Sea of Thieves makes a weak, meandering first impression
Sea of Thieves leaves a bewildering first impression, a magnificent second one, and, so far, a disappointing lasting taste. The piratical goof-'em-up does almost nothing to explain itself, and much of the game’s joy is in discovering how to navigate and progress through its multiplayer pond. The problem is, once you learn the basics, you just as quickly find Sea of Thieves provides very little in the way of interesting goals and tasks to perform.
This goes beyond a lack of content to a more basic dearth of interactivity. The very first seconds of your buccaneer career are marred with strange, artificial limitations that continue to pockmark the rest of the game. In a game where progression is largely about unlocking cosmetics, for instance, you’re not allowed to customize your own character. Sea of Thieves simply boots up a load of randomly generated avatars which you can re-roll as many times as you like before making your final choice.
After loading a scallywag not quite to my liking, I was greeted by 20 seconds of on-screen text, the game’s limited excuse for a tutorial. That text explained how to access my inventory, where to pick up quests, and… that’s about it. Essentials like the finer points of sailing control and just how the quest system works are blank spaces that have to be filled in by the player (or the players, if you’re playing with friends or strangers, as you really should).
Open eyes, open ocean
After some solo bumbling on my boat, trying to figure out just how to make it go, I intuited that the sails were likely roped to whatever control mechanism Sea of Thieves provided. Sure enough: I traced those rope lines between mast and bulkhead to find the “controls.” From there, it was mostly smooth, entirely enjoyable sailing.
Even on my own, I absolutely adore navigating the game’s titular sea full of thieves, which offers one of the best versions of developer Rare’s minimalist presentation and user interface. Manning the wheel doesn’t paint “go here” pointers over the user’s field of view. Instead, the spokes on the wheel itself have brass rings which indicate the farthest left, right, and center you can turn it. Setting course for straight ahead makes a satisfying, informative rumble in the controller (assuming you play with one), while tilting the sail fully into the wind produces both a noise and billowing animation that make it absolutely obvious when you’ve hit the sweet spot.
It doesn’t hurt that Sea of Thieves is gorgeous, too. The sometimes-roiling, sometimes-placid, always-beautiful waves provide surprisingly varied eye candy, all set off by picturesque blasts of sun and haunting sheets of rain. All told, it’s easily the best looking water I’ve ever seen in a game. That’s just as well, since you wind up looking at a lot of it.
Of course, playing with a friend or three is the best way to ship out. I love sailing by feel, but you’ll want mates to shoot the shanty with. Having multiple people on-ship provides more hands to drop anchor on a dime, navigate from the map room, man the cannons, look out from the crow’s nest, or even just play a concertina to pass the time.
That steady collaboration over voice chat, plus the inevitable screw-ups and antics it spawns, seems like the main point of Sea of Thieves. Everyone is often working together to solve the problems they previously worked together to create, either through inattention or deliberate, often grog-fueled clowning around.
It’s all a joy for a couple of hours, at least. Getting falling-down drunk and blinding another player with puke (or falling overboard) is extremely funny, but only once or twice. Like all gags of that sort, though, they’re destined to wear thin quickly. Sea of Thieves simply doesn’t have enough such goofs to go around—particularly ones that allow for meaningful interactions with the game or other players.
Combat is overly simple and often plain tedious. You can swing your cutlass, charge it for a lunging attack, or fire one of three guns that never change their function (progression in Sea of Thieves consists of purely cosmetic upgrades to your outfit, ship, weaponry, etc.). But the sword swinging ends up just feeling like madly swatting at skeletons (the only regular NPC enemies in the game) or other players without impact or strategy.
The rest of the game's goofy, unexpected antics go out the window as you just hammer on the attack trigger. Firearms add a bit of variety, but because you can only hold five rounds at a time, overusing them means constantly carting yourself back to the ship to refill.
There’s a lot of schlepping back and forth between the ship and dry land, actually. Each of Sea of Thieves’ three structured mission types is its own class of tedious fetch quest. You dig up buried treasure and haul it to an NPC; kill a wave of mindless skeletons and haul one of their skulls to an NPC; or get a request to capture animals and… haul them back to an NPC.
That last category is inarguably the most dreadful. While other missions give you some idea of where to find your quarry, these “trade missions” just tell you to find some number of some color of critter somewhere in the world.
To do so, you’ll need to carry a cage from the assigning vendor to your ship (sometimes making multiple trips, because players can only carry one quest item at a time) and then… just search randomly. There’s no indication of which islands might house which animals. Even if you do find an archipelago with chickens on it, there’s no guarantee they’ll be the red-speckled breed you need, for instance.
Oh, did I mention there’s a time limit for this aimless searching?
While these scavenger hunts are best described as anti-fun, the other two quest types aren’t much better. Riddle maps fare the best of the bunch, asking you to find buried treasure with a series of cheeky hints to help you along. The riddle maps give you something else to do besides manage inventory and walk from point A to point B, but they also give players a reason to keep talking. Everyone working together to solve these puzzles leans closer to Sea of Thieves’ greatest strengths: encouraging communication.
High tension on the high seas
So far in this immediate post-launch period, though, cooperation also feels like the last thing on players’ minds. It’s fun and funny to sail together, sure, but my most exciting moments in Sea of Thieves have been getting rolled up on by fully crewed galleons looking for easy coin.
Stealing other players’ ships feels like the most natural thing in the world. You’re playing a pirate, after all, and what else would you do with someone’s vessel once you’ve scraped off its former owners?
I’ve swum under opposing vessels, boarded behind enemy crew, and cut lookouts to ribbons while their allies shouted warnings in proximity voice chat. I’ve juked sluggish galleons with far better firepower by outmaneuvering them in my nimble, loot-laden sloop. I swear it felt like I was having a heart attack when I thought I’d lose two hours of hard-earned chickens and glowing pirate skulls to randos shouting epithets at me in the distance.
It all feels good… right up until you run into some artificial limitations. Killing a player just means they’ll respawn 30 seconds or so later, on the deck of that same ship. That means invading pirates can simply wait around to kill you again and again (and many players do), requiring you to sink your own pillaged ship (and spawn a new one) to get rid of them.
Right now this creates a twofold problem. The game encourages you screw with other crews, but only in a very particular way. You can steal any loot they’ve collected and erase any progress they’ve made in the last hours, but not much else. Meanwhile, the short respawn timer gives three-or-four-person galleons an almost insurmountable advantage in battles of attrition. Manning a one-or-two-person sloop just makes you better at running away.
The other, bigger problem with Sea of Thieves’ player-vs-player combat is more damning of the game in general: what’s the point? The islands are devoid of anything to discover, the quests are tremendously tedious, there’s no story to speak of, and it’s all in service of cosmetics that aren’t nearly as interesting as some of their item descriptions imply. The Lowly Souls Tankard says it’ll make you drinking buddies with spirits, but really it’s just… purple.
Moreover, stealing other players’ booty or protecting what’s yours is leagues more exciting than the act of earning that booty through quests. So why would you ever want to earn the rewards yourself? Why not be predators instead of prey? And if you don’t have a big enough crew to consistently be the predators, why even play at all?
These are the questions Rare will need to address if it wants Sea of Thieves to be anything but one fun weekend and forgotten. Games like Rainbow Six: Siege and No Man’s Sky have proven that post-launch changes for underwhelming games can make all the difference, but right now, there will have to be a lot of those changes after the earliest impressions wear off.