It’s probably quite safe to say that a large amount of people at Xbox HQ in Seattle, and a smaller, but more personally invested group of devs in Twycross, England have very high hopes for Sea Of Thieves. Microsoft have been loudly criticised for both the lack of first party titles for the Xbox console, and also for the relegation of Rare to development of games for the ill-fated Kinect. But the development of Sea of Thieves has not been without its criticism either, with concern about the lack of content within the game during its various beta phases over the last year or so. This is a difficult review for me to write, as I also share the hope that this will be a huge turning point in the quality of the first party Xbox titles and be a huge success for the English studio that has had so much success in the past. Anything less than an excellent game would surely invite criticism from the more cynical areas of the internet. Although I have the responsibility of this review you will also get the opinions of other members of the TiX team throughout.
I am in an fortunate position of having a full-time job and family responsibilities to juggle with my game reviewing duties, and one thing is certain. I have not been able to devote enough time to playing Sea Of Thieves, as I want to be spending every waking hour in this beautifully crafted world. Since release I have invested around 30 hours, either as part of a four man crew with the TiX team, as a solo player, or with my thirteen year old son manning a two person sloop. And whichever game mode I have played I have had just the best time. Gameplay wise Sea Of Thieves is relatively simple, with the bulk of the game consisting of levelling up three different factions. Each one of these factions, which have stores at each of the outposts, will sell you voyages which will give you and your crew an objective. The Gold Hoarders will generally give you a treasure map, the Merchant Alliance will provide a list of goods that need to be delivered to another outpost, and the Order of Lost Souls will give you a wanted poster for a ghostly pirate.
There are virtually no menus in SoT, all the actions are done via in-game activities. Whichever voyage you take from the three mentioned above will need to be proposed at the captain’s table on your ship, and then voted on by the rest of the crew. Only when consensus is given does the voyage start, and you will then receive your objectives. The lack of menus also means there is no mini-map, or GPS guidance. Navigating to your destination is done via a map table on the ship and your compass. Forget a nice HUD as well, the only on-screen bar you will see is your health bar, and only when you are less than 100% health. This simplicity forces all of your crew to have roles when sailing, as the captain cannot leave the wheel to check the map, or be expected to move the sail position in order to catch the most wind. It forces communication between players to ensure the ship is a well oiled machine.
However, you can choose a solo adventure in a smaller boat, and the gameplay is extremely similar, although more emphasis is on running and hiding when in your sloop, whilst as part of a four man galleon you take on an air of invincibility. Rare encourage the use of proximity game chat, as this is a perfect way to communicate with others in the world. Just last night our three man galleon came across a one-man sloop and over the game chat we made it quite clear we would leave the sloop alone if he didn’t fire on us. A quick wave emote gesture followed and we all went on our merry way. Little did he know that we were carrying a huge amount of treasure and were desperate to avoid any conflict on the way back to the outpost!
On your adventures you can also encounter shipwrecks – which may or may not contain some random treasure – and on the islands themselves I have found chests, relics or supplies that can all be collected and sold. The islands however also contain skeletons, all fixated on turning you into one of them, which leads us into the combat mechanics. At any time you can carry two of the four available weapons, which can be changed on the ship, but ammo is limited and only refillable once back on the ship. Dealing with some of the tougher enemies mean that there are endless shuttle runs to and from the moored ship in order to refill. Your pirate’s health is refilled by eating bananas and it is highly possible to be killed by the lowest strength skeleton, whereby you will spawn back on the ship, which makes keeping it afloat of high importance as if it gets sunk then you will respawn at a nearby outpost.
Although it feels like a bit of a beast your ship is actually rather fragile. Any scrape on a rock will cause a hole to appear and water to gush in. Failure to deal with this and your boat will sink. Holes can be repaired with planks of wood, and water can be removed by using your trusty bucket. Taking cannon fire from enemy ships or skeleton manned fortresses does even more damage, so again, having a communicating crew is vital in order to fight back, or run away, all whilst repairing and bailing as you go.
Graphically Sea Of Thieves is just stunning, and I challenge you to find another game that looks and feels as good as this. Particular credit must go to the devs responsible for the water. Whether its still, calm and blue or dark and raging with white crested waves, it looks and feels realistic, which is the biggest compliment you could give it. Add to that the sound design, which is equally incredible, from the sound of the water crashing over the ship’s bow to the horrific pressurised creaking you hear whilst on the lower deck when the ship is going full pelt. We have also recently experienced the Kraken in all its splendour, and the ominous sounds of that beast is just insane, not to mention the thrill you feel when taking it on.
Dave Moran – “I’m loving the exploring and the silliness of it all – it’s a gorgeous looking game, I’d love them to add crews to it, so we could have a standard set of ships.”
So, at this point there are no complaints. It looks, sounds and plays pretty much as perfect as you could imagine. But I have one major concern with Sea Of Thieves. For all the beauty in the world that Rare has created, it all feels just a bit lifeless. The outposts contain traders, but they are the only non-skeletal NPC’s you will encounter, and across the large map there are other players all going about their voyages, but it is possible to go a long gameplay session without bumping into anyone, which is strange. In my opinion the world is screaming out for NPC characters on the islands, and the possibility of NPC ships that need hunting down and defeating would add another level to the game.
The perceived lack and variety of content is also a very hot topic at the moment, and I understand the concerns but don’t necessarily agree with them. However, once I had levelled up the Gold Hoarder faction the treasure maps were replaced with riddles, which gave me a fresh impetus to see just what was next, and made the voyages more enjoyable. However I am already extremely bored with the merchant quests, especially the ones where you have to catch Pigs and Chickens. Again, levelling up brought some variety to the merchant quests but I would be happy to never have to run around an island with a crate trying to find a White Feathered Chicken ever again! This could be improved with the ability to have multiple voyages active, so you could animal hunt whilst finding treasure. However, I am witnessing the more cynical places of the internet taking the same agenda it took with Destiny 2 on content, which is a real shame and a huge overreaction. The openness of Rare in the development process so far is not going to wane now the game is released, so lets hope they address some of the more constructive criticism.
Rich Berry – “I’ve had lots of fun with it although I just feel it lacks depth – what’s the point? Had some interesting player encounters but very few. Needs more complexity into the objectives of mystery. Love the adventure with friends part and keeping stock of supplies. When you run a Galleon efficiently it’s pretty cool – its a shame the treasure really only equals atheistic reward.”
However, as well as the voyages previously mentioned there is more content in the form of Skeleton Fortresses, which are extremely difficult. They are announced as active with a large skull cloud formation appearing over the island, and are full of skeletons to defeat, from the basic gun-toting model, to the metal ones that are only defeated when standing in (or splashed) with water. Every attempt we have taken at these has resulted in abject disaster, but our time will come!
I have a few more niggles, especially the mysterious stranger in the tavern who tells you to come back when all factions have reached level five, then level ten, then fifteen, without actually rewarding you for hitting those targets. At times I have received an on-screen riddle, with no clue what it relates to. But by far the biggest problem, and it’s not a fault with the game at all, is the toxic behaviour of some players. Yes, it’s a pirate game, and I expect and accept that a rival crew is going to want to attack me and steal my treasure. But when they do it whilst screaming racial abuse, or just to be a nuisance then it is a different matter. On launch night, four of the TiX team were manning a galleon, two dropped out at the end of the evening, and were immediately replaced by two randoms, one of which constantly dropped the anchor, moved the sails and threw treasure overboard, but could not be removed by placing in the brig, as the second random was uncommunicative. Lesson learned to move to a sloop as soon as the full player count was depleted, but there is no way to do this without losing progress on the active voyage. Rare could address this with the addition of a quick player/boat change during play in order to keep progress. This toxicity problem is not Rare’s fault or thier doing, but it is putting people off playing, especially solo, which could affect the games lifespan.
Rob Tonge – “One of the best looking games I’ve ever seen. I quickly forget about any objective and just stand in the end of the shop and gaze upon the beautiful horizon……..only to forget and fall into the sea and get eaten by a shark. Not the most engaging game but there is loads of scope for more content, I just hope they bring it and soon before the dedicated following it has gets bored and moves on.”
It is safe to say that I adore Sea Of Thieves, and I will be continuing to put as many hours in as I possibly can in order to reach the coveted Pirate Legend status. I am also certain that Rare will continue to add new content and patch and improve for the long term. But I also have friends who don’t like it, and describe it as an unfinished game that should have been released into Game Preview. Another one of their concerns is the lack of progression. Whilst each successful voyage will earn you gold, which can be spent on weapons, clothing and your boat, they are cosmetic only, and don’t make your character stronger or give your gun more ammo, so what’s the point? I can see why this design decision was made, as Rare didn’t want a newcomer to the game being attacked by high level players with superior weapons. But again, something just doesn’t feel right, and I can understand the concern.
Given all these concerns I have one final point to make. Sea Of Thieves strength isn’t about progression, or levelling up. It’s all about the adventures that you will have along the way. Every single member of the TiX team who has played Sea Of Thieves will have multiple stories about what happened to them. How they destroyed an enemy ship by jumping on board with an explosive barrel. How they lured a group of enemy skeletons to the beach where the ship was waiting with its cannons. How they found a shipwreck with two lost soul skulls that sold for £1500. And none of these moments are scripted or written. Sea Of Thieves is about having adventures with your friends. And it succeeds.
Thanks to Rare and Xbox for supporting TiX.