I started playing Sea of Thieves in the first alpha test back in December 2016. In that test, I grouped up with three randoms, and we spent a pleasant two hours sailing the seas, digging up chests, and plundering enemy ships. I had some reservations about the combat and variety of activities, but I shrugged them off as there was a long way to go.
Then, the betas started. Each one of them had prettier graphics, but the content… the content stayed the same. I began to worry, stating over multiple podcasts that the game seems to be lacking in substance. At release, my fears were confirmed: Sea of Thieves is an incredibly shallow game with weak redeeming factors.
As I start off on an island with entirely no direction, I search to find some narrative to latch on to. My inventory is full of items of which I don’t know what to do, and shopkeepers provide little assistance. Finally, I find the quest givers who show me different islands to travel to, so I start with that. That’s part of the appeal I guess – make your own adventure.
Setting sail for the first time is an exhilarating journey. I started out solo, so raising the anchor, lowering the sails, and guiding my ship by myself took some time to get used to. Once on the water, the visuals cannot be compared to another game. Everywhere I look is a brilliant sight to behold, with the water being a technical masterpiece. I don’t know how Rare made these waves so enticing, but I could spend hours sailing across them with no aim. In fact, that’s a majority of the Sea of Thieves experience. Unfortunately, it fails to amount to much more than that.
Structured content is made up of the three main companies, each of which offers their own type of quest. One sends you off to find treasure, another to kill skeletons, and the final to capture animals. That’s where the variety ends. These three quest types are really “sail to this marked island and bring the stuff back.” Sure, fighting a skeleton captain and his army sounds exciting, and it should be. But, the overly simple combat system makes every encounter feel the same.
Mission rewards consist of gold and skill points for each specific faction. Leveling up in a company results in themed cosmetics and more “difficult” quests. Higher level quests change very little – they only require you to sail to more islands than before. You’re still doing the same thing.
There is only an aesthetic progression system in Sea of Thieves. You spend gold on more quests or cosmetics for your pirate and their ship. Each voyage remains the same. This is an entirely unsatisfying feedback loop that leaves no room for improvement whatsoever.
Of course, sailing with friends is a significant enhancement, but that isn’t enough to justify the lack of depth. Rare focuses on small, admittedly fun touches like throwing up on your buddies or playing instruments together. These fun touches don’t add up to a deep experience, however. One of the most critical aspects, fighting against other crews, is a bit of a disaster.
Battles start out exciting. Two, three, maybe even four ships will come into distance of one another. The cannons fire and crews are scrambling. One member keeps hold of the wheel, another two dump water out, while the fourth member fires back. It’s fast, hectic, and fun. At least until ships collide into one another.
When fighting other players directly, the limited combat prevents any elaborate or exciting battles. You can swing the sword, hold for a charge attack, block, or fire a gun. Instead of intense, deliberate sword battles, pirates are awkwardly shambling around one another trying to land a hit. There is no level of tactical thinking here, only button spam with limited opportunity for variety.
Sea of Thieves is about creating your adventure, I get that. However, I’m sad to admit that there are so few ways actually to do so. A buddy and I ended up sailing to the edge of the map because we had nothing else to do. We shouldn’t have to try and break the game after only a couple hours of playtime for fun.
The game will be getting heaps of free DLC in the future, but in its current state, Sea of Thieves sets up a foundation for something great. That’s about it. At official release, the title still feels like a beta test. Sailing on the open waters is an experience like no other. Cruising past enemy ships and battling from afar is fun and intense. Otherwise, Sea of Thieves is severely lacking in every aspect.
There is little in the sense of progression. Combat is shallow and simply not engaging. Structured content is barely existent. Sea of Thieves will likely be a game worth returning to in a couple of years, but until then, this is a sea that just isn’t worth sailing.
This review was based on a digital review copy of Sea of Thieves for the Xbox One provided by Microsoft. It is also available on Windows 10.