Review: Sea of Thieves

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear from the outset: I enjoy playing Sea of Thieves.

Now that that’s done, there are a few important questions that I still don’t quite have answers for. For instance, I don’t really know if you should buy it or not. I don’t know that I could recommend it to someone I had just met. I may or may not know what the actual point to most of the gameplay is (more on that later). I haven’t the faintest iota of a suspicion of a hunch as to where Rare plan to go with this game now that it has launched.

You know what? I’m fine with that.

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For all its faults (and boy will we get to those in a minute) Sea of Thieves has been the most memorable game of 2018 for me so far, and it has earned that distinction based on more of a sustained experience than any single moment or set piece. When the game was at its best I couldn’t see any of the obvious comparisons you might expect to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or Guns of Icarus. Instead, what I felt most was closest to Rock Band or Guitar Hero. When you and three of your friends are all running around the deck doing your jobs in sync with each other and the boat is sailing along smoothly, there really isn’t anything else like it available for console gamers. It is a smooth, serene experience in a stunning faux-Caribbean environment as you and your friends hop from island to island searching for treasure, hunting down skeleton captains, and forever searching for an island with the right color pig to sell to the stupid Merchant Alliance.

Then you encounter another player for the first time, and all that peace goes away. It is astonishing to me how quickly the mere presence of another boat turns people I’ve known for years (myself included) into paranoid murderers. As an example, I offer the following sequence of decisions from a recent session of piracy: A sloop (small ship) appears at the very edge of the horizon just as our crew drop anchor with our galleon (large ship). Knowing that we were about to secure at least some amount of treasure and had some already aboard our vessel, our crew of four decided that we couldn’t all go ashore to look for treasure since the sloop (which wasn’t even headed directly towards us) might send someone to steal our things while we were gone. Since we couldn’t all go look at least one or two of us would have to stay on the ship and wait/stand guard. Since that would require two people to be responsible for a ship that really needs at least three if not four people to maneuver it in any kind of combat, our ship would be at a disadvantage. Since our ship would be at a disadvantage, we (logically) had to pursue the smaller ship, put half a dozen holes in it, salvage whatever cargo those players had (it wasn’t much), then sail all the way back to the original island and complete the voyage we were ostensibly there to do. The actual act of completing that voyage took maybe a third as long as the hunting and sinking of the other players, but the uncertainty made us consider that a necessity.

This is where I come to one complaint I’ve seen levied against Sea of Thieves, which is that the ship upgrades (all of which are cosmetic only) are very expensive compared to the actual rewards for most quests. I see this as a good thing. A harsh in-game economy encourages players to loot, steal, and generally troll their fellow pirates. In a game about piracy, that seems like it should be the point. This also means that anyone who does have a visibly upgraded ship is instantly a target for the jealous masses in their stock brown ships with white sails. I like this, because it shows that the provided voyages aren’t really the objective. So far as I can tell, the voyages actually function as just a reason for players to spend as much time on the seas as possible and thereby facilitate player v player interactions. This seems to be the main goal Rare had in mind when designing the actual game mechanics: force players to interact, largely by making them compete for resources.

The best example of this definitely comes from the Skeleton Forts. These large structures appear under an enormous skull shaped cloud with periodically glowing eyes. In the fort players can find several hours’ worth of loot and treasure, but only after defeating around a dozen waves of enemies. Even if your crew get there first, every other player on your server also definitely saw the skull cloud, and most of the best ones are probably on their way right now hoping to pick you off during or after your big fight to take what’s yours. Furthermore, it isn’t exactly easy to hide a large pirate ship sailing across the ocean. You were probably followed, so now you need to decide whether to engage your pursuers or the fort. While we’re at it, someone should probably take out those cannons around the fort that are shooting at us and remember to fix any holes they put in our ship and someone else should really go feed the pig we have in the cabin and OH WHOOPS ANOTHER BOAT BLEW US UP AND NOW I’M FIGHTING A SHARK.

You get the idea. I haven’t even gotten to the tiny random chance of encountering a Kraken, and I won’t because it hasn’t happened to me yet. Just know that he’s out there and would like very much to meet you.

Now then, let’s talk about faults. Well, the quests are indeed repetitive. You can go on a treasure hunt using a map or a riddle, you can hunt down NPC skeleton captains and their crews, or you can go capture a specific color of one of three animals. That’s it. Finding treasure on some islands when the game decides to give you a map with a red “X” instead of an easily understood clue can lead to several minutes of you and your friends wandering around digging optimistic holes. Also I haven’t decided if playing by yourself is worse than playing with random strangers, but either way the game definitely needs to be played with friends which means convincing three other people to shell out $60. So, you know. Make sure you have your sales pitch prepared. Honestly Rare should probably distribute marketing pamphlets to existing players who are going to have to win over their friends before they can really enjoy the game themselves. They can earn a commission of in-game gold. This idea started as a joke but now I kind of want it to happen.

Hypothetical marketing gimmicks aside, I adore this game. It can be the world’s prettiest chat room until it suddenly becomes a frantic team building exercise. I absolutely recommend it to all my friends, but I would have trouble recommending it to a stranger I think, unless I knew they already knew people who played. A pirate’s life for me is probably not the right way to go, but maybe a pirate’s life for… we?

I’m sorry.

Overall, I’d give this game an 8.8 out of 10