick option may fix certain things, it can also backfire as well. Despite this 'fix' for dealing with toxicity, there isn't anything set up for opposing players who consistently troll you or aim to simply just make your experience as unpleasant as possible other than simply leaving the game and rejoining into another instance. While I haven't dealt with massive amounts of griefing or trolling, I know some people who have given up on the game due to how much of it they have witnessed firsthand. While Sea of Thieves isn't the first game for this to be an issue, it can certainly lessen the appeal of wanting to stick with the game.
Enemies players aren't the only threats you'll have to contend with as while there is a massive Kraken roaming the open sea, the majority of your time is spent on a few different flavors of skeletons. There are shadow skeletons that require a light source to damage, metal skeletons that require water to make them vulnerable, to skeletons that have vegetation growing out of them that can be healed by simply touching water, a commodity that is simply everywhere. There are also boss skeletons that have actual names and a much bigger pool of health that require some serious damage to put down. While these bosses have different looks than your typical skeleton, they lack any sort of presence and character. I was also let down that AI-driven ships are not present in the game as it would have been incredible to board a skeleton-filled ship and attempt to take the treasure they have hidden on their boat. I'm hoping this and random-spawning ghost ships to be a part of future updates.
Combat will vary in a few ways depending on your setup. You can wield a Cutlass, Pistol, Blunderbuss, and an Eye of Reach, which is their fancy way of saying a sniper rifle. The Cutlass is something I always recommend as swords don't require ammo and frankly, you are going to run out of ammo on some difficult adventures without having to constantly return to your ship's ammo cache. The Blunderbuss, which is effectively a shotgun, was a lifesaver during most of my encounters. While each of the gun-types handles only a single way, the Cutlass can be charged up for a dash strike, which not only does some sick damage, but it can also launch you across the water should you time it right. Combat feels a bit too loose for my tastes and a fair bit awkward during an intense showdown with another player.
One of the biggest failings in Sea of Thieves is how it chooses to offer progression, or rather, the lack thereof. While you could argue that the faction promotions act as a sort of progression, your pirate will not learn any skills like being able to hold their breath longer or increasing their carry limit or any useful skills that normally come with typical video games. The entire progression system is built solely around using the gold you earn to buy new outfits, weapon skins, and visual boat upgrades, none of which have stats, perks, or bonuses of any kind. While I am totally a sucker for loot, it's hard to get excited about cosmetic items in a first-person game. While you can see cool things like a hook you can replace your hand with or the fancy additions to your boat, I truly believe that Rare missed a wonderful opportunity in letting us craft our pirates into something truly legendary.
For all the games' faults, sailing is not one of them. Getting on either the massive Galleon or the single sail Sloop can make for an extremely thrilling time as you plot your course and take to the open sea. The Galleon is designed around three to four players whereas the faster and more agile Sloop is intended for a team of two or less. Controlling the Sloop as a single player is possible, but trying to steer and fix your boat during combat can be a nightmare, let alone trying to travel back to the Outpost with the Chest of Sorrows, a treasure chest that will flood your boat with its tears.
While most of my time spent with the game was in a two-player setup, there is something truly remarkable about taking to the high seas in a fully staffed Galleon, with a few players on turning and raising the sails and another player relaying directions to the Captain from the map room below. Another aspect that can take some getting used to is how to properly use the Anchor. You can drop it at full speed to spin your ship around, or in the case of a few lucky moments, spin your ship around and park it right next to the dock for an easy drop-off. It takes some time to master and learn how fast it can stop your ship and the direction to have the wheel in to benefit from the sudden stop.
Ship-to-ship combat is bound to happen as players will attempt to board your ship and snatch away that brand new bit of treasure you have recently collected. Basic combat between ships is typical of what you see in movies like The Pirates of Caribbean; cannon fire or sailing full speed directly into their ship. The key to sinking an enemy ship is to use your cannons and target below the water line. Successful hits will result in that boat taking in water, forcing players to grab planks of wood to patch up the hull and wooden buckets to dump out the flooding water. As you sail around or even when you are on land attempting to find the lost treasure, you'll need to be mindful of your surroundings and keep an eye out for enemy players. We found it useful to have one player remain on the boat in the crow's nest and remain alert for incoming ships. There was a session where we had nearly 14 chests in the boat and as we plotted our course for the nearest Outpost, a Galleon was on the horizon and gunning for us. We managed to get to the island before they could board us and even managed to sell at least half before a full on war erupted for the remaining chests.
The visual look for Sea of Thieves will either let you down or be right up your alley. I found the pirates and the world to really stand out in a very good way. I like the cartoony nature of the game as the upcoming Skull and Bones will scratch the itch for a more realistic game and frankly, this gives Sea of Thieves a strong visual identity. I do, however; wish that the pirates had more emotive faces and that each of the outposts offered more variety other than just placing the same vendors in different spots. The design of the world and its pirates are one thing, but the water tech used here is mindblowing. Nearly every time I was out at sea, I would sit there staring at the water just mesmerized by how stunning it looks. The water will look very different depending on if you are sailing during an intense storm, or admiring it during a sunrise. When your boat rocks up and down on the waves, water will splash onto the deck and it just looks amazing. Gorgeous water aside, the game does have several bland looking textures that can have a muddy washed out look to them, While some of that is due to the art design, it does lessen the visual appeal of its world when compared to its water.
During most of your voyage, there will be no music, leaving you mostly to the sound of the ocean and the creaking of the boat. You will get some music playing during certain events, or the rapid beating of a drum during the bounty hunts. Should you want a musical theme to guide you on your way, you can break out an instrument and play a few songs, one of which is Ride of the Valkyries. What is amazing about these songs is they can be played while your character is drunk from ale, changing the notes to that of a drunk and slow version of the song. I've been behind the wheel of my ship and had my teammates serenade me with their music, hearing laughter and giggles on the headset during their performance.
Sea of Thieves offers cross-play between Windows 10 and Xbox One users and those who purchase the title digitally, and this works for Game Pass as well, can choose which system to play it on at any time. At the time I go to publish this review, the Windows 10 version has been hacked and this mod allows users to auto-target their opposition and locate chests and items through walls and underground. While I am sure that this will be patched out as soon as Rare can get to a keyboard, this can set a scary precident for cross-play systems in the future.
For as much as I wish there was far more variety in the things to do, Sea of Thieves certainly has its moments. While the game is fundamentally designed around a co-op experience, you can still have a fairly enjoyable time as a solo pirate, it is just a considerably more difficult and lonely experience to do so. As it stands, Sea of Thieves has a wonderful base game to see grow into something truly special, but It's hard to recommend it in its current state apart from just trying it out via Game Pass. The treasure hunting, the riddles, and the raids are fun experiences, but without variety in those missions, or some sort of progression system to give you something to work towards, I can see players leaving the game until more content shows up, and possibly not returning regardless. Sea of Thieves can be, and often is, a wonderful experience that can create tense moments of adventure, but also complete boredom, all in the span of a few short hours.